Interview with Senator-Elect Heidi Heitkamp

By The NewsHour, The NewsHour - December 20, 2012

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JEFFREY BROWN: And, finally tonight, we continue our conversations with newly elected members of the Senate.

Heidi Heitkamp, a 57-year-old Democrat, will be North Dakota's first elected female senator. She served as attorney general in the 1990s and most recently was a director at a natural gas firm in her state. She defeated Republican Congressman Rick Berg by just under 3,000 votes and replaces retiring Democrat Kent Conrad. She joins us from Fargo.

And, Senator-elect, welcome and congratulations.

SEN.-ELECT HEIDI HEITKAMP, D-N.D.: Thank you so much.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, it looks as though one of the first things you might face in office is what to do in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings. You come from a strong Second Amendment state. You yourself received an A-rating from the NRA, but you spoke the other day of possible changes to our gun laws.

What changes specifically can you support now?

HEIDI HEITKAMP: Well, I think we have to step back from all of this discussion and start really trying to examine what happened in Connecticut and why it happened in Connecticut.

I also am a very staunch proponent of looking at our mental health system in this country and start addressing those concerns as well. During the time that I was attorney general was also the time of Columbine. There were a number of school shootings.

I served as a chair of a committee that we pulled together within the National Association of Attorneys General to begin to discuss what we could change. And so I'm not willing to just throw out one solution against other solutions.

I think we need to understand this culture. I think we need to understand what happened in this specific decision that this young man made to do one of the most horrific things that can be done in America, and how we're going to prevent that in the future.

And so I'm about results, actually things that matter and things that can change the dynamic. And that needs to be everything. We need to talk not only about gun laws and what needs to be examined there, but we also need to look at mental health, school security, community development that will provide some -- hopefully some hope and help with parents with children who are struggling with mental illness.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, but accepting that there can be many things on the table, I still do want to ask you again, though, about the gun control part of it.

I just wonder, from a state like yours, what could constituents accept? There's talk of, of course, a ban on assault weapons, of certain kinds of magazines. How far would you be willing to carry that conversation right now?

HEIDI HEITKAMP: I think people in North Dakota want to make sure that we do everything in the aftermath of this disaster to prevent it from happening again.

Obviously, we're a strong Second Amendment state. We believe -- the interesting thing about North Dakota, we have the highest rate of gun ownership in the country and the lowest rate of gun violence in the country. And so we understand and we appreciate the concerns that people have that we need to begin to address.

But I think all of this talk really is putting the cart before the horse, when we haven't had the discussion about what it is that has created this circumstance. And I spent a lot of years working in law enforcement. And let me tell you, my approach to problems is that you examine what exactly happened before you begin to fashion some kind of solution to prevent it.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was widely thought that your party would have a hard time holding on to Kent Conrad's seat, given the state's conservative tilt. You did it. You did it. In part, you were distancing yourself from the president, certainly over some things like energy and the Keystone pipeline, for example.

Now, a decision on that is -- a new decision on that is supposed to be coming any time now. Do you still think that it should be -- that it should go through?

HEIDI HEITKAMP: I think it should and it will.

I think, once we take a look at what Nebraska's going to decide and what the governor in Nebraska is going to determine will be the appropriate path for the Keystone in Nebraska, I think you will see the last of the legal impediments.

It's not just about Keystone, however. It's about a legitimate and extensive national energy policy that includes every opportunity that we can find. I get asked very often about clean coal. Obviously, North Dakota is a state that's very rich in oil reserves and natural gas reserves, but we are also a coal-based state.

We do a lot of coal generation, electrical generation from coal. The plant that you were talking about wasn't necessarily a natural gas plant that I was on the board of. I was on the board of a facility that takes coal, makes natural gas, and we do something no one else does, which is we compress our CO2. We send it north into Canada, where it's injected into the oil fields up there. And so it's the largest sequestration project in the world, carbon sequestration project.

And so we have demonstrated in North Dakota that we can be responsible with development of these resources. We also are one of the largest producers of wind energy in the country. And so it -- this has to be a mix.

And so where I disagree with the president has really been on how we develop an energy policy that provides for America's energy needs into the future.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you about how you see your role now. Of course, you're coming into a very divisive atmosphere.

We started the program looking at the fiscal cliff negotiations, or lack thereof. How do you see your role? How would you like to position yourself vis-a-vis your own party and the Republican Party?

HEIDI HEITKAMP: I think, when you look at Senator Conrad and what he's done in the past, I'm very much in that vein. In fact, Kent is clearly a mentor for me.

And so I'm looking at something that puts us on the path for fiscal responsibility. We borrow 40 cents of every dollar we spend in this country. We -- interest on the debt is our third largest expenditure, and our debt has exceeded our gross domestic product.

That is unsustainable. And I had to chuckle during that discussion about consumption that you had before this hour, because it's a little like that. You cannot consume your way out of this problem.

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