“North Dakotans aren’t interested in petty political infighting and want a U.S. Senator who works with Republicans and Democrats to find real solutions just as I have done during my time in the Senate,” Senate incumbent Heidi Heitkamp said in a statement responding to the news that three-term House incumbent Kevin Cramer would be challenging her in the 2018 election cycle.
Heitkamp works very hard to promote the idea that she values bipartisanship. On the issue of troubled pensions impacting thousands of North Dakotans, and hundreds of thousands of Americans, Heitkamp has also preached bipartisanship. In announcing a new committee to address this issue, Heitkamp said members of it “will in fact sit down and in a bipartisan way take a look at these pension challenges and come up with recommendations by the end of the year.”
Yet on the day Cramer announced his campaign against Heitkamp, the Democratic Senator’s political allies at the Teamsters abruptly canceled an event to discuss bipartisan pension legislation they had scheduled with Cramer.
I first picked up on the cancellation with Cramer announced his public schedule this week. This is how the event appeared there:
The event is actually kind of a big deal. The Teamsters, traditionally, don’t align themselves with Republicans as you can see from their political financial disclosures. But Cramer’s work on the pension issue has earned praise from the highest level of the organization. Earlier this month Cramer got a letter from Teamsters President James P. Hoffa (yes, of that Hoffa family):
“I would hope that it wouldn’t be partisan or political in any way,” Cramer told me when I contacted him about the cancellation. “It wouldn’t benefit anyone to play politics with it,” he added.
Cramer said Dennis Kooren – a retired UPS driver and Teamster member who was Heitkamp’s guest to the State of the Union address last month due to his work on the pension issue – emailed him on the day he announced his Senate campaign to tell him the event was off. Cramer said he then spoke to Kooren over that weekend.
“Dennis brought up the Senate run,” Cramer told me, adding that he was “completely confused” about what that had to do with the pension issue and the Butch Lewis Act.
I reached out to Kooren about the even cancellation, and while he denied that Heitkamp or anyone working for her urged him to cancel the event, he did suggest that it was a political decision. “I’m right in the middle of this,” he told me. “I’m doing the best I can to work down the middle. This one here was out of my control.”
I also got in touch with Shane Block, the business agent for the Teamsters Local 638. “We were acting as a host,” he told me of the event. He suggested that the event was canceled because turnout would have been low. “They didn’t come together,” he said adding that the decision was made to “cancel until we can get everyone on the same page.”
He also denied that there was pressure to cancel the event from Heitkamp or her staff.
Block initially said he’d like to “set something up in a month or so” with Cramer, but when I asked if that was something sure to happen Block was less certain. “I hope so,” he said.
“Canceling the event wasn’t helpful,” Cramer said of efforts to get other Republicans on board with legislation to fix the pension issue. The legislation in question is the Butch Lewis Act, and the Congressman said it would be difficult to get other Republicans on board with passing it if there’s a perception that groups like the Teamsters are playing politics.
I reached out to Senator Heitkamp’s office for comment on this issue but they didn’t respond, which is the typical response my requests to her office.
Regardless, if Senator Heitkamp really means what she says about bipartisanship, let’s hope she urges her allies at the Teamsters to reschedule their meeting with Cramer. A bipartisan solution to this pension issue shouldn’t be made more difficult by Heitkamp’s electoral ambitions.