For distant North Dakota lawmakers, legislative session is a 10K-mile commitment
North Dakota’s expansive geography means more than two dozen legislators from the corners of the state have to drive in excess of three hours to get to the Capitol. The long-haul lawmakers view the treks as an inconvenient condition of performing a noble duty, but they say there are certain benefits to being removed from the state’s political hub.
BISMARCK — Serving in the North Dakota Legislature demands knowledge of the lawmaking process, strong public speaking skills and close attention to detail. But for members from Grand Forks, Williston and Wahpeton, the job also requires a valid driver's license and a car that can take some punishment.
The odometer in Rep. Corey Mock’s Ford Expedition ticked up 10,031 miles during this year’s four-month legislative session. The vast majority of the mileage came on 17 round trips between the Democratic lawmaker’s home in Grand Forks and Bismarck, the state capital.
North Dakota’s expansive geography means Mock and more than two dozen other legislators from the corners of the state have to drive in excess of three hours to get to the Capitol. During the session every two years, those journeys become more frequent as lawmakers return home for the weekends.
The long-haul lawmakers view the treks as an inconvenient condition of performing a noble duty, but they say there are certain benefits to being removed from the state’s political hub.
Meanwhile, Bismarck area lawmakers enjoy a hometown advantage that grants them more time at work and with family.
But the “dead time” behind the wheel is not a total waste for Mock — he gets to plan out his days at the Capitol, self-reflect and work through a lengthy rotation of thought-provoking podcasts.
Long road to the Capitol
Coming from the northeastern part of the state, Mock said he knew driving would be a major component of serving as a representative when he first won his seat in 2008.
In his first few commutes, the 250-mile stretch of asphalt went by quickly as his mind raced with excitement, Mock said, but as the days of session piled on, the drive began to seem slower — especially when returning home on a Friday night.
“Over the course of time, those longer round trips can wear on a person,” Mock said.
Now a veteran of the Legislature, Mock said he doesn’t mind the drives that much anymore. He said he can anticipate the exhaustion and emotions that come with the marathon session, so the time in the car presents a chance to decompress and mentally prepare for whatever responsibilities lie ahead at the end of the road.
Every lawmaker passes the hours behind the wheel a little differently. Mock has about 20 “favorite podcasts” to play during the trek, including “Freakonomics,” “American Innovations” and “How I Built This.”
Rep. Cynthia Schreiber-Beck, a Wahpeton Republican, makes phone calls or puts on political talk radio — strong signal permitting — and looks forward to stops in Valley City where she picks up a corn dog or two. When she gets tired, Schreiber-Beck eats some Giants sunflower seeds, a snack made in her hometown.
Often joining Schreiber-Beck in her Honda Ridgeline are Charlie, a King Charles spaniel, and Raza, a rat terrier. The horses, unfortunately, have to stay home, she jokes.
Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, said he stops to pick up a bag of barbecue potato chips when he feels drained. He mostly listens to public radio and daydreams of “awesome comments” he could have made on the Senate floor “but decided not to in order to keep the peace.”
On her trips between West Fargo and Bismarck, Republican Sen. Judy Lee said she opts for “whodunnit” programs on “Radio Classics” Sirius XM radio, jazz music and John Grisham audiobooks.
Her longtime colleague, Grand Forks Republican Sen. Ray Holmberg sits in silence and takes time to “space out” in his red Cadillac SUV.
Some lawmakers carpool to Bismarck, like Fargo Democratic Reps. Karla Rose Hanson and Gretchen Dobervich. Mock said he has ridden with Sen. JoNell Bakke, D-Grand Forks, in the past, while Schreiber-Beck has traveled with Rep. Alisa Mitskog, D-Wahpeton.
Mock remembers two former colleagues, Democratic Rep. Clark Williams and Republican Rep. John Wall, who often drove together from Wahpeton, stayed in the same Bismarck hotel and sat next to each other on the House floor. Both Williams and Wall have since died, but the pair sticks out to Mock as “one of the best examples of bipartisanship I ever recall.”
Location, location, location
There are clear pros and cons to living a long way from the capital city, Mock and other lawmakers said.
Although legislators receive reimbursement for gas money, Grand Forks lawmakers effectively lose a whole workday in the car every week during the session, Mock said.
Many members of the citizen Legislature run businesses outside of public service, and being in Bismarck can make it much harder to maintain an office presence, noted Mock, who works as a real estate agent.
Harsh winter weather is the worst drawback of serving as a distant lawmaker, Mock said, recalling colleagues who have gotten stuck in small towns for days, left their cars on the road and rolled their vehicles in icy conditions. Luckily, the weather cooperated during this year’s session and allowed legislators to leave and return on weekends, Mock and Schreiber-Beck said.
But for Mock, a father of two young boys, the lack of time with the family during the session is especially difficult. However, “living out of a suitcase” during the weeks away from home allows him to focus on legislative duties and stay in the moment, he said.
Holmberg said the tradeoff for Bismarck area lawmakers means they gain eight hours a week over their Grand Forks associates, but they live in “a government town” and have to be engaged with lobbyists and constituents all the time.
No lawmaker lives closer to the action than Sen. Erin Oban, a Bismarck Democrat. She said she usually drives the several blocks from her house to the Capitol but admits she could easily walk.
Oban said she loves being able to take care of her young son during the session but notes that the family duties don’t ease up to accommodate her packed legislative schedule, and at times, it can be hard to fully immerse in her role as a lawmaker.
Still, Oban said going home every day helps her stay grounded by providing a “good reminder of what average working families go through every day.” That’s what keeps her fighting for policies like paid family leave , she said.
The prospect of having to drive a long way to Bismarck certainly has an effect on who runs for office from faraway districts, Mock and Oban said.
Oban said she wouldn’t serve in the Legislature if she couldn’t go home to her family each night, noting that systems of government were not created with young, working people or women in mind.
Mock said he’s in favor of making some tweaks to the session calendar so long-commuting lawmakers can stay connected to their communities and businesses at home. He suggested four-day work weeks with built-in “constituent service days.”
“As we have more legislators going home, to get more diversity in the different types of people, professions and ages of folks serving in public office — that’s where I wouldn’t be surprised if the day comes when we start modifying our schedules,” Mock said.
Despite the hardships of serving as a distant member of the Legislature, Mock and his colleagues agree it’s well worth the trek to Bismarck.
“It’s an honor to be serving, and the drive is just part of serving,” Schreiber-Beck said.