Heidi Heitkamp sat in a meeting the other day with some surprised insurance lobbyists — they hadn’t expected her to take the appointment. The North Dakota Democrat told them: “How I was raised is, when you’re hired to do a job, you do the job until you’re done doing the job.”
Heitkamp lost her job in November after just one term in the U.S. Senate, falling short in her reelection bid by 11 points. The outcome was no great surprise: Heitkamp is a liberal in a deep-red state that Trump won by 36 points two years ago. But while many of her fellow lame ducks are already packing up their offices, Heitkamp is pressing on. For 14 months, she pushed a final piece of legislation close to her heart, Savanna’s Act, and on Friday it passed unanimously in the Senate. (It is currently being held in the House, where Heitkamp is rallying colleagues to pass it before the end of the year.)
Savanna’s Act is named for Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a 22-year-old member of the Spirit Lake tribe who went missing when she was eight months pregnant in 2017. Her body was found eight days after she vanished, and her neighbor later confessed to murdering LaFontaine-Greywind and cutting the baby out of her womb so she could keep her (the baby was found alive and healthy with the suspect, and now lives with her father, LaFontaine-Greywind’s longtime boyfriend). The grisly crime captivated North Dakota, and so Heitkamp named the bill in her honor. It compels the Justice Department to standardize law enforcement protocols with respect to missing and murdered Native Americans, and to improve the way in which data is collected and shared in these cases.
“You can’t fix a problem you won’t admit you have, or that you can’t demonstrate that you have,” Heitkamp explains. “I can’t tell you the number of people who just shrug their shoulders, in Indian country, and just say, ‘That’s the way it’s always been, that’s the way it is.’ But that’s not the way it has to be. And so that’s why Savanna’s Act requires the major kind of analysis of data.”
“When I introduced this bill last year, I wanted to honor the memory of Savanna and spark a nationwide call to action against the growing crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls,” Heitkamp said in a statement upon the bill’s passing the Senate. “For [far] too long, this crisis in our Native American communities has been unnoticed, ignored, and unreported.”
The legislation brings Heitkamp’s term full-circle. The first bill she introduced in the Senate, in 2013, with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), aimed to create a commission on Native children to study the obstacles they face, including high levels of post-traumatic stress, increased risk of suicide and the lowest high-school graduation rate of any demographic in the country. (President Obama signed it into law in 2016.) That choice of a first move “wasn’t by default, it was by design,” Heitkamp tells Rolling Stone. Over her six years in office, she introduced legislation to protect voting rights in Indian country, bring more federal education funding to Native students, end taxation of tribal-run health programs, and to expand Amber alerts onto Indian reservations The Amber alerts bill was a bipartisan effort, co-sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and signed into law four months before he died.
“If there’s one accomplishment I would say that I’ve had,” Heitkamp says when asked to look back at her term, “it’s been raising awareness and nationalizing these issues that affect Native children, Native women, and Native communities.”
Reflecting on Heitkamp’s work for Native communities, Dave Flute, the tribal chairman of the Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux tribe, says of Savanna’s Law in particular, it “has been phenomenal for a United States senator to not just listen to the tribes… but taking some action, some aggressive action, some assertive action, and using her authority that was invested in her by the people of North Dakota, which includes tribal people, to put forward that legislation.”
“My tribe and the United Tribes of North Dakota lobbied Congress for public safety money, and she was instrumental in helping us secure funding for a new tribal detention facility for the system of the Sioux tribe,” he adds. “She’s been a great leader for us in Indian country.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) calls Heitkamp “obviously the leading voice on helping Native American families.”
“People across the political spectrum wanted to help Heidi manage her efforts because she was always a voice for the voiceless,” she says.
Heitkamp was a solid centrist throughout her term, which earned her fans on both sides of the aisle. Even President Trump remarked in 2017, in her presence, “I’ll tell you what: good woman.” But she had to choose a side in October — and it was her vote against the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court that invited perhaps the harshest spotlight of her long career in public service (she previously served as North Dakota’s tax commissioner from 1986 to 1992, then as state attorney general from 1992 to 2000).
Heitkamp cited not just the testimony of Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, in making her decision, but Kavanaugh’s own “very angry, very nervous” body language and demeanor. Her choice sent her poll numbers plummeting in October, but she doesn’t regret it now.
“Beyond the decision to go to war, it is probably the single most important decision — to confirm a Supreme Court nominee — probably the most significant decision a senator could make,” Heitkamp says. “How will that decision look 30 years from now? I didn’t look back and say, ‘Boy I wish I hadn’t’ or ‘I wish I had voted differently.’ I’ve never had a moment where I thought that. Ever, ever, ever.”
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), who in his role on the senate judiciary committee hammered Kavanaugh for his drinking habits, remembers when, reading the FBI report, Heitkamp shared her decision with their colleagues.
“There must have been 12 of us, maybe 14 of us, down in that SCIF, trading this piece of paper around … We’re reading, and she looks up and says to all of us, ‘I just can’t vote for this person,’” Booker recalls. “To me, it was a Martin Luther moment, where Martin Luther, after pounding his defiant words on a church door … Martin Luther, he writes, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me god.’ I felt that was what I was witnessing.”
The choice earned Heitkamp a special kind of fame. “I do think she’s become a bit of a feminist icon, and I’m going to continue to fan that flame!” says Gillibrand.
What will Heitkamp do with that newfound notoriety? While revealing too much about future plans is an ethics violation for a sitting senator, Heitkamp is willing to share the areas she wants to work in. “The childhood trauma piece as an integral part of the work for Native women and children — I don’t think you can separate ‘em — I hope will be a heavy focus on where I go in the future,” she says. “Cindy McCain is a dear friend of mine, and I suspect that we will continue the work that we started, and continue to advocate not just nationally but globally for victims of human trafficking. That will be a huge focus.”
But her departure also signals the weeding out of an already endangered species: centrists. “I just think this is a grievous loss for Democrats,” says Booker, calling Heitkamp “one of those people who stitches together the gaping wounds that often exist in this place. She brings folks together in a way that is what we need here. It’s just… bad. It’s bad.”
Heitkamp struggles to find a positive spin on the scenario. “The Senate and political ideology should be like a bow tie: people in the middle, who can [offer] security for 20 percent of the opposite party, then it extends out to the extreme right and left,” she says. “Now, political ideology in this country is like a dumbbell. There’s a hard right, and a hard left, and just a really thin bar of people who are the connective tissue between those two groups.”
And, Heitkamp adds, “That thin bar has gotten thinner…The moderates have left the building.”