North Dakota gains political spotlight

March 03, 1995|By New York Times News Service

FARGO, N.D. -- Out here on the wind-whipped prairies, North Dakota is accustomed to obscurity. Once, the state was even mistakenly omitted from an atlas of America.

But North Dakota loomed large on the political map yesterday, and its two U.S. senators looked like a pair of Davids who had felled the Goliaths in Washington.

After tantalizing Capitol Hill for days, the senators -- Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan -- voted against the balanced-budget amendment, sealing, at least for now, its defeat.

The outcome was the culmination of a drama that had focused national attention on North Dakota and its senators, one of whom Republicans had hoped would provide the single vote needed )) for passage.

But both said the Republicans' version would leave the Social Security trust fund vulnerable to government "looting," and they stood their ground in the face of enormous pressure. In turn, people in North Dakota stood by their senators. And they relished the sudden prominence of North Dakota and a rare flexing of muscle by the state that ranks 47th in population.

"Nobody pays any attention to our little state," 62-year-old Harvey Greuel said with a satisfied harumph, pausing briefly on his brisk morning walk through the West Acres Mall in Fargo. "Well, they're paying attention now."

Whatever their stands on amending the Constitution, North Dakotans applauded their senators for getting the state's name on network television and radio.

"Hometown Heroes," declared a headline in the Fargo Forum. "The North Dakota Duo," trumpeted the Grand Forks Herald. Even Rush Limbaugh's snarls of disgust with North Dakota seemed to delight people here.

Future elections, of course, will determine the political prudence of the votes cast by Messrs. Conrad and Dorgan -- and by North Dakota's lone member of the House of Representatives, Earl Pomeroy, who voted against the amendment in that chamber last month.

But the evidence is that none of them need fear punishment.

Although national polls show an overwhelming majority of Americans favoring a balanced-budget amendment, North Dakota's demographics and political heritage differ markedly from those of the country as a whole.

This largely Democratic state has never been a place where people snarl about government spending, not with nearly 20 percent of its residents old enough to collect Social Security and one-quarter of them living on farms, which often depend on federal aid.

"These balanced-budget people just want to take away my Social Security check," said Evelyn Sandberg, an 80-year-old retired farmer. "This thing goes through, and they'll start monkey-diddling with Social Security. Oh, sure, they promise they won't touch it. What kind of idiots do they think we are?"

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