New environments await Cramer, Armstrong in Washington

North Dakota Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer hands Liam Hellman a candy cane at Bismarck's Kirkwood Mall Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018, while ringing the Salvation Army bell. John Hageman / Forum News Service
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BISMARCK — Kevin Cramer recently quipped that he’ll have a relatively smooth transition into his new job representing North Dakota in the U.S. Senate for one major reason: He at least knows his way around Washington, D.C.

“I actually know the rooms in the building,” the Republican congressman said. “I know where the restrooms are. I know where the train is.”

As Cramer trades the more rambunctious House for a regal Senate steeped in traditions, his successor, former North Dakota GOP chairman and state Sen. Kelly Armstrong, will be forced to adjust to life in the minority after leading a party that dominates North Dakota politics.

Both men acknowledged their new roles come with a bit of a learning curve but said they’re prepared for the changes.

“I’ve had sort of a natural progression in public service that assists me,” said Cramer, who served on the state’s Public Service Commission before being elected to Congress in 2012.


‘More formal’ Senate

Cramer will ascend to the U.S. Senate after unseating Democrat Heidi Heitkamp in November. The expensive race was closely watched due to its implications for control of the chamber, which Republicans maintained.

Armstrong defeated former Democratic state Sen. Mac Schneider to take Cramer's place as North Dakota's only representative in the U.S. House. Both Cramer and Armstrong will be sworn in on Jan. 3.

Cramer said he expects to do less legislating and more oversight in the Senate and predicted he’ll have to get used to a different pace of governing in his new job. Former Gov. Ed Schafer, who hired Cramer to be a member of his Cabinet in the 1990s, said Cramer will “make waves” in the Senate but the changes will be “frustrating” for him.

“The Senate is much more deliberative, much more quiet, much more formal,” he said. “I think he’ll operate well, but … you’re constantly going to be pushing against the wind.”

Byron Dorgan, a Democrat who represented North Dakota in the U.S. House before spending almost two decades in the Senate, said the two chambers differ on committee structure and debate rules, but he predicted Cramer will have an “easy” transition. He said Cramer will benefit from having already represented the entire state in the House and will have a firm grasp on the issues facing its people and industries.

But Cramer said it’s already been “awkward” at times to have people “want to do everything for you,” describing himself as a “dial-my-own-phone person.”

Known for a blunt style that generates headline-grabbing comments, Cramer indicated he’ll be careful about how he talks about fellow senators. The Senate carries a different “political calculus” that often requires bipartisan support to pass legislation, he noted.

“It’s pretty easy to say something about Nancy Pelosi if you’re a Republican House member. I think you have to be more careful about what you say about Chuck Schumer as a Republican senator,” Cramer said.


Still, Schafer predicted Cramer will continue to be “aggressive” in his new job.

“The Senate is not going to change Kevin,” Schafer said.

Minority report

In the North Dakota Legislature, Armstrong was part of a Republican supermajority that controlled every lever of state government. But in Washington, he’ll encounter a Democratic House majority that will set the agenda.

The shifting power dynamics are expected to shake up the nation’s capital in the final two years of President Donald Trump’s first term, with Democrats already promising close scrutiny of the scandal-plagued president.

Armstrong, who represented a Dickinson district in the state Senate for almost six years, largely shrugged off any difficulties he could face in the new congressional atmosphere. He said constituents want both parties to work on infrastructure funding, “reasonable regulatory reform” and to fight the opioid addiction epidemic.

“It’s OK to have the large debates, large disagreements, knock-down, drag-out fights,” Armstrong said. “The point is, is when you’re done you have to be able to work with that person on something else.”

Republican state Sen. Nicole Poolman said Armstrong won’t have the same ability to influence policy while serving in the minority party. But she called him a “relationship-builder” and cited his efforts to pass oil patch infrastructure funding and DUI reforms in the Legislature as examples of his policy-making credentials.

“I think he is the kind of person who recognizes that you get way more done by building relationships with people than by just staying in your corner,” said Democratic state Sen. Erin Oban, who considers Armstrong a friend. “I’m hopeful that that’s how he approaches his work in Washington.”

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