Uncommon Interview: Incoming IOP Director and Former Senator Heidi Heitkamp

Former North Dakota senator Heidi Heitkamp discussed lessons from her political career, her perspective on UChicago, and her vision for the IOP as its incoming director.


S. Christopher Gillett

Heidi Heitkamp will begin her tenure as IOP director on January 3, 2023.

By Eric Fang and Michael McClure

On January 3, 2013, Heidi Heitkamp made history by becoming the first elected female senator from North Dakota to take office. Exactly 10 years later, Heitkamp will achieve another milestone: She will become the second-ever director of the University of Chicago Institute of Politics (IOP), succeeding founder David Axelrod, who announced he was stepping down as director of the IOP on February 15, 2022.

“I’m not intimidated. In fact, I’m grateful for David’s involvement and for the opportunity to lead this institute to the next chapter,” Heitkamp tells The Maroon in an exclusive interview on Tuesday, October 11, the day she was announced as Axelrod’s successor.

Growing up, Heitkamp envisioned a much different career path—one that would have kept her out of the political limelight.

“I always thought that I would be the person who ran campaigns for other candidates, not the candidate,” Heitkamp says. “I was convinced to run for office by then–tax commissioner, now former senator Kent Conrad, who is still my mentor. So at the age of 28, I ran for statewide office. I ran for state auditor, and that really began my lifelong engagement in elected politics.”

Heitkamp, running as a member of the North Dakota Democratic–Nonpartisan League Party, lost to Robert Peterson, a Republican incumbent. But two years later, on his accession from tax commissioner to the Senate, Conrad chose Heitkamp as his replacement. She served in the post until 1992, when she ran for attorney general and won.

In 2012, as Conrad planned to vacate his Senate seat, Heitkamp ran to replace her mentor for the second time and won the election by less than 1 percent of the vote. She served as senator alongside John Hoeven, to whom she had lost the 2000 North Dakota gubernatorial election.

Representing the Democratic Party, Heitkamp was known for developing health-care and economic policies that appealed to both North Dakotans, many of whom leaned to the right, and Democrats nationwide. Heitkamp’s positions on energy and the environment, such as her support for the Keystone XL pipeline, even led Donald Trump to consider her for Secretary of Agriculture in 2016. Though she was not chosen for that role, she broke with the Democratic caucus on several occasions to vote in favor of Trump nominees for federal cabinet positions.

After losing her re-election bid to Kevin Cramer in 2018, Heitkamp founded the One Country Project, which aims to help Democrats connect more effectively with rural voters. She also became a contributor for CNBC and ABC and a visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics.

“If you looked at my history, [my career] really started out with grassroots organizing, mainly around environmental and women’s issues,” Heitkamp says, “but I saw that none of those issues have permanency unless you really engage politically as well. It’s not enough to be engaged on issues. In America, you’ve got to be willing to help people get elected who can adapt or write the narrative.”

Her mission of engaging people, not just debating ideas, is central to her political approach. In her new post as director of the IOP, Heitkamp will oversee the IOP’s programming and institutional vision while interacting with national political figures and students eager to learn from them.

In winter 2021, Heitkamp was a Pritzker Fellow at the IOP, where she held a seminar series titled “Forming a More Perfect Union: Policies & Politics to Heal America’s Regional Divide.” She was also a member of the IOP’s senior advisory board. That involvement, Heitkamp says, gave her a unique tie to the IOP and a greater appreciation of its work.

“I don’t take anything away from the other institutions that I participated in. I thought that this one was the most practical, hands-on kind of voting experience that students could have. Plus, I just marveled at the quality of the students who were part of the IOP and their sophistication in terms of what they know,” Heitkamp says.

“I helped David brainstorm some future potential IOP directors and had a lot of conversations about that. Eventually, he just decided that I was the right person. So after a lot of discussion about where I am in my personal life, I said yes.”

Heitkamp’s tenure as director will begin January 3, 2023, but her connection to UChicago goes back nearly two decades. Her daughter, technology policy analyst Alethea Lange, graduated from the College in 2008, and Heitkamp calls herself a “big fan” of the institution. UChicago’s reputation for critical inquiry, she says, makes it the perfect place for the IOP, which is focused on building the next generation of political leaders.

“My husband and I spend a lot of time on campus, spend a lot of time marveling at the quality of education that [Lange] received. I am very grateful for the kind of critical-thinking skills that she expanded and enhanced at the University of Chicago,” Heitkamp says.

“Sometimes the University of Chicago underestimates its national reputation. It clearly has a national reputation for engagement, for critical thinking, for free expression, which I think is absolutely critical.… I think that in the [IOP] programs that I’ve seen, student engagement has been high, but I think in terms of practical leadership, there’s probably a broader openness to student leadership in Chicago.”

Having served on the IOP’s senior advisory board, Heitkamp understands the value of the institute’s various offerings, from the speaker series to student internships. At the same time, the variety in student backgrounds at UChicago especially appeals to Heitkamp, who grew up in the tiny North Dakotan town of Mantador—a starkly different upbringing from her primarily urbanite peers.

“Of the top institutions in the country, you probably have the most diverse incoming freshman group. They are committed to not just recruiting out of the big schools and prep schools but looking at communities like the one I grew up in and finding those people who will go back to their rural community, go back to a much smaller place, and provide leadership.

“It was particularly important to me that I’d be affiliated with a great academic institution that really demonstrates, through its admission policy and its work, that they believe that diversity is critically important.”

The IOP, a nonprofit, relies on funding from a variety of donors, including the administration, to sustain itself. While securing that money remains a core challenge for the “viability and sustainability” of the IOP, Heitkamp admits it’s in “damn good shape right now” as Axelrod concludes his tenure.

“David started this thing from whole cloth, using his personal connections to raise money. It’s amazing what he has done in 10 years. He got it to probably its adolescence, which I’m grateful for because no one wants to raise adolescents! But now we’re in that spot where we really are in an era of maturity.”

Part of that maturity is taking the IOP’s message and mission beyond the space it currently occupies on campus.

“I hope the IOP can be a bridge to the broader Chicago community,” Heitkamp says. “Having an institute that is located in Chicago presents an incredible learning opportunity for students to expand their understanding of what’s happening, certainly in urban communities today, and to brainstorm with the community and work with the community to address some of the issues that we see in the South Chicago area.”

As a Pritzker fellow, Heitkamp met neuroscience major Adam Zabner (A.B. ’21), who was interning with One Country Project at the time. He has since won the Democratic primary for District 90 in Iowa’s House of Representatives, which covers the southeastern part of Davenport at the Quad Cities region on the Illinois-Iowa border. With a platform focused on health-care reform and slowing the drain of young Iowans to bigger cities in other states, the unopposed Zabner is set to ascend to the seat after the general election on November 8.

Zabner’s story, Heitkamp says, exemplifies how UChicago students can tackle political campaigns or electoral politics no matter their academic and personal backgrounds.

“He brought so much wisdom from the work that he did on previous campaigns to the campus,” Heitkamp says of Zabner. “I could go through all the students who now are engaged politically, not just on [political] issues. So the politics is part of it, and we can never forget that. This is the Chicago Institute of Politics. That was practical experience on polling, on messaging, on developing skills so that no matter what political party you’re part of, no matter what kind of policy issues you’re taking on, we’re helping develop and hone those skills.”

For Heitkamp, the IOP’s mission doesn’t end at learning from the experts of today. Heitkamp believes the organization has a mandate to foster collaboration between the “future leaders” on campus—even those students not interested in politics.

“My sincere wish is that we see a collaboration across ideology of future leaders, whether they’re conservative or liberal or libertarian or green—whatever stripe they identify with. That we see an opportunity to gather people together and have civil discourse on the problems of today,” Heitkamp says.

“I would imagine [myself] meeting and visiting with a lot of student groups, who may have not always engaged with the IOP, invite them in, find out what those students would find most helpful as they develop their careers going forward. The one thing that I will tell you—and I say this to any student—I always say, ‘Well, you don’t like politics. I get it. But none of you will have a job where public policy is not critically important to that job. Whether it’s in healthcare, whether it’s in finance, you got to understand politics, and you’ve got to understand policy.’

“I have a young woman who’s getting a Ph.D. in biochemistry who wants to talk about sustainability of biofuels. You already have it in the University. You have people who are looking at careers, whether it’s in hard sciences or in education, but they’re also understanding, as they come to this programming, the value of learning about and engaging with the political community.”

In addition to training future leaders, Heitkamp also considers the IOP an essential breeding ground for solutions to future political issues—the exact challenges that aspiring politicians from UChicago will have to tackle once they leave the IOP behind.

“I have a thing that I used to do with my staff in the Senate. They would come in with a list of issues of the day, and I’d say, ‘Yeah, those are important, and we’ll get to them, but look up. What’s on the horizon that will challenge us moving forward?’…It has always been a continuation of, ‘Let’s not just solve today’s problems. Let’s prepare ourselves to solve problems that you’re going to confront 10 years from now [with which] we can proceed today.’ I can imagine and envision dialogue on a lot of those systemic issues that I think will confront and do confront this country,” Heitkamp says.

“What I hope—and I think that the administration shares this—is that the IOP in Chicago can be a place where every idea is embraced in dialogue and discussed. That we don’t just, as I call it, chase the bright, shiny object. That we really look strategically about the problem for the future and how we can provide additional input on those problems, maybe beyond just the campus.

“What I hope is that, at the end of the day, everybody on campus said, ‘There was something at the IOP for me, there was a way that I could express my opinion, there was a place where I could learn what I needed to know, to become a better future leader.’”

Such intellectual discovery represents one of the most joyful parts of the IOP for Heitkamp. Another, she says, is the community that the IOP’s atmosphere can cultivate, encouraging staff and students to become the most successful and satisfied versions of themselves.

“To me, in every job I’ve ever had, the fundamental beginning is, ‘Who is the team and how can I be helpful and help these enormously talented people be successful in what they do every day?’ Because if you build that right, if you provide a lot of opportunity for leadership with good people, you’re going to get great results. The first short-term goal is getting to meet people on the campus,” Heitkamp says.

“One of the most important things that you can do as a leader is make the workplace fun, make the workplace a community. They don’t have to be a family. I’m not big into the workplace replacing your family, but it has to be a place where you come every day with a level of excitement, and that doesn’t happen if it’s serious and boring all the time. We’re hoping we can have a lot of fun at the IOP.”