New legislators eager to make an impact
By Brayden Zenker
N.D. Newspaper Association Education Foundation
BISMARCK – Thirteen freshmen legislators will bring new perspectives to the 2021 North Dakota legislative session, beginning their state political careers in what many around the Capitol are calling a historic session. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, new regulations and changes in day-to-day operations are commonplace.
This session, all 13 first-term legislators won under the Republican ticket.
Sen. Mark Weber, R-Casselton, said he comes to the session ready to listen and learn. Weber has previous experience working with both state and federal legislators during his time with the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association and Northern Crops Institute. Weber represents District 22, which includes parts of rural Cass County.
“I’ve always had an interest in government affairs. With our senator retiring and me retiring from my professional life, I saw this as an opportunity,” Weber said. “I’m coming here with some background with my past professional life, but it’s a huge learning curve. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the veterans that are here, and I hope to learn from them.”
Weber said his main concerns are to ensure fiscal responsibility in the state budget and update and support infrastructure, especially in rural North Dakota.
“We need to do more for the rural infrastructure,” Weber said. “We have a good way of living in the rural, and people recognize that and want to move out to the rural. When moving there is a demand for more services like snow removal, grading the roads and gravel.”
Rep. Cole Christensen, R-Rogers, said his main goal this session is to do what is best for his constituents. Christensen represents District 24, which includes Barnes County and parts of Ransom and Cass counties.
“I answer to the people back in my district,” Christensen said. “I don’t represent Bismarck or Fargo; I represent District 24. I’m excited to make a difference in my local community by preserving their freedoms.”
Christensen was approached by previous seat holder Daniel Johnston to run in District 24.
“My dad raised me with ‘If good men do nothing, evil will prevail,’” Christensen said. “I think we need less life-long politicians focused on what’s in it for them rather than what they can do for others.”
Sen. Jason Heitkamp, R-Wahpeton, was a Richland County commissioner before running on the state level. Heitkamp represents District 26, which includes Sargent County and parts of Dickey, Ransom and Richland counties.
“I’ve always been politically active over the years,” Heitkamp said. “Once I did county commissioner, then I thought it would be exciting to come out here and try to change some things. There are things I saw … that couldn’t be changed at the county level [but] needed to be changed at the state level.”
Coming to the session, Heitkamp said he wants to work together across the aisle with all senators to pass legislation.
“My motto is if it makes sense and it’s legal, I will listen,” Heitkamp said. “I like to refer to myself as a citizen legislator. I’m not here for the benefits, I’m not here for the retirement, I’m not here for the money; I want to come and help people.”
Rep. Paul Thomas, R-Velva, said the most important issues for his constituents are maintaining rural infrastructure and preventing further regulations in industries like farming and ranching.
Thomas was a Velva city commissioner and spent time lobbying for agricultural issues in the state. Thomas represents District 6, which includes Bottineau, Renville and McHenry counties.
“There are a lot of concerns about the roads. I hear from constituents that the township doesn’t have enough money to properly maintain the roads so [their] equipment is falling apart quicker,” Thomas said. “I probably hear more about wanting to make sure there aren’t increased regulations that might harm businesses or harm the way they are doing business because there are misconceived ideas of the best way to do that.”
Rep. Greg Stemen, R-Fargo, said he thinks North Dakota is in a position to transcend expectations and to come out of the pandemic better than before. Stemen, previously a member of the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education, represents District 27, parts of Fargo and areas south of Fargo.
“A lot of people are talking about getting back to normal. I think North Dakota is honestly poised to come back better than normal, better than what they have been,” Stemen said. “The strongest entities are the ones that find a way to grow during the difficult times.”
Stemen said his goal this session is to help the state grow and become more attractive to both those in and outside North Dakota.
“We have great opportunity, as opposed to great obstacles. We have great opportunity for growth as a state,” Stemen said. “I just want to see us continue to grow and continue to become a destination place for a lot of people that want to improve their lives.”