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Redistricting drives top Democrat in North Dakota Senate to retire

A redistricting map approved by North Dakota lawmakers last month lands Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman in a new district where no election will be held in 2022, compelling the New Rockford Democrat to retire.

Sen. Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford
Sen. Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford.
File photo / The Forum
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BISMARCK — North Dakota Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman told Forum News Service she will retire from the Legislature when her term ends in 2022 because the redistricting process took a run for reelection "off the table."

A redistricting map approved by lawmakers last month lands the New Rockford Democrat in a district where no election will be held in 2022. Voters in Heckaman's new district elected Fessenden Republican Sen. Jerry Klein last year, and the population of the district didn't change enough through redistricting to trigger another election two years later.

Heckaman, 75, said she would have run for another term next year if she had been allowed, but instead she will retire and move to Dickinson to be closer to family.

The former teacher did not directly accuse a Republican-led redistricting committee of partisan gerrymandering, but she said the panel could have drawn the map in a way that kept her in the same district as the majority of her constituents. She added it's hurtful that it wasn't her voters who decided to end her legislative career.

Sen. Ray Holmberg, a Grand Forks Republican who sat on the redistricting committee, said population losses in the rural center of the state forced mapmakers to remove Heckaman's district from the area and expand nearby districts that lacked the requisite population. As a result, Heckaman became a casualty of the redistricting process, Holmberg said, adding that she's "a great lady" and edging her out was "nothing personal."

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Looking back on her 15-year legislative career, Heckaman said she's most proud of the connections she has made with other lawmakers and her advocacy for rural schools and special education programs.

Praise for Heckaman poured in from her Democratic colleagues, who said she has personified selflessness during her time in public service.

House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, said Heckaman was "an incredible mentor" and her retirement will be a major loss for North Dakota.

Sen. Erin Oba,. a Bismarck Democrat who is also departing from the Legislature , said Heckaman's leadership style is "exactly what one would expect from a lifelong special ed teacher — calm, patient and always building up the strengths in each individual for the success of the whole."

Democratic Party officials noted that it's not the first time a Senate minority leader had been pushed into a precarious position by the redistricting process. In 2011, mapmakers put then-Senate Minority Leader Ryan Taylor, D-Towner, in a district with another incumbent Democratic senator. Taylor eventually opted to run for governor in a race he lost to Republican Jack Dalrymple.

With the impending retirements of Heckaman and Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner , both Democrats and Republicans will need to select new party leaders before the next regular session begins in 2023.

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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