Holmberg's retirement prompts outpouring of comments from state, federal lawmakers
The Grand Forks senator, noted nationally for his longevity in office, has announced he won't seek reelection.
GRAND FORKS — The abrupt announcement on Monday that longtime state Sen. Ray Holmberg plans to retire from the Legislature prompted numerous kind comments from lawmakers across the state, including North Dakota’s three federal delegates.
Sens. John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer, along with Rep. Kelly Armstrong, promptly issued statements after news spread that Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, will not seek reelection. Gov. Doug Burgum and numerous others made statements as well.
“Through more than four decades of service and leadership, Sen. Holmberg has left his mark on Grand Forks and North Dakota, and we are better for it,” said Hoeven, a Republican who previously served as North Dakota’s governor. “In particular, he leveraged his role on the Senate Appropriations Committee to strengthen our institutions of higher education to benefit students and the broader economy, while also working to help our state overcome a variety of challenges, seize new opportunities for growth and improve our quality of life.”
Hoeven, on behalf of his wife, Mikey, and the residents of the state, thanked Holmberg for his service.
Holmberg, a Republican from Grand Forks, made the announcement late Monday afternoon, saying he will not seek reelection. The decision appears to close a political career that for years has been lauded by numerous state leaders and, last summer, noted for longevity by a national organization. In a statement sent to the Grand Forks Herald, Holmberg said he based the decision on medical reasons.
"This difficult decision is primarily based on medical issues which, after consultation with family and the medical community, do not afford me the cognitive ability to accurately perform the work required and expected of a senator representing the people of Grand Forks in the 2023 legislative session," said Holmberg, who did not give specifics about the medical condition. "At age 79, the stress of a session and a campaign will only exacerbate a weakened ability to concentrate on the matters at hand and effectively recall events."
Holmberg was first elected in 1976. That ties him as the current longest-serving state senator in the nation, as noted in 2021 by the National Conference of State Legislatures .
Holmberg is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the procedural Rules Committee. He also serves on the interim Budget Section and chairs the Legislative Management Committee.
When reached via telephone late Monday afternoon, Holmberg declined to comment further.
"Everything that could be said is in that (email)," Holmberg said. "I'm not going to add to it at all. ... It is what it is."
Holmberg often has been the target of compliments from other lawmakers, who have noted his abilities in maneuvering a state budget that grew substantially during his time in office. In December, he was named the Gr and Forks Herald's Person of the Year for his work in helping Grand Forks secure millions of dollars during the 2021 session of the Legislature, as well as a special session held later in the year.
In late December, Gov. Burgum said Grand Forks is “tremendously fortunate” to be able to draw upon the experience and representation of Holmberg.
Monday, he called Holmberg “a true statesman of the Legislature” who provided strong leadership and effective representation.
“As chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee for the past 10 legislative sessions, Ray has conservatively steered state and federal dollars to some of North Dakota’s most impactful programs and infrastructure projects,” Burgum said in a press release, also noting Holmberg’s “razor wit and his willingness to work together to solve our biggest challenges and seize our greatest opportunities.”
The governor expressed gratitude for Holmberg’s service to the state.
Holmberg has served as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee since 2003. As chair, he also served on the six-member Emergency Commission, a panel tasked with adjusting budgets between legislative sessions.
In 2019, he received the Energy and Environmental Research Center Energy Champion Award . In 2021, he received the Henry Havig Award from the Grand Forks-East Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce.
Armstrong, R-N.D., called Holmberg “a champion” for the city, his district and the state. Armstrong served in the Legislature before he was elected to the U.S. House in 2018.
“He has been a constant force in the state Senate,” Armstrong said. “I had the opportunity to serve with him and was always in awe of his institutional knowledge. I wish him well in his retirement.”
Cramer, in his first term as a U.S. senator after serving as state Republican Party chairman and two terms on the North Dakota Public Service Commission, called Holmberg “a legend.”
“He has long been Grand Forks’ number one cheerleader in the Legislature, replacing Earl Strinden,” said Cramer. “He is both thoughtful and tenacious in his work on behalf of the Grand Forks region. He has the rare ability to amass friends while amassing power. It's hard to drive around Grand Forks and not see Ray's beneficial influence in the institutions surrounding the city."
News of Holmberg's retirement came as a surprise to Rep. Cory Mock, D-Grand Forks. Mock said he had heard Holmberg was "on the fence" about not seeking reelection.
"I always assumed that he was going to be in the Senate and running for reelection, so yeah, this is very much a surprise," Mock said.
He added that he considered Holmberg a friend in the Legislature who always did good work for the state and Grand Forks. Mock said Holmberg is retiring at the pinnacle of his legislative career.
"He cannot be replaced and he certainly will be missed,” Mock said.
Rep. Mark Sanford, R-Grand Forks, on Monday told the Herald that Holmberg recruited him to run for office in 2010. Sanford assumed his spot in the Legislature the following year. Sanford said Holmberg has the respect of his colleagues in both parties, and that he respects Holmberg's decision to not seek reelection.
"As much as I'd like to see him continue, I think we have to respect (his decision) and thank him for the great work he's done," Sanford said.
Scott Meyer, a Republican state senator from Grand Forks, said he appreciates the opportunity to have worked with Holmberg.
“Through more than four decades of service and leadership, Sen. Holmberg has left his mark on Grand Forks and North Dakota, and we are better for it. In particular, he leveraged his role on the Senate Appropriations Committee to strengthen our institutions of higher education to benefit students and the broader economy, while also working to help our state overcome a variety of challenges, seize new opportunities for growth and improve our quality of life,” Meyer said.
Republican Claire Cory said Holmberg mentored her when she was first appointed to her position in the House in 2019. He showed her the ropes, she said, and offered input on bills she introduced. Like other local lawmakers, Cory said she was shocked to hear about his decision to not seek reelection. Cory said the state is losing a person with vast institutional knowledge.
"It's definitely going to be interesting the next time we gavel in," she said, adding "he was the best."
North Dakota Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner – a Republican from Dickinson and also a longtime lawmaker who is retiring – said the Legislature will feel the loss of Holmberg's deep institutional memory as it carries on without its most experienced member.
Wardner referred to Holmberg as "an information mogul" who knew complicated state budgets inside out. Holmberg's steady hand guiding the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee helped lead North Dakota through crests and troughs in state revenue and instilled confidence in other lawmakers, Wardner said.
Holmberg always put transparency first with his colleagues and kept morale high with his sharp banter during less-than-exciting proceedings, Wardner noted.
“No matter how dull things got, he’d get some humor in it,” Wardner said.
The upper chamber will have to fill several leadership positions before the 2023 legislative session starts in January, but Wardner said he and Holmberg have been molding good leaders for the last decade by delegating responsibilities to senators. Capable legislators will step into the important roles, Wardner said.
Sen. Curt Kreun, R-Grand Forks, said Holmberg's announcement came as a surprise. Kreun said he has a good working relationship with Holmberg, even if they disagree every now and then. It will be difficult to see him retire, but Kreun said he understands the decision.
"It's kind of a given," Kreun said of Holmberg's institutional knowledge. "He's been around long enough. He made enough friends and was able to work with a lot of different people."
This report was compiled and written by the Herald’s Adam Kurtz and Korrie Wenzel, along with reporting by Forum News Service’s Jeremy Turley.