North Dakota sits in stunned silence this morning, trying to make sense of the unthinkable loss of a 68-year-old lifetime public servant.
Wayne Stenehjem was my friend for many years — I wonder how many people have said THAT this morning — although that friendship was a little rocky the last few years. The last time we visited in his office he gently lectured me about state sovereignty, until I finally said, “Wayne, I don’t think most North Dakotans give a rat’s ass about state sovereignty.” We laughed and parted as friends. Those may have been the last words I ever said to him. Damn!
A couple of random thoughts.
In 1990, I think it was, my boss, Gov. George Sinner, decided to impose a smoking ban on the Capitol building and other buildings on the Capitol grounds. There were a lot of smokers in the Legislature, and over the years, it was not unusual to see ashtrays full of cigarette butts on legislators’ desks.
There were two senators named Stenehjem in the Senate then, brothers named Bob and Wayne. Bob smoked cigars. Wayne smoked cigarettes. Bob was the Senate majority leader. Burly and mustachioed, a born leader, he pretty much made the rules in the legislative wing of the Capitol.
After consulting his brother, Wayne, the lawyer, he determined that the Legislature, not the governor, owned the legislative wing of the Capitol, and so a room behind the Senate chamber was designated as the Legislators’ Lounge, and smoking was allowed. Stenehjems win.
I was the Tourism Director at the time, and also a smoker, and from time to time, I’d visit the Llegislators, mostly to talk about budgets, and Wayne frequently invited me into the lounge for a smoke. Inside there’d be a handful or a dozen legislators, a few lobbyists and some other state employees who had friends in the Legislature.
Despite a big blower designed to carry smoke out the window, it was the most godawful smoky place I’ve ever been. But it was fun to hang out in there, and I actually made a few new friends among Legislators. Thank you, Wayne.
I think that smoking lounge hung on well into the 21st century, and I think Wayne walked down the hall for his midmorning smoke with his old Senate buddies pretty often after he moved into the Attorney General’s office on the first floor of the Capitol in 2001.
There was a time back in the early fall days of 2015 when Jack Dalrymple decided not to run for a second full term as governor. Speculation quickly focused on two men who also worked on the first floor of the Capitol: Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem. Everyone in North Dakota knew that both wanted the job, and lots of us political spectators started drooling over the upcoming clash.
But then Wrigley shot himself in the foot, or somewhere, with an indiscretion that became public, and all eyes turned to the Attorney General. Which prompted me to write this on a post here that fall, “One of my friends said the other day, when Dalrymple announced his decision, “Good, maybe we’ll get a Governor whose name we can spell.” Sorry. It’s Stenehjem. Practice spelling that for a while.”
I’ll admit, as a reporter and editor, it took me a while to remember how to spell his name. And it turns out, of course, that Burgum was easier to spell.
As for me, I liked Wayne better when he was a legislator, although as Attorney General he never let the fact he was one of North Dakota’s highest-ranking elected officials go to his head. I wrote about him a bunch of times, sometimes calling him things he didn’t like, but I certainly didn’t doubt his sincerity when he attempted to convince his fellow Industrial Commission members to designate a long list of “extraordinary places” in the Bad Lands as spots that should remain free from oil development.
It was a pretty amazing thing he tried. He made a list of about 50 places in western North Dakota that should be afforded special protections and spelled out what kind of protection should be offered to each, like buffer zones, fencing, tree plantings and restrictions on line-of-sight.
But in the end, it was an ill-fated idea, given the enormous pressure from the oil industry on his two fellow Industrial Commission members, Jack Dalrymple and Doug Goehring, who caved with only a nudge from Ron Ness, but it demonstrated to me he did have strong feelings about the land and the people who would have benefited from having those special places protected in some measure.
Wayne had a 45-year career in government, despite the fact he was only 68 when he died Friday. When he won his first election in 1976 to the North Dakota House of Representatives at age 23, he was one of the youngest — maybe even THE youngest — people ever elected to the North Dakota Legislature. He was still in law school during his first session of the Legislature in 1977.
And it was that year his interest in open meetings and open records surfaced, when he got Attorney General Allen Olson to rule that Grand Forks County Commissioners had to hold an open meeting to discuss filling a vacancy on the commission. He remained a champion of open meetings throughout his entire political career.
Little known fact: Wayne was an Eagle Scout. Not surprising. Those who knew him saw a little bit of a Boy Scout in him all his life.