What This Election Means For Your Business: Heidi Heitkamp

Written by: Andrew Jason

Photos by Hillary Ehlen and courtesy of the Heidi Heitkamp Campaign

North Dakota is under the political spotlight going into this election season. Turn on any cable news station and it’s not uncommon to hear political pundits talking about the battleground our state has become.

While we don’t endorse any candidate, we wanted to let you meet the two senate candidates, hear their responses of some of your business questions and let you make an informative choice come Tuesday, November 6.

No matter the outcome of this election, there is one thing that we believe is important to note. Toward the end of our interview with North Dakota Senator hopeful Kevin Cramer, he made a good point.

“Every state has a governor but most states have more than 700,000 people. Every state has two senators but most states have more than 700,000 people. We’re fortunate here that access to public officials, to the degree it’s valuable, is easy.”

While North Dakota’s small population can sometimes be a challenge to the business community, especially when it comes to workforce, the accessibility to our political representatives should be looked as one of the major benefits of our state’s small size. States with a large population do not have the accessibility that we have. Considering each state only has two senators, a state like California, for example, has one senator for 19,770,000 people while North Dakota has a senator for every 377,697 people. Don’t forget to look at your political representatives and ask the question about what they’re doing for you.

As the North Dakota senate race heats up and gains national attention, we sat down with Senator Heidi Heitkamp and Congressman Kevin Cramer to discuss what this election could potentially mean for your business.

*Interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Meet The People Behind The Questions

We reached out to a number of business and community leaders for their questions they’d like to ask the candidates.

Greg Tehven

Greg Tehven, Executive Director at Emerging Prairie

Pat Traynor

Pat Traynor, Executive Director at Dakota Medical and Impact Foundations

Adam Martin

Adam Martin, Founder of F5 Project and F5 Venture Partners

Kirk Anton

Kirk Anton, Owner of Heat Transfer Warehouse

Jessica Thomasson

Jessica Thomasson, CEO at Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota

Meet Heidi Heitkamp

Hometown: Mantador, N.D.

College: B.A. from the University of North Dakota and a law degree from Lewis and Clark Law School

Number of years in Congress: 5

Q: What is your favorite way to celebrate North Dakota with your friends in Washington?
Greg Tehven, Executive Director at Emerging Prairie

A: Making them sing the North Dakota song. Seriously. Behind that, probably the accent. John McCain, who was a dear friend of mine, used to tease me so much about the accent and it would make him laugh when I would pour it on. I would then remind everybody that “Fargo,” the movie, is not about Fargo, it’s about Brainerd, Minnesota.

Q: How has the perception in DC of North Dakota changed?

A: I think that it’s still an unknown. It’s known for its honesty. It’s known for its practicality but I also think they see now with the Bakken, that obviously got a lot of play, that Fargo is emerging. The Red River Valley is emerging more as a small area to pay attention to.

Q: What do you believe is the best way to alleviate poverty? – Pat Traynor, Executive Director at Dakota Medical and Impact Foundations

A: Education and healthcare. I’m also going to say this. When you look at adverse childhood experiences and childhood trauma, a lot of people who find themselves into pervasive poverty have had a life of poverty and come from poverty. One of the things that I’ve been absolutely adamant about is that we need to understand what happens to children in their childhood and what effect that toxic stress has on kids and the abilities of kids to enter the workforce eventually and perform well in high school or college and the ability to have the resiliency it takes to live an ordinary life.

I really focus on childhood trauma as a foundational piece and if we did that right and we prevented childhood trauma, but more importantly, if we treated childhood trauma, that we could avoid future instances of poverty because people would be better prepared.

Addiction is a problem that has hit Fargo and North Dakota hard and the stats can be pretty alarming.

  • According to the North Dakota Office of Attorney General 2016 Comprehensive Status and Trends Report, the number of drug cases submitted to the State Crime Laboratory increased by 26 percent from 2013 to 2015, but during the same time period, drug cases involving heroin increased by more than 400 percent.
  • According to that same report, the ND Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reports that the number of inmates with drug/alcohol offenses has more than doubled in the past five years, from 334 in 2011 to 779 in 2015, and the number of drug offenders under supervision by Parole and Probation has almost doubled, from 1,306 in 2011 to 2,507 in 2015.
  • According to the Addiction Center, over 26 percent of employed adults have substance abuse or addiction in their family and over 42 percent of these employees felt their productivity suffer as a result.
  • According to the Addiction Center, drug abuse and addiction cost American companies $81 billion every year.

Q: Addiction, substance abuse and untreated mental health issues present very real challenges in our state’s schools and workplaces. What will you do to help create a first class, modern behavioral health system in ND to help address these issues? – Jessica Thomasson, CEO at Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota

A: First off, we need to make sure we are adequately compensating healthcare providers who provide quality treatment, whether it’s for behavior or mental health, we integrate behavior and mental health into our healthcare system, we adequately compensate our healthcare providers, we build workforce to deal with the challenges.

Children who have experienced four serious negative experiences – like witnessing violence, exposure to unaddressed mental health issues, or abuse – are twice as likely not to graduate high school, 10 times more likely to inject drugs and 12 times more likely to commit suicide than children who experienced zero serious adverse experiences. And people with six or more adverse childhood experiences have a 20 year shorter life expectancy than those with zero.

Workforce development might be the biggest issue facing the business sector. Last month, there were 14,446 open jobs in North Dakota. How do we fill those jobs?

Heitkamp released an economic agenda last month that aims to help workers through the course of their lives. One of those agenda items include fighting for workers when they start their careers through four points.

  • Protecting the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program
  • Reducing student loan debt and making college more affordable.
  • Supporting vocational training that teaches the knowledge and skills needed for cutting-edge jobs.
  • Strengthening programs for young and beginning farmers and ranchers in the 2018 Farm Bill.

I think we need to do a better job talking to kids in junior high and high school about what opportunities are out there so they can be better trained. I think a lot of kids enter into their senior year thinking, ‘Oh, it would be good to do this,’ and don’t have a good idea of what the workforce needs are. I’m not saying you should always educate to the workforce but I think parents and kids need to understand that we need plumbers and electricians. We need people who have coding abilities and it doesn’t always take a four year degree to get those skills.

I think we need to have a better educated group of students who understand what the workforce demands are and where the opportunities are. And I think we need an education system that responds more appropriately to the needs of the business community.

According to a recent statewide survey conducted by Job Service North Dakota, 28 percent of employers say it takes longer than one to three months to fill a job.

Occupations with the highest projected growth over the next 10 years:

  • Support activities for mining: 5.1% growth
  • Oil and gas extraction: 3.3% growth
  • Primary metal manufacturing: 3.3% growth
  • Truck transportation: 3.2% growth
  • Performing arts, spectator sports and related fields: 3.1% growth

*Data from Job Service ND

Q: It’s interesting you bring that up because last month, we interviewed all the new superintendents and that’s a huge focus for them. Have you seen progress on that front?

A: I think you do. It’s slow. We need to change how parents look at it because some parents sometimes feel like a kid would disappoint them if they didn’t go to a four year school. Instead, sitting them down and saying, ‘What is it that you enjoy? Do you enjoy working with your hands? Is being a plumber something you think you would enjoy? Is being a welder something you think you would enjoy? Is being a healthcare provider? What is it that you enjoy and how can we get you the skill sets?’ Especially with so much student debt, I think we need to be really careful on not overspending for skills we won’t necessarily need in the future.

Streamlined Sales & Use Tax Project

The Streamlined Sales Tax Registration System allows people to register for sales tax purposes with all of the states that are members of the Streamlined Sales Tax Governing Board in a single registration. Once the form is completed, participants will have a sales tax account and will be required to collect, report and remit the applicable sales and use tax in all the following Streamlined member states: Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. More information can be found at nd.gov/tax.

Q: It has been proven that good prison reentry programs, good work force training both inside and outside the prison has helped decrease unemployment jobs for citizens with felony backgrounds. It also shows when treatment is approached, rather than punitive measures, recidivism rates go down, which directly affects our communities’ health in regards to crime and substance abuse. What are you doing to help create more work force and treatment options for citizens that are filling the employment gap within our state? – Adam Martin, Founder of F5 Project and F5 Venture Partners

F5 Project was started by Adam Martin, five-time felon turned entrepreneur, and is aimed at giving people released from prison the support as they transition into civilian life. For more information, you can read Fargo INC!’s August cover story with Martin at fargoinc.com.

A: The big discussion in Washington D.C. about criminal justice reform is that we cannot do criminal justice reform without re-entry programs. I think we can provide greater tax incentives for people who are willing to work with people who are coming out of incarceration. We also need to understand that that transition is not easy and what happens is that they simply go on to the same lifestyle they had before, it’s not going to be very successful. We need that transitional piece to transition back into the workforce.

We need housing. To me, you have to look at all the needs that come after the period of incarceration. Listen to people who have been on the list of recidivism and say, ‘Why did you fail? What could we have done differently?’ That’s a critical piece.

I sat down with a number of parents of children who are addicted. They are raising their grandchildren. What they told me is that they feel like the system isn’t holding their kids accountable. We need to have that level of accountability that allows people who are transitioning out of incarceration, we need to have the period where we’re assisting and creating the lifelong habits that are going to result in no recidivism. All of these experiments will fail and a job is hugely important to that. We need to get people integrated into the system.

This is a long answer but I used to travel with Winston Satran. Winston Satran was the Prison Warden for a number of years. We were doing a juvenile justice project. We would go into communities and sit at a buffet eating lunch and somebody would come up and greet him and talk to him. When they would walk away, he would say, ‘They’re a graduate.’ What he meant was that he knew them when they were incarcerated. Many times, because of the system and the rehabilitation we had back in the day when it was easier, these folks could transition if they got a little older and dealt with their addiction appropriately. They could be incredible employees and incredible members of society. We know we can do it with the right type of after care.

Heidi Heitkamp

Q: With the new sales tax legislation coming state by state, how do you view that will affect e-commerce and help business grow in North Dakota? Will it be too complicated and cause hardship on business? – Kirk Anton, Owner of Heat Transfer Warehouse

A: I think that one of the challenges that we had was leveling the playing fields between bricks and mortars and e-commerce. The Supreme Court recently issued a decision. There is a de minimis that South Dakota had in each state. Obviously, organizations that don’t want to engage in a collection responsibility in every state can in fact avoid that, I think, by doing business under that de minimis. By that, I mean a certain amount of sales.

The one bit of advice that I would have is the State Tax Department here has, for a number of years, been a leader on what we call the Streamlining Project. For small business, it’s the perfect way to guarantee that they’re in compliance. It’s a perfect way to ease the burden of compliance. My advice would be that they seek out an opportunity to work with the State Tax Department on getting into the streamline system.


  • 1977: Earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of North Dakota
  • 1980: Earned her J.D. from Lewis and Clark College
  • 1981-1986: Assistant Attorney General and Administrative Counsel, State Tax Commission
  • 1986-1992: North Dakota Tax Commissioner
  • 1993-2001: North Dakota Attorney General
  • 2001-2012: Director, Dakota Gasification
  • 2013-present: U.S. Senate

Q: From a business owner standpoint, what resources are out there that you think businesses don’t take advantage of?

A: I think that one of the things that we need to do is do a better job of recognizing what the needs are. That’s why I’ve been very involved in making sure we have the right kind of business advocate within the SBA that can, in fact, get that small business voice within rules and regulations. On Capital Formation, my bill, which would give small business a say in the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) was signed into law and they’re trying to hire someone for that role that would be that ombudsman who would then reach out to small businesses and say, ‘How can we make the equities market work better for you? What are your challenges in terms of capitalizing your business?’

The work that I did on S.2155, which was small bank, community bank deregulation bill should ease capital for small business. One of the biggest challenges that I’ve confronted is that SBA, traditionally, funds bricks and mortars. If you want to rent a welding shop, they’ll help you buy equipment, they’ll help you do this. They’re really bad at providing seed capital for businesses that are engaged in the development of intellectual property.

I introduced a bill called the SEED Act (Startup Entrepreneur Empowerment Delivery), which would allow for some very early level development dollars to go to entrepreneurs so they could actually engage instead of doing this in their off-time. There’s a number of models that we can engage and also push out from the SBA side. I think SBA is underutilized by new entrepreneurs.

“My point would be that it is really important that people who serve in government bring facts and data and creativity to their ideas and check ideology at the door. Because ideology will lead to decisions that will be subject to the whim of political swings.”

One of the things is making healthcare more readily available to entrepreneurs. Harvard Business Review did a study on one of the chief reasons why a lot of people don’t enter that entrepreneurial world and it’s because of healthcare and if they could find affordable and available healthcare that gives them the opportunity to develop their skills and their products. I think there’s a whole lot of strategies. The real challenge is making the system more responsive to these millennials.

I think the system has not been as responsive to this millenial. We need to transition because so much of the new business is service oriented. It’s intellectual property

Q: What should the public sector take from the private sector?

A: I think a hyper liked focus to efficiency. I don’t think you survive in the private sector without being highly efficient and highly competitive. I think, sometimes, the private sector has now realized that you can’t do things the way you’ve always done it. You have to always be innovating. You have to be creative. You have to be moving forward. So often, in the public sector, people get stuck in a rut. That’s the way we’ve always done it. There’s no incentive to be creative. There’s no incentive to take risk.

I think the one thing I would say is we have to make more incentive for risk taking and innovation and efficiency.

Heidi Heitkamp
Senator Heitkamp meeting at. the Prairie Den, a co-working space in Downtown Fargo, in 2016.

Q: What should the private sector take from the public sector?

A: That there are intangible values to everything that we do. You see it more and more in corporate America. The ability for somebody to get family leave. In fact, in 2017, I helped reintroduce the FAMILY Act, which would create a federal paid family and medical leave policy. Most public sector entities provide for a family leave policy or they provide sick leave. Private businesses have a harder time providing that, especially if they’re small. I would say that the razor like focus to the needs of their employees as individuals will pay off in the long run. I’m not sure that we do that all that well in the public sector. It’s hard to see the translation sometimes.

One of the roles that I have in Congress is I’m the ranking member on a sub-committee that deals with federal workforce. Here’s an example. I think federal workforce is having a hard time attracting millennials because it’s too rigid. Where the private sector has realized that if you’re going to keep talented millennials around, you’re going to have to think differently about work schedules. You’re going to have to think differently about allowing them creative license and risk taking.

I just think that there’s not a lot that the public sector can offer the private sector but also the opportunity to work together to respond to concerns and needs of employees would be one of those issues.

Q: There’s a lot of misconception between businesses and government. What would you say to those business owners?

A: I would say that one of the things that concerns me the most about the huge political swings that we’re undergoing is the lack of predictability for business. That business says, ‘Things are OK today but they may not be OK in a couple of years. Or this may not happen in a couple of years.’ My point would be that it is really important that people who serve in government bring facts and data and creativity to their ideas and check ideology at the door. Because ideology will lead to decisions that will be subject to the whim of political swings. The one thing that I would say that’s critically important, and it’s something I think about all the time, is not only making the right decision but making a decision that will have some staying power to provide that predictability.

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