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Departures draw curtain on 'Team North Dakota'

On the bluffs overlooking the Missouri River loom two trophies won by North Dakota's congressional muscle — a four-lane bridge honoring the nation's veterans and a gleaming college energy center with a glassy facade and a panoramic view of the water.
/ Source: The Associated Press

On the bluffs overlooking the Missouri River loom two trophies won by North Dakota's congressional muscle — a four-lane bridge honoring the nation's veterans and a gleaming college energy center with a glassy facade and a panoramic view of the water.

The Liberty Memorial Bridge was built after Sen. Kent Conrad tucked an amendment into a 2005 highway spending bill that required the federal government to pay for nearly the entire $62 million structure. Nearby is Bismarck State College's National Energy Center of Excellence, which went up with help from federal financing arranged by Sen. Byron Dorgan.

But now all the members of the longtime Democratic team that landed these and many other expensive projects have left Congress or will do so soon. And their departure is raising concerns that North Dakota could lose its considerable political influence — and with it many millions of dollars from Washington.

By the start of 2013, no one in the state's congressional delegation will have more than two years of experience. North Dakota hasn't been so junior in Congress since the 1940s.

"I think it's pretty clear that you lose seniority, you lose influence. You lose the connections that go towards bringing in the pork," said Mark Jendrysik, chairman of the University of North Dakota's political science department. "It's just kind of a fact of how Washington works."

Dorgan declined to seek another term after 18 years in the Senate and left office this month. Then Conrad announced that he will not run for re-election next year, ending a 26-year Senate career. The state's only House member, Rep. Earl Pomeroy, lost his bid for a 10th term in November.

Trio won disproportionate share of federal money
The three Democrats referred to themselves as "Team North Dakota," and their influence brought a disproportionate share of federal money to one of the nation's most sparsely populated states.

"We do have a significant revenue stream coming from Washington — for grants, science grants, engineering, technology grants and contracts," said Robert Kelley, president of the University of North Dakota. "We are, of course, very interested in seeing those programs continue."

Kelley said he believed new Sen. John Hoeven, a former governor who won Dorgan's old seat, and Rep. Rick Berg, who beat Pomeroy, were well positioned to help. Both are Republicans. Hoeven has a spot on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, and Berg sits on the influential Ways and Means Committee.

Roger Johnson, a former North Dakota agriculture commissioner who is now president of the National Farmers Union in Washington, said the Democratic trio wielded a great deal of influence because of their knowledge of farm issues.

"If you're last in line (at a committee hearing), you're the last to ask questions," said Johnson, also a Democrat. "That's not to say anything negative about Hoeven or Berg." But "there will be a period of time where it'll be hard for them to get attention."

North Dakota's last Republican senator, Mark Andrews, said keeping money flowing for projects is likely to be more difficult for any lawmaker as Congress wrestles with a $14 trillion national debt and renewed public demands to reduce spending.

Still, he said, a lawmaker's individual effort can sometimes count as much as seniority in landing projects. Andrews served for 17 years in the House before joining the Senate and served on the appropriations committees in both chambers.

"It isn't just seniority that counts. I had a bunch of it," said Andrews, who was defeated by Conrad in 1986. "Experience helps, but it's the individual's ability, whether they're on a city commission or in a state legislature."

For years, North Dakota has won more pork-barrel money than most other states. In 2010, the state received $197 per capita in federal spending on special projects. That ranked it behind only Hawaii, according to Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington organization that pushes for less federal spending.

The Tax Foundation, a Washington think tank, said North Dakota got $1.68 in federal spending for every dollar its residents paid in federal taxes in 2005, the latest year for which figures were available. That ranked it sixth in the nation. For nearly a decade before that, North Dakota never fell out of the top 10.

Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, said the three veteran Democrats supported coal and oil development and worked well with Democratic colleagues who did not.

"There's an old political theory: One good person on the wrong side of an issue is worth five in the majority," Ness said. He predicted Hoeven and Berg, who also support energy development, "will be incredibly effective — absolutely, no question."

N.D. Republicans eye empty seats
North Dakota Republicans are already chortling about the prospect of gaining the state's second Senate seat after 24 years of being entirely shut out of the state's congressional delegation.

Republican ranks are chockablock with potential candidates, including Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley and Gov. Jack Dalrymple. Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk is also considering a run.

Democrats have no obvious front-runner. Their only incumbent statewide elected official is Wayne Sanstead, the 75-year-old state superintendent of public instruction.

Some North Dakotans are not bothered by the turnover in Congress.

As he drank coffee with fellow farmers at Pettibone's Kozy Kitchen Cafe, Merrill Flanders said it was time for new faces in Washington, be they Democrat or Republican.

"I don't think they really accomplished much of anything that done us any good," said Flanders, who wouldn't reveal his political sympathies. "All they did was vote along party lines."

Claudene Gilmore, a retired medical equipment executive who lives in Napoleon, in south-central North Dakota, said she voted for the Democratic trio in the past but changed her mind in recent years.

"They made a lifetime commitment to politics, and they are not living in the real world," she said. "They are not out here trying to make ends meet. The entire Congress has lost touch with the country over the years."