After a long career in public service, former U.S. Senator from North Dakota Heidi Heitkamp is taking on a new challenge right here in Chicago.
Heitkamp has just succeeded David Axelrod as the director of the University of Chicago's nonpartisan Institute of Politics.
In 2012, Heitkamp was a trailblazer, becoming the first woman to be elected to the U.S. Senate from North Dakota. She previously served as the state’s attorney general from 1992 to 2000 before an unsuccessful bid for governor.
As a Democratic senator from a largely red state, she was known for her ability to work across the political divide — without shying away from taking difficult votes.
That includes voting against expanded background checks for gun owners in 2013 — a move that angered many in her own party. Heitkamp also voted against confirming Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court — a vote that likely cost her any chance of reelection in 2018.
In a recent interview with Axelrod, Heitkamp said that working in a bipartisan way wasn’t hard, “but you have to be willing to defend the votes you’ve taken.”
“You have to be willing to take the controversy that comes with those votes, but you also have to be willing to risk losing,” Heitkamp said. “The problem today is that everybody sees every issue as a potential political liability instead of, ‘How do I vote my conscience and take the heat moving forward.’”
Of her ‘no’ vote on Kavanaugh, Heitkamp had no regrets.
“I turned off the sound and just watched him (Kavanaugh), and I thought I’ve just never seen someone more ill-equipped in temperament to be on the Supreme Court,” Heitkamp said.
With Supreme Court justices potentially serving for 30 or even 40 years, “you’ve got to make the judgement independent of politics as to who should sit on that court,” Heitkamp said. “I don’t regret that vote for a minute, even though it probably cost me an opportunity to come back to the Senate.”
In a statement announcing her appointment to lead the Institute of Politics, University of Chicago President Paul Alivisatos praised Heitkamp’s long career of public service and bridge building.
“Throughout her decades-long career in government, Heidi Heitkamp has distinguished herself as a leading public servant,” Alivisatos said. “She brings to the Institute of Politics her remarkable skill for advancing dialogue among individuals with varied perspectives and positions in institutions and communities. I am pleased to welcome her as its new director.”