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Port: A Democratic state senator chastised her own party’s rhetoric, and that should inspire us all

Rob Port

MINOT, N.D. -- A remarkable thing happened at the Legislature in Bismarck last week, and I think many of you readers may have overlooked it.

Not that you can be blamed. There’s a lot of news coming out of Bismarck right now as our elected lawmakers grapple with issue debates and budgeting decisions.

What happened was a good thing.

A heartening thing. Rare in politics these days.

An elected official, and legislative leader no less, admonished her own party for aiming some ugly and vicious rhetoric at a member of the opposing party.

Allow me to set the stage for you.

The legislative and executive branches have been grappling with an issue related to $120 million in oil tax revenues from tribal lands which pretty much everyone agrees wasn’t allocated correctly by state Treasurer Kelly Schmidt’s office.

This has been going on for years, and Schmidt pleads innocence. She says she sought advice on ambiguous law governing the allocations from the attorney general’s office, and sought fixes from the Legislature which were voted down.

Anyway, when news of the issue broke the North Dakota Democratic Party denounced Schmidt in a news release as “sloppy” and “incompetent.”

On social media, the party claimed Schmidt “cheated” schools out of money.

Enter state Sen. Joan Heckaman, head of the Democratic caucus in her legislative chamber.

The Senate minority leader “didn't endorse a news release distributed by her own party,” my colleague reporter John Hageman wrote.

"I just think it's disrespectful for anybody to be talking like that," Heckaman told Hageman.

What a breath of fresh air.

I write that not because the North Dakota Democratic Party is unique in their deployment of juvenile rhetoric, but because an elected official taking a stand on this sort of thing against their own party just isn’t something which happens much these days.

We all care about politics, as well we should. The issues in play are consequential to our lives and livelihoods. I’m as guilty as anyone of saying and writing intemperate things when I get passionate about an issue.

That sort of thing might be excusable, on an individual level. Intemperance as a political tactic is not. Yet political operatives, up to and including those who work for political parties, use the tactic because it works.

It seems no disagreement over a policy issue these days is complete without aspersions cast at the opposition. We cannot merely disagree anymore. We must also dislike and even hate the opposition.

Thank you, Sen. Heckaman, for reminding us all to aspire to something better, and for showing us that it’s possible to hold our own side accountable.

Rob Port, founder of, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Listen to his Talk Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.