Potter no stranger to N.D. politicsTracy Potter led a political crusade 30 years ago to return progressivism to North Dakota Democrats. Now, the self-proclaimed libertarian Democrat and Bismarck state senator is seeking elected office in Washington, D.C. Potter declared Friday as a candidate for the Democratic-NPL Party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring incumbent Byron Dorgan.
By: By Kristen M. Daum, Forum Communications Co., The Jamestown Sun
Tracy Potter led a political crusade 30 years ago to return progressivism to North Dakota Democrats.
Now, the self-proclaimed libertarian Democrat and Bismarck state senator is seeking elected office in Washington, D.C.
Potter declared Friday as a candidate for the Democratic-NPL Party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring incumbent Byron Dorgan.
Although Potter is relatively unknown in the Fargo-Moorhead area, he’s no stranger to North Dakota politics.
Potter was born June 23, 1950, in Bismarck and grew up in Grand Forks.
After graduating from Grand Forks Central High School, Potter earned a bachelor’s degree, and later a master’s degree, in history from the University of North Dakota.
At around age 18, Potter carried signs for former congressman and Sen. Eugene McCarthy, D-Minn. — a simple gesture marking the start of Potter’s lifelong political activism, now spanning six decades.
“I have liked it ever since the start,” Potter said. “But it wasn’t the liking, because you can like it and you can hate it. You hate it for what it does to some people or the fact that you often don’t win.
“But what I realized was I had skills that applied to it,” he continued. “So for those people, those friends of mine — the delicate flowers that didn’t want to rough and tumble in politics — I could represent them, because I was good at it and it didn’t change me to do that.”
In 1976, Potter attended a house party where a mutual friend introduced him to Laura Anhalt.
“I had to warm up to him,” said Anhalt, Potter’s wife of 33 years. “He pursued me, and I wasn’t sure about him. But three weeks later, I knew he was the one.”
Anhalt and Potter were married in 1978. They have a 24-year-old son. Potter also has a 38-year-old daughter from a previous marriage.
A progressive campaign
By 1979, Potter was the primary spokesman for a small coalition of Democrats who comprised the Prairie Campaign for Economic Democracy.
The leaderless liberal faction sought to bring back the progressive spirit of the former Non-Partisan League, which merged with North Dakota’s Democratic Party in 1960.
“As I see it, the progressive alternative is all that’s left,” a ponytailed-and-bearded Potter was quoted as saying in a 1981 article published in The Forum. “Our job is to make sure we do something with the power the people give us.”
In spring 1980, the Prairie Campaign gained enough support to form its own caucus during the state Democratic-NPL convention, using a platform in favor of public health insurance and alternative energy.
That support allowed them to send three delegates — Potter among them — to the national convention and cast two votes in favor of Sen. Edward Kennedy’s presidential bid.
Potter and two other North Dakota delegates walked out of the National Democratic Convention in August 1980, in protest against President Jimmy Carter’s nomination.
Potter told The Forum then he walked out “to show Carter that he’s alienated a lot of people.”
“There’s no way he’s going to win North Dakota and I don’t want him dragging the rest of the ticket down,” Potter said at the time.
Potter’s progressive campaign was short-lived. The faction didn’t have enough support to caucus in 1982 and later faded from the political scene.
A working man
After an early career as an analyst with the North Dakota Insurance Department, Potter made his first bid for elected office in March 1983.
He declared as a Democratic candidate for the 1984 election of insurance commissioner and proposed universal health care for state residents.
Potter lost against then-state Rep. Earl Pomeroy, who won the party endorsement during the 1984 state convention.
From 1987 to 1993, Potter worked for the North Dakota tourism department. Then, he was named executive director of the Fort Abraham Lincoln Foundation in Mandan — a post he has held for 16 years.
In 2003, the political historian also wrote “Sheheke: Mandan Indian Diplomat” — a book about a Mandan Indian who traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet President Jefferson following the visit of Lewis and Clark.
In 2006, Potter saw victory in state politics.
He narrowly beat out then-state Rep. Margaret Sitte, a Republican, for the District 35 seat in the state Senate — making him the only Democrat representing a district in and around the state capital.
An April 2007 Forum article called Potter “the star among Democrats’ six new senators” for his work in spearheading property tax relief legislation.
Although Potter’s state Senate seat is up for re-election this year, he wants to first try his chances at a U.S. Senate seat, he said.
Potter said he hadn’t considered a bid for the U.S. Senate until Dorgan’s abrupt news in early January. Potter said he “feels a call to additional public service to North Dakota and our nation.
“This comes around about as often as Haley’s Comet,” he said. “So, I said, ‘I actually have a chance to be the Democratic endorsee with this,’ and once you’re on the ballot, who knows what happens?”
Anhalt said she thought her husband was “crazy” when he told her of his U.S. Senate intentions, but she said she trusts his instincts.
“He’s an incredible problem-solver,” she said. “If there’s a problem, he just instinctively figures out ways to get over it, around it, under it, through it, whatever. I trust him to continue to do that.”
Potter, the only Democratic candidate to declare so far, described being a libertarian Democrat, as one who opposes regulation and supports individual freedom.
“That’s often where the practical thing to do is tell people how to lead their lives and what to do,” Potter said. “But the principal of being libertarian is they’re free to act. You’re free to make mistakes, to do dumb things — so I hold to that.”
The Democratic-NPL Party will endorse a U.S. Senate candidate at its March convention.
Because the District 35 nominating convention is after that, Potter could make a re-election bid for his state seat if he doesn’t receive the party endorsement for U.S. Senate.
Republicans will select their endorsed candidate from between Gov. John Hoeven and Paul Sorum, a Fargo architect and business consultant, also in March.
Kristen M. Daum is a writer for The Forum, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.