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Commentary: Heitkamp's has a perfect opportunity to prove her commitment to bipartisanship

columnist Rob Port

I'm not sure Sen. Heidi Heitkamp's office sends a press release out without the word "bipartisanship" included.

That's not surprising for the only Democrat to win a statewide election here since 2008. North Dakota is a Republican state. For Democrats to win here they have to work with Republicans.

But politicians are prone to using words they don't really mean.

Heitkamp has a real opportunity to prove she means what she says.

On the same Friday Congressman Kevin Cramer announced his Senate campaign against Heitkamp, a group of Teamsters canceled a public meeting with him about bipartisan pension legislation.

The Teamsters are, historically, an organization aligned with left-of-center causes. A review of public disclosures of their political spending reveals overwhelming support for Democratic and progressive causes.

Yet Cramer has earned some praise from the Teamsters for his work co-sponsoring the Butch Lewis Act, federal legislation which aims to shore up troubled pensions. In fact, Teamsters boss James P. Hoffa even wrote a letter to Cramer thanking him.

So when the Teamsters abruptly canceled a meeting with Cramer the same day he announced his Senate campaign against Heitkamp, the Congressman was left puzzled.

Cramer told me that Dennis Kooren, a Teamster member whose work on the pension issue earned him an invite to the recent State of the Union address from Heitkamp, emailed him Friday, Feb. 16, and called off the event. Cramer said he spoke with Kooren that weekend.

"Dennis brought up the Senate run," Cramer told me, adding he was "completely confused" about what that had to do with the pension issue and the Butch Lewis Act.

I reached out to Kooren about the event cancellation, and while he denied Heitkamp or anyone working for her urged him to cancel the event, he did suggest it was a political decision. "I'm right in the middle of this," he told me. "I'm doing the best I can to work down the middle. This one here was out of my control."

When I spoke with Shane Block, business agent for the Teamsters Local 638, he said he hoped to reschedule the event with Cramer. But when I pressed on whether or not it would actually happen, all he would tell me was "I hope so."

Let's keep in mind the issue at hand are pensions promised to thousands of North Dakotans, and hundreds of thousands of Americans generally. This is not trivial stuff.

The local Teamsters say the decision to cancel the event with Cramer was not political, and was not at the behest of Sen. Heitkamp or her staff, but the timing reeks of petty partisanship.

Which presents an opportunity for Heitkamp. She should urge the Teamsters to engage with Cramer.

The coming Senate campaign is expected to be one of the most expensive and vigorously contested in state history. Wouldn't it be nice if Heitkamp kicked it off with a genuinely bipartisan gesture?

I reached out to Heitkamp for comment on this matter, but as is typical, neither she nor her staff responded to my inquiry.