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Evolving careers: Former North Dakota delegation keep ties to state but remain busy with projects in nation's capital

Former North Dakota Congressman Earl Pomeroy, left, and former Sens. Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad remain active in Washington D.C. even after their public service careers ended. Logan Werlinger / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — Nearly a decade removed from Congress, former North Dakota Democratic Rep. Earl Pomeroy is eyeing a more permanent return to his home state — eventually.

Pomeroy and his wife, Mary, split time between the Washington, D.C., area, where he works at a law firm focusing on "public policy advocacy," and North Dakota. The two have a home near family in Grand Forks, where Mary still fills in as a substitute teacher.

First elected to Congress in 1992 before losing his re-election bid in 2010, Pomeroy didn't originally think he'd still be in the nation's capital after all these years. He said he's "a few years" from retiring but plans to move back to North Dakota once that happens.

"Careers kind of evolve in ways that you don't always anticipate," he said in a recent interview. "In the end, when I'm looking at what I want to do after Congress, I want to keep working in ... something I found endlessly interesting."

Pomeroy's congressional career is naturally linked with those of fellow Democrats Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad, both longtime senators who left office in 2010 and 2012, respectively. Since leaving Congress, each has kept busy with various projects and posts outside of North Dakota.

Pomeroy, who works at the firm Alston & Bird and serves as a volunteer director on two nonprofit boards, was recently back in North Dakota raising alarms over Trump administration actions that he said fit a pattern of Republican efforts to undermine the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. He said his vote in favor of the health care law ultimately doomed his political career, which ended with his defeat to Republican Rick Berg.

But Pomeroy, a former state insurance commissioner, said he doesn't regret his vote because thousands of North Dakotans who gained coverage through the law.

"Being in Congress ought to be about what you're attempting to achieve, not whether or not you can win re-election," he said.

All three Democrats, perhaps not surprisingly, sounded optimistic about Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp's chances for re-election against Republican Kevin Cramer this fall as Democrats cling tightly to their only statewide elected office. And they lamented the current state of affairs under GOP control of Congress and the White House.

"I'm watching stuff on the TV news that I never thought I'd see," Pomeroy said, pointing specifically to President Donald Trump's press conference in which he appeared to side with Russia's president over his own country's intelligence agencies.

Like Pomeroy, Conrad and Dorgan have done at least some lobbying in the years after they left Capitol Hill, a common move for former members of Congress. But Conrad said he turned down "literally dozens" of lobbying gigs that would have padded his wallet after leaving elected office.

"So many of them, I just didn't believe in," he said.

After serving as the state's tax commissioner, Conrad was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1986 before opting against running for re-election in 2012. Heitkamp won his seat in a tight race that year over Berg.

Conrad holds a post at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank where Dorgan is also a senior fellow. Conrad plans to leave the board of Genworth, an insurance company that provides coverage for long-term care, once its sale to a Chinese company is complete. He also advises a California health care company and does some public speaking.

Conrad and his wife, Lucy, call Sarasota, Fla., their main residence. He still owns an apartment building in Bismarck next to one Dorgan owns, he said, and he gets back here to see family and friends.

"I have such strong ties to North Dakota," he said. "I'm sure as we jettison some of these other responsibilities, we'll spend more time there."

Dorgan, who decided not to run for another term two years before Conrad left the Senate, is involved in a wide variety of projects. He's working on a fifth book — he kept many details under wraps — while serving on boards of several companies, teaching at Georgetown University and working part-time as a "senior policy advisor" at Arent Fox, a D.C. law and lobbying firm.

Although Dorgan said he doesn't retain a residence in the state and finds himself here only on an "episodic" basis, he said North Dakota has "always been my home." He was elected as state tax commissioner before his time in Congress.

"When I decided to leave the Senate and not seek re-election, I began doing a number of things I wanted to do," he said. "Those things, geographically, are spread across a lot of area."

Despite their tight schedules, the three said they still spend time together — Conrad pointed to dinners, baseball games and a Beach Boys concert.

Conrad attributed that tight relationship to the team approach they took in Congress on issues ranging from flood and drought relief to farm bill negotiations.

"It's very unusual for colleagues, even those of the same party, to have as close a bond as we have," he said.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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