By David Luessen
The North Dakota Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, Heidi Heitkamp, recently stopped in Valley City for a visit with Valley City State University president Steve Shirley and afterward sat down for an interview with Times-Record reporter David Luessen.
Heitkamp was appointed tax commissioner in 1986 when commissioner Kent Conrad was elected to the U.S. Senate. She won that seat via election two years later and then was voted into the State Attorney General's office in 1992 and 1996. In 2000 she ran a strongly supported but unsuccessful bid for Governor against former Governor and current U.S. Senator John Hoeven.
Currently she serves on the board of directors for Dakota Gas, a subsidiary of Basin Electric that makes natural gas, fertilizer and other byproducts of coal.
"The one byproduct that's very interesting from a natural perspective, is we compress the CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) and send it north to Canada for injection into the oil fields up there as a tertiary recovery system," Heitkamp said.
"As we look at trying to guarantee a role for coal into the future, it is a very interesting facility and has been looked at by a lot of folks as an example of what could be done with coal in the mix."
Heitkamp also serves on the advisory board for Abrams Learning and Information Systems, Inc., a company owned by retired four-star U.S. Army General John Abrams that is a recognized leader in developing and implementing homeland security and domestic preparedness solutions.
What political work have you been up to recently?
"First, I worked on the Bank Privacy Measure. I did a constitutional initiated measure to reverse the Supreme Court's "Taking Decision,' in the Kelo (V. New London) Case.
What happened is, in Connecticut they wanted to build a facility on the river that would complement a large industrial facility. The city condemned a little, old lady's house. She was on the river, didn't want to move, didn't want to sell for any price, but then the city came in and condemned her house so they could resell the property to this developer. This case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and really shocked people when they discovered that the government could take private property and then resell that same property to private entities.
"It led to an uproar around the country and as a result, in North Dakota, a group of North Dakotans -- including me and people from the Landowners Association -- got together and wrote a constitutional amendment, got signatures and got the measure on the ballot to prevent that from ever happening in North Dakota.
"I also worked on the tobacco measure that took the money coming in and put it towards prevention."
What were you and Steve Shirley talking about earlier?
"I just wanted to introduce myself and talk about how important I think higher education is not only to a city like Valley City but also to the entire country. I'm very much concerned about what's happing with Stafford Loans and Pell Grants and the whole notion that college is becoming unattainable and unaffordable for many people in the lower incomes. Certainly, today in America, for the first time, student loan debt has exceeded credit card debt. So, we have a student debt problem and the measures that the House of Representatives are taking, not reducing the interest rates on student loans, have added that problem.
"What frustrating for me and a lot of North Dakotans is that you take a look at what the government gets money for, they're borrowing money now for under 2 percent. Student loans are at 3.4 (percent), so the government's making money right now on student loans. Now if they raise those student loans to 6.8 (percent), they'll really be making money on students. It's frustrating when you hear "How are we going to pay for this student loan interest reduction?' It makes it sound like the students aren't paying their fare share when they are. They're making money on students and they're using that money for other purposes and that needs to end. To me that's one of the top problem's of working families in America: Affordability of education.
What will it take to fix the economic crisis we find ourselves in now?
"I think it's going to take everybody working together, and I don't see that happening on the horizon. I think Washington is more interested in fighting political battles than solving problems. One thing that really frustrates me is this notion that "we can't get anything done during election years.' When are we out of election years? When aren't we thinking about the next election? We need to get beyond that we need to start representing the people of this country if we're elected to congress, not worry about our political careers.
What are the corner stones of your campaign?
"What I really talk about in this campaign are three major things.
Energy policy - which is a particular interest to me because 22 percent of people's incomes who make $50,000 or less on average goes to pay for energy. That's a huge chunk of change and we need policies in this country that will keep energy affordable, keep it low cost and use every resource that's available to us. It needs to be a multi-faceted approach; we need to look at the transportation system for energy which is why I was so discouraged that the President did not approve the Keystone Pipeline, because that's a key component of it. I'm also talking about the importance of the power grid and that it's adequate to handle America's needs in the future - I'm not convinced that's true anymore - and taking a look at an energy policy that provides predictability for businesses and for consumers.
"I've been talking a lot about the national debt; I don't think that it is just an election-year buzzword to talk about the debt, and too often that's what you hear, election-year buzzwords about the debt and then they go to Washington and don't work to solve the problem. We have a situation today in America where 40 cents of every dollar we spend is borrowed. The national debt is equal to the gross domestic product. The third highest expenditure of the government is interest; we're not paying off our debt, we're just paying off the interest. That's unsustainable and it's heading in the wrong direction. We definitely need to sit down in a bipartisan fashion and address the debt crisis, but all we see is shouting across the table. I never thought when I started this campaign that I would be somebody who would come out for a balanced budget amendment but when I saw that the super committee had failed - and I didn't like the super committee to begin with because I thought it was an abdication of responsibility - but when I saw they failed... it seems to me that you can't rely on people's good faith anymore, we absolutely have to have a stick out there that is going to mandate that they begin to take this problem seriously.
"The third thing that I talk about is the need to protect American agriculture. In North Dakota, we're still a commodity-driven economy and we're still and agriculture economy. We have to pay attention to world trade agreements; we have to pay attention to weather patterns; we have to pay attention to the farm program; we have to pay attention to technological developments. That is still our biggest industry, production agriculture, and we have to have a farm policy that protects our food source in this country."