Wayne Stenehjem: A North Dakota original, even at 23
As a UND law student and N.D. House candidate, Stenehjem showed the traits that now have inspired a scholarship endowment in his name
For years, UND has organized a bus trip around the state for new faculty members and administrators. And for years, a highlight of the tour took place at the Capitol in Bismarck, where, if Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem was in the building, he’d invite all 30 to 40 participants into his office to chat.
“We’d see him, and he’d wave us over, saying, ‘C’mon in!’” said Fred Wittmann, UND’s director of ceremonies and university events. Afterward, the UND newcomers – academics from across the United States – would exit wide-eyed, dazzled by Stenehjem’s friendliness, hospitality and good humor. “They’d ask, ‘That’s the attorney general?’” Wittmann recalled.
“And I’d say, ‘Welcome to North Dakota!’”
From across the state, tributes to Wayne Stenehjem have poured in, all of them saying he embodied North Dakota in a way that made North Dakotans especially proud. Stenehjem, who died unexpectedly on Jan. 28 at age 68, was “the best North Dakota had to offer,” wrote Forum Communications columnist Rob Port. Mike Jacobs, former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald, wrote that “already, North Dakota feels emptier without him.”
The Grand Forks Herald carried a lovely tribute under the headline, “Grand Forks remembers Wayne Stenehjem as ‘great North Dakotan’ who wanted to ‘greater good for the people’”. The Bismarck Tribune’s editorial called “Stenehjem the definition of public servant.”
And this week, the tributes took practical form, as Stenehjem’s family and friends asked the UND Alumni Association & Foundation to set up a scholarship endowment in Stenehjem’s honor.
Stenehjem was a graduate of both UND and the UND School of Law, and never forgot his roots in Grand Forks, noted DeAnna Carlson Zink, the Association and Foundation’s CEO.
“Wayne was such a good friend to the University of North Dakota,” Carlson Zink said.
“I am so thankful to have known him and to have him as a prime example of what can be accomplished with a UND degree. What a great role model for our students.”
(For more information or to make a gift in Stenehjem’s memory, visit the scholarship fund’s webpage, undalumni.org/wayne.)
Candidate and law student
Moreover, not only did Stenehjem graduate from and retain ties to UND throughout his lifetime, but also he started his statewide political career here – literally, on campus.
In 1976, Stenehjem ran for the North Dakota House as a candidate to represent District 42, the district that includes UND. He was a second-year student in the UND School of Law at the time.
And that’s what this story is about. UND Today visited the Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections at UND’s Chester Fritz Library, to scroll through microfilmed copies of the Grand Forks Herald and the Dakota Student. We wanted to learn more about the 23-year-old, who – though he was new to legislative politics — beat two incumbents, both of them with strong UND ties.
What we found is that the young man was the father of the older man, the one whom North Dakotans came to honor and respect. Because judging by the press accounts and the race’s results, young Stenehjem ran his campaign with hard work, intelligence and good humor, the very traits he continued to show in public service for the next 46 years, as this week’s tributes attest.
The first time Wayne Stenehjem’s name appeared on a front page in a political context may have been April 29, 1976. That’s when the Dakota Student ran a story about the upcoming District 42 contest under the headline, “Sogard, Stenehjem in legislative race.”
In the story, the DS introduces readers to “Wayne Stenehjem, a second-year law student from Bismarck,” who’d just been endorsed by the North Dakota Republican Party for the race. Stenehjem would be on the GOP ticket with incumbent Rep. Art Raymond, the first head of the Department of Indian Studies at UND.
The other incumbent from District 42 was Rep. Ben Gustafson, 73, a retired dean and professor of chemistry at UND. He’d be running for re-election on the Democratic-NPL Party ticket, which he shared with JoAnn McCaffrey, a teacher at Schroeder Junior High.
But don’t count the 23-year-old Stenehjem out just yet, the DS story seemed to suggest. For Stenehjem already had served as state teenage Republican chairman, president of the College Republicans at UND and chairman of the Grand Forks voter survey – clearly no novice to politics, despite his youth.
When the next academic year began in September, Stenehjem – by then a third-year law student – started right away to campaign. In fact – and in a preview of the loyalty and support he’d inspire over the years – he’d already enlisted 80 volunteers, and with his team had started knocking on the district’s doors, the Dakota Student reported on Sept. 16.
The age factor
Dakota Student readers got to know Stenehjem a bit better in October, thanks to an Oct. 21 profile under the headline, “Stenehjem studies law, campaigns.” Here’s the first paragraph, and we can picture Stenehjem delivering the punch line with his trademark hearty laugh:
“How does a third-year law student find time to campaign for district representative? According to Wayne Stenehjem, Republican candidate for the state House in District 42, the trick is to sleep as little as possible.”
Remarkably, Stenehjem in the story uses the same political judo that Ronald Reagan would make famous (against Walter Mondale) in the 1984 presidential race. Asked if his youth would be held against him in the campaign, Stenehjem answered, “My age will be no more a problem for me than Ben Gustafson’s will be for him.”
Incumbent Democrat Gustafson, you’ll recall, was 73. More important, he’d missed 193 roll calls during the previous session – a fact that the Dakota Student cited on Oct. 28, when it endorsed Stenehjem for the race.
“JoAnn McCaffrey and Wayne Stenehjem have emerged as the strongest candidates for the state House race in District 42,” the DS editorialized.
“Both are hard-working, both are progressive and both are running for the first time. Their idealism – even if it stems from political naivete – would enliven the North Dakota Legislature.”
Come Election Day, Stenehjem came in first in District 42 with 3,663 votes. McCaffrey was second with 3,187 – and that meant voters had ousted incumbents Raymond and Gustafson, both of whom polled in the 2,700 to 2,900 range.
Here’s an excerpt from the Herald’s post election-day story, in which Stenehjem shows that he’d be bringing to North Dakota politics not only competitiveness and a solid work ethic, but also a certain grace:
“Stenehjem, 23, said he ‘knocked on just about every door in the district.’ He received 1,227 votes in the student-dominated second precinct of the First Ward, where Gustafson, 73, received only 584 votes.
“’I hate to say it, but I think age was a factor,’ Stenehjem said. ‘But I think very highly of Ben Gustafson.’”
‘A valuable member’
So Mr. Stenehjem went to Bismarck. And he made a big impression, even in those early days.
On Feb. 17, 1977, longtime Williston, N.D., attorney and legislator Dean Winkjer wrote to the Dakota Student, as follows:
“I think Wayne Stenehjem’s constituents should know what a fine job he is doing for them in Bismarck.
“I am chairman of the House Judiciary Committee on which Rep. Stenehjem serves. He is a valuable member of the committee. He is knowledgeable and studies the issues to be considered.
“The landlord-tenant bill which Rep. Stenehjem introduced was heard by the Judiciary Committee, and he did a good job of presenting it.” Not bad, considering that Stenehjem was still a third-year law student, and was only six weeks into his first legislative session at the time.