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Published January 25, 2011, 11:59 AM

Conrad calls it a career

WASHINGTON — Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said Jan. 18 that he will not run for re-election in 2012 but said he will make agriculture one of his priorities in his remaining time in office and listed five Democrats he thinks can win his seat.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said Jan. 18 that he will not run for re-election in 2012 but said he will make agriculture one of his priorities in his remaining time in office and listed five Democrats he thinks can win his seat.

Conrad pledged to make two agricultural issues — reduction in dependence on foreign oil and the 2012 farm bill — priorities during his last two years in office. He has been a key player in agricultural policy, both as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, a position he used to set aside money for the 2008 farm bill, and as a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

In a signal of his commitment to agriculture, Conrad said Agriculture Undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services Jim Miller, who had worked for him on the 2008 farm bill, will return to work for him.

Conrad noted the political prospects for North Dakota Democrats could be different in 2012. The state voted heavily Republican in 2010, electing now-Sen. John Hoeven to the seat vacated by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who retired, and now-Rep. Rick Berg, who defeated Rep. Earl Pomeroy.

Potential successors

He started off his list of potential Democratic Senate candidates with former Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp, followed by her brother, Joel Heitkamp, a talk radio host; Ryan Taylor, a rancher and writer in the northwestern part of the state; and cousins from Fargo, Mac Schneider, a state senator, and Jasper Schneider, the Obama administration’s appointee as director of rural development for the state.

Conrad said he thought all the candidates he named would be good, but when asked whether putting Heidi Heitkamp first on his list was intentional, he noted that when he was state tax commissioner, he hired her as the agency’s general counsel and he has a lot of respect for her. He added, however, that he thinks she is more likely to run for governor.

Conrad did not include former Congressman Pomeroy on his list. Conrad said he thinks Pomeroy would be a good candidate and that he would support him, but that he thinks Pomeroy “has gone off in a different direction.” Pomeroy, who recently joined the Washington law firm of Alston & Bird, could not be reached for comment.

Cook Political Report Senior Editor Jennifer Duffy moved the 2012 North Dakota Senate race from favoring Conrad’s re-election to a toss-up. Republican Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk already has said he has set up an exploratory committee. Others who have been mentioned as potential candidates include two who seem less than likely to run: North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who took over the remainder of Hoeven’s term and is expected to run for the governorship on his own, and former Gov. and Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer, who repeatedly has resisted overtures from Washington to run for the Senate. Other potential candidates are Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley, Attorney General Wayne Stenejhem, Dickinson Mayor Dennis Johnson and Bismarck Mayor John Warford.

Focus on finance

Discussing his reasons for not running again, Conrad said his No. 1 reason was his desire to work on the nation’s financial problems without worrying about a re-election race. Noting that he had signed the Bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform report that called for spending reductions and tax increases, Conrad said, “Everything here is seen in a political light. When I signed up to the commission report, which I was proud to do, I knew there was tremendous political downside.”

But he added that, “It is very hard to know yourself what the factors are and what to weight them.”

The departure of Dorgan and Pomeroy “had to be a factor,” he said, acknowledging they are his best friends. But he added, “I started toting up the number of county visits I have done in public life; when I got to 1,500, I quit counting. Was I going to sign up for another 300? No.”

Conrad, who is 62, noted he has loved public life, but that by the time he retires, he will have been in office 32 years — six as tax commissioner and 26 in the Senate. He also said his wife, Lucy Calutti, his children and his brothers all were “unanimous” that he had a long career and should not run again. His cousins, he said, were divided. When he made 10 hours of calls to family, friends and colleagues Jan 17, he added, the response “was really heartening. ‘You have had an incredibly good run and you are ready to do something else.’ ”

In a letter to supporters, Conrad said his first priority is to get the federal debt under control. He said he also wants to reduce dependency on foreign energy, help craft a new farm bill, advance permanent flood control “so that Fargo (N.D.) is not threatened year after year,” and address the water crisis in the Devils Lake basin.

“Two more years to go. It has been quite a run,” Conrad said in conclusion. “There have been only 2,000 senators, only 100 have served this long. To have done it in a deeply red state as a Democrat is not easy.”