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Four from co-op family serving as legislators

By Kent Brick

The 2013 North Dakota Legislature is underway. Four legislators serving there bring key electric cooperative credentials to their work. They include:
* Sen. David O’Connell (D-Lansford, District 6), board member, North Central Electric Cooperative;
* Sen. John Warner (D-Ryder, District 4), board member, Verendrye Electric Cooperative;
* Rep. Tracy Boe (D-Mylo, District 9), board member, Northern Plains Electric Cooperative;
* Rep. Kenton Onstad (D-Parshall, District 4), employee, Mountrail-Williams Electric Cooperative.

Kent Brick is editor of North Dakota Living.

  • Sen. O'Connell
  • Sen. Warner
  • Rep. Boe
  • Rep. Onstad
Sen. David O' Connll
Sen. O’Connell
David O’Connell began serving in the N.D. House of Representatives in 1983, and moved to the Senate in 1989. He was elected to the North Central board in 1979. O’Connell says his early years on the board earned him a reputation for effective representation. Political party leaders encouraged him to make a legislative bid. “So, if I would not have been on the rural electric board, I don’t think I’d have been in the Legislature,” O’Connell says.

In this Legislature, O’Connell is monitoring all aspects of state policy pertaining to oil and natural gas extraction. He wants to be an advocate for electric power generation and transmission in this region and the vital role cooperatives play.
O’Connell, a farmer, also wants to continue his efforts to work on a bipartisan basis. This was a priority during his tenure as Senate Minority Leader from 2003-2010.     
O’Connell hopes electric co-op employees will closely monitor legislation that affects them. He also hopes co-op employees will consider running for the Legislature. “Although some might say what they think doesn’t matter — it does matter. One person can make a difference here.”
Sen. John Warner
Sen. Warner
John Warner was elected to the N.D. House in 1996 and to the Senate in 2004. He was elected to the Verendrye board last summer.

Booming oil and natural gas exploration is central among the concerns in his district. “We are right on the edge of oil development so we have huge infrastructure needs,” Warner says. “We’re going to need to completely re-think the way that North Dakota has functioned, and try to get ahead of some things.”

Warner, a farmer, would like the Legislature to be bold in taking a long-range view of the shape the booming state is taking. Warner says he is impressed with how his electric co-op employs this approach. 

“We are trying to plan things 20 years out — about where we’re going to be needing infrastructure and the kinds of loads that we’re going to be serving. I think the Legislature could use the same sort of process we do so well in the electric cooperative movement,” Warner says.

Warner indicates legislators rely on citizens making their voices heard. He sees this in the operation of legislative committees. “It’s very easy to walk into the Capital, walk up to a podium and have your say,” Warner says.

Warner says email has become a major avenue for constituents to communicate with legislators. He says the most effective email messages are short and personal. “Describe how the legislation affects you,” Warner says.    
Sen. Tracy Boe
Rep. Boe
For Tracy Boe, service in the state Legislature began sooner than he thought it would. By 2002, he had a lot of experience serving on local boards, and an area legislative seat opened. “The timing wasn’t exactly what I would have wanted at that point in my life,” Boe says. He had a young family, plus his farm operation, but decided to seize the opportunity and was elected.

As a legislator, Boe has been encouraged to see beyond the borders of his rural district.
“North Dakota, in general, is our concern,” Boe says. “When I first came down to Bismarck as a freshman, they told me I have to quit thinking of myself as District 9; that I have to look at what’s best for the state. My response to that is I will look at everything that’s best for the state from the viewpoint of District 9.

I am their voice,” Boe says.   

Boe became an electric co-op director at the same time he was starting his legislative service. “I was a freshman legislator when I was approached to run for a board position because of a retiring director,” Boe says. He was elected to the Northern Plains’ board in 2003. 

Over his tenure as a co-op director, Boe says investing in system reliability has been a priority. He is pleased with the results. “We’re doing very well compared to national averages,” Boe says.
As a legislator, Boe says citizen involvement is crucial. “If you feel you have something to offer, get involved.
Sen. Kenton Onstad
Rep. Onstad
Kenton Onstad knows both the directors’ and employees’ roles for Mountrail-Williams. In 2000, after six years on the board, Onstad moved into the co-op’s employee ranks, to work in the business development and key accounts areas. It was also in 2000 that Onstad was first elected to the Legislature. He was re-elected last November, and is serving as House Minority Leader this session. 

Onstad says the Legislature’s work on infrastructure for his district and the co-op is critical. “We have to deal with infrastructure in a manner that creates some long-term financial stability for our communities, schools and counties,” Onstad says. He wants the Legislature to address affordable housing, day care, emergency services and law enforcement. “We want families to grow here,” Onstad says.

As an employee, Onstad says he hopes the Legislature will address the protection of rural landowner interests. This involves the majority of Mountrail-Williams’ members. He says state support for emergency services also affects people working for electric co-ops. “In emergency services, a lot of our co-op employees are volunteer firefighters and volunteer ambulance drivers,” Onstad says.

He says he is impressed by how his co-op’s workforce is serving members in the oil boom’s epicenter. “They have all stepped up to the plate to deal with this — it’s basically unprecedented,” Onstad says.

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