WASHINGTON — The chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, one of TIME Magazine’s 10 best senators and the last of the trio known here as “Team North Dakota,” will retire at the end of this session.
And while Minnesota lawmakers marked the looming loss of Kent Conrad, who announced Wednesday he won’t run for reelection in 2012, his decision fueled an urgency to get joint efforts through the Senate before Conrad (and his considerable seniority) leave for good.
Chief among those, said Amy Klobuchar, Al Franken and Collin Peterson, were securing a permanent flood mitigation and control plan for the Red River Valley and passing through the 2012 Farm Bill.
“Kent has been a great friend to me in the Senate and it’s been an honor to serve with him. His work to strengthen farms and rural communities has made a real difference for families in North Dakota, Minnesota, and across the nation,” Klobuchar said in a statement. “I look forward to continuing to work closely with him on the key cross-border issues facing our states, including permanent flood control in the Red River Valley and reauthorization of the Farm Bill, as well as on our national priorities of reducing the deficit and promoting economic growth.”
“Sen. Conrad’s absence will be felt not only by the people North Dakota but those in northwest Minnesota and the Red River Valley,” Franken said. “Senator Conrad, along with his colleagues Earl Pomeroy and Byron Dorgan were instrumental in securing federal funding for flood recovery for the communities of Grand Forks/East Grand Forks after the devastating record-breaking flood in 1997. Thanks to Senator Conrad’s efforts, the people in Grand Forks, N.D., and East Grand Forks, Minn., now have a permanent flood control project ensuring that they will never experience the devastation they did in 1997. Senator Conrad understands the need to continue to provide flood protection for the people in the Red River Basin who face flood threats each spring.”
“He’s obviously a senior member of the Senate, and he’s been a tremendous ally in my mind, especially on the Farm Bill stuff,” agreed Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee. And though the Red River diversion is a long way off from groundbreaking, Peterson said “it doesn’t help to lose senior members with clout.”
Conrad was expected to face a brutal reelection fight in a state that just recently flipped its other Senate seat and lone House seat from D to R. Rick Berg unseated long-time Rep. Earl Pomeroy, while Sen. Byron Dorgan retired rather than face a challenge from popular Gov. John Hoeven, who eventually won election in a landslide.
“There are serious challenges facing our State and nation, like a $14 trillion debt and America’s dependence on foreign oil,” Conrad said in a statement announcing his departure. “It is more important I spend my time and energy trying to solve these problems than to be distracted by a campaign for reelection.”
The Cook Political Report, in response to Conrad’s retirement, moved his seat from “likely Democratic” to “Toss-up”, though Republican campaign operatives here sounded positively giddy about completing their three-seat North Dakota sweep next year.
Conrad’s departure will represent the end of an era in North Dakota politics, when he, Dorgan and Pomeroy made up Team North Dakota. The three served together for 18 years and were arguably the most tight-knit delegation in America. Over at least the last two years, more press releases came from the three of them combined than did from any member individually.
News of Conrad’s departure came as a surprise to many, including his junior senator, Hoeven. “Sen. Conrad called me this morning and we spoke about his plans for the remainder of his term,” Hoeven said Wednesday. “I thanked him for his service, and told him I look forward to working with him over the next two years on the issues important to our state and our nation.”