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McFeely: Heitkamp 'would have to think about' UND job

Heidi Heitkamp

On the day Heidi Heitkamp launched a new project to get the Democratic Party re-engaged with rural voters, she found herself talking a lot about a hypothetical job opportunity at the University of North Dakota.

Sorry about that, Heidi. That's my bad.

Ten days ago I wrote a column suggesting that Heitkamp was the obvious best choice as the next president of UND, if current job-holder Mark Kennedy is hired to lead the University of Colorado system. Or if The Honorable is not-so-honorably discharged from his duties in Grand Forks if he doesn't get the Colorado gig, just because UND people are sick of him.

Heitkamp's phone has been blowing up, as the kids say, since that column ran, with people asking the former U.S. senator from North Dakota if she was interested in the job. It's led to other media talking and writing about the possibility of a Heitkamp presidency. And it led to Heitkamp being asked about UND while doing the media rounds Thursday, April 25, to talk about the new One Country project, which she's leading in conjunction with another former Democratic U.S. senator, Joe Donnelly of Indiana.

Heitkamp's brother Joel asked about UND on his morning radio show on KFGO. And I asked about UND when I recorded a podcast with her in the afternoon.

The question: Would you consider being the president of UND?

Heitkamp's answer: "It's not something I ever thought I would do, but I would never say no to any opportunity. Especially one that came in North Dakota."

So that's not a full-blown "no." If the state board of higher education went to Heitkamp and asked her to apply for the job, would she do it?

"I would have to think about it. I'd have to think about what that looks like," Heitkamp said. "It's not something that's at that stage, but it's also not something I would knee-jerk and say absolutely not, I'm not interested."

Heitkamp, a 1977 graduate of UND, said she loves the university and wouldn't be where she is today without the education she received there, but also added, "Quite frankly, I don't think there's going to be this opportunity. We'll see what happens with the president. It's all premature."

The UND talk overshadowed, at least in North Dakota, One Country. It's an initiative Heitkamp and Donnelly will lead to reconnect Democrats with rural voters. Both ex-senators know intimately the disconnect between the Democratic Party and voters in rural America — both were defeated by Republicans in the 2018 election.

While Donald Trump's election as president in 2016 blew open the divide between Democrats and rural voters, Heitkamp said the separation has long been in the making. She believes the national Democratic Party in some ways abandoned rural America, but she sees an opportunity to recapture trust and support from rural voters because Trump and Republicans have failed to deliver on their promises.

Agriculture policy, health care, jobs and education are all areas where Democrats can engage rural voters in an attempt to win them over, Heitkamp said.

"Democrats aren't going to win the majority of voters in rural America because there are always going to be people who worry about a wall on the Mexican border more than whether their neighbor is going broke because they can't market their products," Heitkamp said. "But I think there are still a significant number of people who care deeply about the rural economy and who still will be voting their pocketbooks."

Heitkamp believes, too, that it behooves rural areas to have bipartisan representation. There's a danger to rural states if Republicans take their votes for granted. If that's the case, there's no incentive for Republicans to follow through on campaign rhetoric.

"We've been trying to promote rural America by making sure we don't outsource rural America to one political party," she said. "How do we make sure there is bipartisan representation for rural America? Because that is what's good for rural America."

The dissolution of support for Democrats in rural counties in critical states was a major factor in Trump's election in 2016. Rural votes for the Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, were down 46% in Pennsylvania, 28% in Michigan and 20% in Wisconsin. Heitkamp said it's critical for Democrats to increase their appeal to rural voters in those states and others if they hope to unseat Trump in 2020 and make a run at retaking a majority in the Senate.

"I think that rural voters felt disrespected and not appreciated for their contribution that they provide the economy as a whole," Heitkamp said. "There needs to be a level of respect and understanding about what rural issues are."