North Dakota Gov Candidate's Health a Factor in Race
By Jeff Beach, Special to Stateline
GRAND FORKS -- Mid-September was especially hectic for Heidi Heitkamp, the Democratic candidate for Governor of North Dakota.
She spent the weekend of Sept 16-17 with her family, including taking time to sing at her nephew's wedding. Then she jetted off to Washington, D.C., for a fund-raising luncheon where she jokingly chided President Clinton about making long-winded speeches.
Heitkamp returned to North Dakota and on Sept. 20 made a stunning announcement at a press conference she had cancer.
The following week, Heitkamp, 44, underwent mastectomy surgery. But she remained focused on her bid for the governor's office, talking to campaign aides at least once or twice a day.
On Wednesday, nine days after her surgery, she held a news conference to answer questions about her health. Aides said it marked her return to the campaign trail.
"Today, it is as certain that I will stay in this race as it can be," Heitkamp said. "I'm in this race for good and I'm in this race for the finish."
Heitkamp will have one chemotherapy treatment before the Nov. 7 election. She said the next few days will determine how rigorous her schedule will be.
It's not clear how Heitkamp's health situation will affect the outcome of the governors race. An energetic woman who grew up in a small town and who currently serves as state attorney general, Heitkamp is running against Republican John Hoeven to succeed departing Republican Gov. Ed Schafer.
Hoeven, a Bismarck banker, has long been involved in civic affairs and in his youth served as governor of North Dakota Boys' State. His campaign and Heitkamp's are generally in sync regarding the top issues confronting North Dakota; economic development for a state left behind by the technology boom, finding out how to get North Dakota's primary industry, agriculture, back on its feet and education.
North Dakota trails the rest of the nation in teacher salaries and is facing a teacher shortage.
Lloyd Omdahl, a retired University of North Dakota political science professor and former Democratic lieutenant governor of North Dakota, said the campaign is more about personality than differences on issues.
Heitkamp, a former state tax commissioner, campaigns on a first-name basis, using Heidi on signs, in commercials and on her Web site. Her support seems to be especially strong in rural areas, where the Republican-inspired Freedom to Farm Act is blamed for pulling the federal price support system out from under farmers.
Quick-witted and colorful, Heitkamp has a down home way of outlining North Dakota's problems. For example, she has described agriculture as the state's "Momma." "And when Momma ain't happy ain't nobody happy," she says.
Hoeven, the smooth son of a banker, was educated at Dartmouth and Northwestern. He returned to his hometown of Minot, where he played an influential role in creating an economic development fund and more jobs. Hoeven served as president of the state-owned Bank of North Dakota for seven years.
Garnering his strongest support in the state's largest cities, Hoeven says he plans to stick with his message of economic development.
"We're giving folks a choice. My background is in the private sector, in business, in economic development. Her background is in government," Hoeven says. "She believes that government programs should drive the process."
During an appearance on a radio talk show before her cancer announcement, Heitkamp acknowledged that she was trailing Hoeven in the race, although not as badly as her opponent claimed.
The Hoeven campaign said that on Sept. 15 -- five days before Heitkamp disclosed her breast cancer -- an independent poll showed a 47 percent to 41 percent lead for the Republican.
Jeff Beach is a political reporter with the Grand Forks Herald.