Sebastian Fabian Hoffner, 91, Bismarck, died Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015, at St. Vincent’s Care Center in Bismarck. Mass of Christian burial will be said for him at 11 a.m. Tuesday (Dec. 22) in St. Boniface Church, Esmond, N.D. The praying of a rosary will begin at 10:30 a.m. Burial will follow in the church cemetery.
Nicknamed “Buckshot” from a young age, he was born on the family farm outside of Esmond, ND on Jan. 20, 1924, the Roman Catholic feast of Sts. Fabian and Sebastian, after whom his parents, George and Elizabeth (Pfau) Hoffner named him. He was the eldest son of 13 children, and after graduating from Esmond High School, he entered the U.S. Army during World War II. While serving in England, he met, fell in love with and married his wife of 62 years, Violet Patricia, known fondly by all as Pat. He was honorably discharged, and she moved with him from her home in London to a farm outside of Esmond.
When he returned from active service his father was already well-entrenched in Non-Partisan League politics. It was only logical that young Sebastian, now widely known as “Buckshot,” would follow him.
He joined with a group of young Democrats and progressives across North Dakota called “Insurgents” to unite the Democratic Party with the NPL. That merger in 1958 resulted in the election of Quentin Burdick, Buckshot’s longtime friend, as the first ever Democratic-NPL congressman from North Dakota. The next election cycle saw him help elect his other longtime friend and ally, William L. Guy, the state’s first Democratic-NPL governor. He was elected NPL chairman that year and has held that position since.
During the merger, Lloyd Omdahl, North Dakota’s pre-eminent political historian, wrote that his famous whiskers were the visible indication as to where the NPL actually went. “They looked for Buckshot’s whiskers and knew where the League went — into the Democratic Column.”
The merger also kept the governor’s office in Democratic-NPL hands for the next 20 years, and 28 of the next 32 years. The same year his friend, Gov. Guy, was first elected, Burdick was elected to the U.S. Senate in a special election, and North Dakota has not gone a single year since without at least one Democratic-NPL U.S. senator as part of its Washington delegation to Congress. Buckshot was particularly proud that both North Dakota’s U.S. senators were Democratic-NPL’ers for more than 20 years.
Buckshot assumed a leadership role in the Nonpartisan League as a young man and continued to serve in leadership roles during his political career, serving as his party’s floor leader in four of his legislative sessions.
His first successful election campaign was in 1962, when he was elected to the North Dakota House of Representatives.
He served in the historic 1965 Democratic-NPL majority and then challenged Rep. Mark Andrews for one of the state’s congressional seats in 1966. He lost that election but put his farming on hold to serve as executive director of the Democratic-NPL Party in 1967-1968, during which time he was a Hubert H. Humphrey delegate to the historic 1968 Democratic National Convention.
In 1968 he was re-elected to his House seat from Benson County and served as Democratic-NPL Leader in the House of Representatives during the 1969 legislative session. In 1971, he was a delegate to the North Dakota Constitutional Convention, and he was elected to the North Dakota Senate in 1972, defeating a powerful incumbent and winning in a Republican landslide year. While in the Senate, he was elected Democratic-NPL leader and served three sessions in that post.
He left the Senate in 1980 to run for North Dakota agriculture commissioner, a race he narrowly lost to Kent Jones in the Reagan landslide.
In 1981-82 he was chairman of the group known as the Majority ’82 Committee that was formed to take control of the North Dakota House of Representatives for the Democratic-NPL. His efforts and the efforts of hundreds of others resulted in the Democrats taking control of the House in 1982.
He was again elected that year to his seat in the House from Benson County and became one of only five members of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL to serve in two sessions in the majority party. The others were his longtime friends, the late Rep. Richard Backes, former Superintendent of Public Instruction Wayne Sanstead, the late Speaker of the House Oscar Solberg and the late Rep. Olaf Opedahl. He was often heard to remark that moving from the posh, intimate Senate chambers back to the raucous House of Representatives in 1983 was like moving from the British House of Lords back to the House of Commons, and he loved it.
He was one of the top 10 longest-serving Democratic-NPL legislators. During his tenure there, he was deeply involved in many of the epic political battles of the day. For example, he and Rep. Backes led the long-running fight to make sure that the citizens of North Dakota received a fair share of the coal mining in the form of a coal severance tax. He also was instrumental in the formation of the land reclamation laws, state funding for kindergarten and the foundation aid program for public schools. He was also a proud supporter of the arts and in particular Public Radio and Television.
He often said that his proudest accomplishment in the Legislature was his passage of the Open Meetings and Records Law, which required government to keep meetings and records open to the public. For this, he was awarded the “People’s Right to Know” Award from the professional journalists’ society, Sigma Delta Chi.
In 1984, he again left the Legislature to run for governor and became one of the “fabulous four” who traveled the state in the same car, running against each other — former Gov. Arthur Link, former Highway Commissioner Walter Hjelle and former Gov. George Sinner were the other three. It was the media attention those four candidates drew that led, in large part, to the election of Sinner as governor that year.
Shortly after Sinner’s election, he named Buckshot executive director of the North Dakota Centennial, a post he held until 1990.
Buckshot was a born showman, which was showcased in his stage direction of the largest party ever assembled on the state Capitol grounds. More than 100,000 people showed up that day to celebrate 100 years of North Dakota statehood. Buckshot rode around the Capitol grounds that day with two aides in a golf cart, dressed in vintage 1889 garb, possessing a large self-satisfied grin on his face.
There are numerous pictures of he and Pat dancing at the Centennial Ball in the Great Hall of the state Capitol, and his friend, Sen. Burdick, inserted his name in the Congressional Record: “In Buckshot Hoffner’s words, `We’ve talked a lot about the past, and now it’s time to look to the future.’ Happy birthday, North Dakota.”
After leaving the Centennial Commission, he retired from active politics and served as founder and executive director of the Missouri Valley Historical Society, where he led the effort to build Buckstop Junction, a historic village near Bismarck.
His volunteer efforts were recognized by a number of organizations. In 2003, he was given the “Hometown Hero” Award by the North Dakota League of Cities for his work in creating Buckstop Junction. In 2005, he was awarded the “Lifetime of Caring” Award by the Missouri Valley United Way. In 2007, he was honored for 15 years of service to the North Dakota Retired Senior Volunteer Program.
After he retired as executive director of the Missouri Valley Historical Society, he remained involved in local preservation efforts by serving on the board of directors of the Bismarck Historical Society.
Buckshot is survived by his children, Fabian, Minneapolis; James (Mary), Devils Lake; and Siobhan (Arnold) Deppa, Bismarck; his grandchildren, Sara (Kendall) Hoffner, West Fargo, N.D.; Tara, Haley and Samantha Hoffner, all of Devils Lake; and Geoffrey S. McLatchy, Lodi, Calif.; and his great-grandchildren, Hunter, Wyatt and Kaden, West Fargo. He was preceded in death by his wife, Patricia, in 2008; his parents, George and Elizabeth; his brother, Edward; and his sisters Anita, Rose, Irene and Cecilia.
RIP, Buckshot Hoffner, one of the great ones. You were one of those legendary political figures in North Dakota who will be long-remembered. You were colorful, articulate, honest and unwavering in your loyalty to traditional Nonpartisan League principles. Never a back-bencher, you served in leadership roles in whatever you took part in. The state has lost one of its political giants.