Ep. 69 Heidi Heitkamp, U.S. Senator of North Dakota

HEATHER ATWOOD: Welcome to another episode of The MidPod. I'm Heather Atwood with Nicie Panetta. This week we speak with Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. Heitkamp is one of the most moderate Democrats in the U.S. Senate but she is fighting in a Republican state and she's fighting in this new atmosphere a fiercely aggressive partisan politics. We interviewed the senator as she was preparing to address an excited group of students at North Dakota State University. The practical future was on her mind but she also spoke with us about the important work she's done that led to her vote of conscience. Her vote no to confirm Brett Kavanaugh for Supreme Court justice. That vote has been a setback for her campaign and it's made her a reflexive no for many right-to-life supporters. But Heitkamp has worked fiercely for victims of domestic assault, sexual violence, and sex trafficking and for Native American women and children who have been so impacted by these crimes. You'll hear her speak about some of this legislation.

HEATHER: I think a lot of our listeners are among the many women in America who are really touched by your vote and your vote your call to conscience and how how's the reaction felt to you?

HEIDI HEITKAMP: Well I think in North Dakota the issue still is what are we going to do with our soybeans what are we what are we going to do with healthcare. How can we raise our standard of living and how can we afford our colleges her our kids college education. Think there's been so much focus and hype once you get out of the beltway I think people really start focusing on those things that really matter every day in their lives.

HEATHER: So but we've been so impressed by the thoughtful conversations you've had on the agriculture issue with Secretary Vilsack and others. And you know we're seeing the global markets you know kind of meltdown right now. What are your thoughts on what needs to happen next?

HEITKAMP: Well I think obviously I believe that a lot of what we're seeing right now is the disruption that we are experiencing in trade that the norms that we would be pursuing the regular kind of trade relationships that we would be pursuing have deteriorated and now we're in this spot where probably a little bit of an overheated equities market is starting to show the wear. But you know I don't put much stock into that as of as a fundamental in spite of the fact of what the administration's been valuing. I think that we have workforce issues we don't have enough workers in this country. Productivity and economic growth is the product of new entrants into the workforce. And given what we're seeing right now with low unemployment but still even low job growth numbers tells us that we don't have enough workers.

HEATHER: We were just we had lunch at the Hodo lounge today and they have a sign they're hiring literally for every job classification.

HEITKAMP: Yeah then that's all across North Dakota. But we've had very low unemployment for a number of years. And so that's why it's so important we keep these kids from NDSU in North Dakota. And we talk about creating economic opportunities doing the things they like to do I think a lot of times people think well you create a job and that's what people do. But in the new world what you want to do is understand what kind of opportunities young people want and need and then try and grow that opportunity in your state.

HEATHER: How significant an impact do you think this voter ID law is going to have that's being implemented for the general that wasn't in effect in the primary?

HEITKAMP: I think it's tragic more than anything it you know we'll we'll try and figure out how we make sure everybody has a right to vote. But but honestly what I will tell you is the purposeful disenfranchisement of Native American voters to me just takes us back to the 20s. And we're going to do everything that we can to make sure that every Native American person regardless of who they vote for votes in this election.

HEATHER: And you've been having a series of rallies at some of the tribal nations. What have they been like?

HEITKAMP: Oh very very thoughtful. It's interesting you always get lots of important questions. But the the one thing that I think that I have done in Washington D.C. is tried to give a voice to many of the Plains Indian issues that I've seen over my time as an elected official in North Dakota and that includes things like missing and murdered indigenous women. That includes the generational and childhood trauma that includes a lack of health care lack of housing lack of good quality education. And I see growth in tribal leadership. I think we can capitalize on that. But again it goes back to kind of economic development in on the reservations has always been well let's put up a factory and everybody is going to work there well maybe they don't want to do that work. Maybe what we need to do is grow entrepreneurship and business development opportunities and so we're we're excited about that we're excited about moving forward with a lot of great ideas on how we can improve the quality of life in Indian country.

HEATHER: Yeah we were I was just in Iowa I went to a Muscogee nation and there's a guy there who started this red earth running that's like a lifestyle apparel brand associated with indigenous running culture. So things like that, really meaningful.

HEITKAMP: Absolutely. And just incredibly creative culture incredibly thoughtful and spiritual culture and I think when we re-establish those old cultural norms I think we will in fact grow economic opportunity and more sustainable economic opportunity.

HEATHER: Tell us about Savannah's act.

HEITKAMP: Savannah's act is named after a young Native American woman who was brutally murdered here in Fargo. And I don't want to get into all the details but Canada recently with their First Nations went through a project where they started really examining and exploring what why is it that it seems that Native American women in their case first nation women go missing at record numbers or murdered in record numbers and yet we don't see the prosecutions we don't see the searches. And so what we're trying to do is do that in the United States and so Savannah's Act would require that the FBI share more data, require that the FBI keep data but also be accountable to families of missing and murdered indigenous women and Native people not just women.

HEATHER: Are you finding support for it among your colleagues on the Hill?

HEITKAMP: Yeah I mean I think that we've what our challenge has been getting this language past the Department of Justice. We're hopeful that when we get back after the midterms we will have sign off and we'll be able to advance it. We're working very closely with the House to try and keep the language consistent. But I think it could be something that we get done by the end of the year.

HEATHER: I have. If you could tell us very quickly about your amendment to the Communications Decency Act because that's important for all of us too, right?

HEITKAMP: Well it's interesting because SESTA which is the bill that you're talking about I call it the backpage.com bill, lots of pushback within the tech companies. Anytime you you touch the Communications Decency Act and no one that I know of would want to in any way be guilty of of censorship or guilty of infringing on First Amendment rights. But I don't think anyone has a First Amendment right to advertise knowingly advertise minor children for sex. And it's interesting because they say well SESTA which is the short term for our backpage.com bill which amended the Communications Decency Act doesn't doesn't amend the First Amendment. You can't amend the First Amendment. What we did is we said no longer will you be able to hide behind the Communications Decency Act while you are knowingly pursuing the sale of children minors on the internet for sex. Seems pretty simple to me. And we're very proud of it it's in litigation right now we think it will be sustainable. But we were able to get a great bipartisan coalition. You know this whole thing started with the investigation with the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and with a documentary. As you may know called "I am Jane Doe" and you know featured very prominently in that documentary have worked very very closely with Cindy McCain in moving a path forward for again tackling the problems of human trafficking and I do want to point out that one of the main reasons why I got very involved in human trafficking issues was to begin to address what happens in Native American communities.

HEITKAMP: When you look at the risk factors for young women who are in fact sold into that life it usually starts with poverty, usually starts with a history of sexual abuse, runaways and children in foster care are particularly vulnerable. And you know I just heard a number as frightening and it's not my number so I'll just share it with you. We were up in Turtle Mountain and we're visiting with the former tribal chairwoman who told us there are for currently 1400 children in Turtle Mountains who are looking for foster care placements. And so this is a tragedy it's the byproduct and actually it's the it is the greatest victimization of the addiction crisis that we're in in this country are the children and and the grandmas who are trying to take care of them. And what what Twila said and it's it's frightening she said I was talking about how we have relied on grandparents to deal with this she said in many cases the grandparents are also addicted.

HEATHER: We've been traveling the country this whole year and we've seen this everywhere. It is just this was the biggest surprise to us in this country. How just how we're being devastated by this epidemic.

HEITKAMP: There was a when I first started we had a roundtable in at the United Tribes Technical College. Gil Kerlikowske was the drug czar at the time and we were doing you know brought in some elders and tribal leaders. And you know what was supposed to be an hour long meeting he sat through a three hour meeting and I'm so grateful to him he was so respectful to the people who came. And I remember an elder from Mandan Hidatsa Arikara explained how many of the children had in fact that that month been had died as a result of an overdose and she looked up at him and she said Mr. Kerlikowske, you don't understand we're an endangered species. And and those are words that I will always remember and they propel me to even more action. But we have to provide hope and hope is in a job hope is in quality education.

HEITKAMP: Hope is in quality health care. Hope is in reestablishing cultural norms and hope is in working in a respectful government to government relationship honoring sovereignty and treaty rights. And I mean we can get there but we need to recognize this as a problem and I think that very few people in Congress who haven't had kind of my background understand how pervasive and how how significant it is and how important it is that we make this a national issue. It started a campaign on missing and murdered indigenous women not invisible hashtag not invisible. And it's catching on and hopefully we will continue to grow. For anyone who's listening to you if you want to really understand this I would recommend the movie Wind River. Fabulous film it gets a little maybe a little exaggerated at the end but I will tell everyone who is watching it there is no exaggeration in the lack of awareness and attention paid to murdered and missing indigenous women.

HEATHER: We heard that when you were at Turtle Mountain the other day you received a special gift, do you want to tell our listeners about that?

HEITKAMP: Well it's it's it's very significant in the Native American community whether you're Mandan Hidatsa Arikara or whether you're Lakota Dakota or Ojibwe people giving gifts is a very common form. But the gifts always have an incredible significance and meaning and I was given a beautiful rainbow skirt that represents hope and optimism and the rainbows which is those those amazing colors of the sky and then the ribbons representing the four directions which is very common in Native American cultures but also the the four races.

HEATHER: You must have incredible rainbows out here.

HEITKAMP: Oh we do a lot of times double, triple. But you know it's we're always trying to impress upon people that people think of the Badlands as the most beautiful part of our state. But we always try and tell people look, the entire state is amazing. It's beautiful it's wonderful and you know at the end of the day we have a real opportunity to to appreciate not only the cultural beauty of our state but also the physical beauty of our state.

HEATHER: Last question we're having somewhat of a tough time as a nation right now even though a lot of things are going well at local levels and so forth. What's your advice to citizens?

HEITKAMP: Vote. Participate. Unlike other people I think that civil discourse civil conversation and debate will always rule out in the end. I think people think that that shouting louder than the next person being meaner than the next person is the way to change our country. I think that's wrong. I think that we need to have principled dialogue and principled debate and that's what I try and do.

HEATHER: That was Senator Heidi Heitkamp. She sits on the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture and was named ranking member of the subcommittee on rural development and energy. Heitkamp understands farming, trade, and energy policy. We believe she's a kind of moderate thoughtful politician we need in the U.S. Senate. Thanks for listening to another episode of The MidPod. We'll have a more in-depth episode on North Dakota including a hot dish conversation soon. See you next week.

Eunice Panetta