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Heitkamp urges public involvement on political front

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Former U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp visits with, from left, Prem Thakker, Amelia Syrup and Chloe McCarthy at a gathering Saturday at Archives Coffee House on the UND campus. Heitkamp talked about her experiences in the U.S. Senate. Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald3 / 4
Former U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., talks about politics in Washington, D.C., at a gathering Saturday at Archives Coffee House on the UND campus. Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald4 / 4

Former U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., shared her experiences and views on the current political landscape with a group of roughly 100 who gathered Saturday at Archives Coffee House at UND.

The event, "Raise Your Cups to 2020," was sponsored by a local civics group, Equal Rights for All, with the theme "Show Up, Stand Up, Speak Up."

Organizers said the event was intended as a tribute to Heitkamp for her years of service as a U.S. senator, and to encourage citizen participation in the political process.

Heitkamp recently stepped down as senator after losing to Republican Kevin Cramer, the state's sole U.S. representative, in last fall's election.

"We lost," she told the crowd Saturday, "but that doesn't mean we're out, or that we don't still have a job to do."

In informal remarks lasting about 40 minutes, Heitkamp shared some experiences during her time in the Senate, including the most recent southern border wall controversy and subsequent government shutdown, and Savanna's Act, a bill she proposed to address violence against Native Americans, especially women.

The bill was passed unanimously in the Senate, but stalled in the House. It was named for Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a pregnant 22-year-old who was murdered in August 2017 in Fargo. Her unborn baby was cut from her womb and survived.

The bill, which will be shepherded by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, is "a modest proposal," Heitkamp said. "It's one step."

"In North Dakota, there's a recognition this needs to get done, and it needs to get done sooner than later,"

Some in the audience asked Heitkamp about the border-wall issue and partial government shutdown.

"There's a compromise to be had," Heitkamp said, "but the sides have dug in so deep."

The dwindling number of lawmakers who, in the past, could have found a way to compromise, are too afraid of the political backlash that could threaten their careers.

Beyond that, she's concerned about other issues taking a back seat, she said.

"The frustration I have is the lack of attention to big issues that aren't getting addressed — debt and deficit, workforce training and retirement pension security — because we're arguing about a border wall, an issue that could be resolved in 20 minutes."

As she steps away from the Senate, Heitkamp plans "to work in North Dakota on issues I care about," she said. "We're working on a strategy on carbon capture and sequestration, building a broader coalition on child trauma, and improving health care."

She talked about finding ways "to save the good parts of the Affordable Care Act," and spoke of the need for "a broader engagement for thinking" to retain the state's young people.

Her audience Saturday included people of all ages.

Prem Thakker, 20, who grew up in Grand Forks and is a sophomore at Columbia University, said he admired Heitkamp for "her conviction and staying true to what she believes."

He credits her with taking on the role of "advocate for Native Americans and people who are not always advocated for, especially in a conservative state," he said. "She's a good model for other leaders."

Red River High School senior and ERA member Amelia Syrup, 18, was "very moved by her outspoken opposition" to the nomination of Bret Kavanaugh as U.S. Supreme Court justice.

"It's something I think is very important. She's true to what she believes and stands up for everybody," Syrup said. "She's a voice for people who can't always speak for themselves."

Sheryl Nesseth, a retired Grand Forks public school teacher, approved of Heitkamp's "willingness to work with both parties," she said.

"I just read an article about how we need to be problem-solvers, rather than partisans. She did that; we need more of that," Nesseth said. "She balanced her personal beliefs with what the state needs and with representing the state."

Deb Stahlberg, an ERA member and retired Grand Forks teacher, said she appreciated Heitkamp's stance on women's rights.

"We finally have seen movement on it, and I would like to see that continue," she said.

"I'd like to see her get involved in state government and state issues."

Heitkamp, when asked if she had any plans of running for governor of North Dakota in 2020, said only, "No, no."

However, she is planning to make "some announcement next week" about future plans, she said, "and I don't want to take away from that."

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