North Dakota’s newest senator, Kevin Cramer, spent an hour in Hettinger Friday at the Peacock Mercantile with about 30 people attending his “Coffee with Cramer” version of a town hall.
By Brad Mosher
The native of Rolla spent more than an hour in the community discussing veterans, virtue, rural health care, Native Americans, the Dakota Access Pipeline, protests, along with the treatment and equality of LGBTQ citizens.
He started with a brief presentation, recalling growing up in Kindred. “I grew up in a town not nearly the size of Hettinger and not nearly as metropolitan as Hettinger.
“This facility (Peacock Mercantile) in any town in the world would be world-class, wouldn’t it? Those of you that live here, I hope you know how special this is,” he added.
In addition, when he closed the coffee, he asked the people of Hettinger to elect virtuous people because it is a reflection on them.
“You want people of virtue to hold the offices. The virtue has to come from you. It is your country. It is your state. It is your community. If we want virtuous leaders, where does that virtue come from. That virtue comes from our faith. Our faith that comes from God and instills in us virtue and will help us be virtuous, if we want to,” he added.
The conversation got started when Tim Obridgewitch asked the new senator about the the problems with pipelines and crossing Indian reservations, specifically asking if there were plans to run a pipeline across the Pine Ridge Reservation.
“After what happened in North Dakota with the Dakota Access Pipeline and the protests, the illegal squatting, the real violence aimed at our law enforcement officers and their families, the National Guard and their families…. I mean it was really quite disgusting to say the least. It is going to be some time before I get over it.
“In response to that experience, there is a silver lining. There is a lot more pipelines to be built. South Dakota is going to get a good chunk of the Keystone XL pipeline. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the Montana judge’s stay on the Keystone XL pipeline…. so it is now under construction again.
“I don’t believe the Keystone goes through Pine Ridge,” he added.
He said that the state of South Dakota recently passed two bills – one was to have more early and deliberative consultation with tribes. That is one of the lessons learned by the Dakota Access Pipeline is that tribes want to be treated as … not only be treated as sovereign nations … but as almost co-equal nations. That is debatable.
“None the less, out of respect and out of common sense…. no problem. I think it was a wise move on South Dakota’s part,” Cramer said. He also noted that a second bill applies hefty criminal penalties to protest that do damage to property – particularly, energy infrastructure.
“I don’t know why that is even controversial. Except, somehow, in the case of pipeline protests and the case of fossil fuel protests we have somehow allowed … society has somehow allowed the First Amendment to creep into … the right to express yourself somehow captures every expression, including violence. Somehow, anything you do to stop that is against the First Amendment,” the senator said.
“Pine Ridge has banned (South Dakota) Gov. (Kristi) Noem from coming there because she signed that bill into law,” he added. The Oglala Sioux Tribal Council announced the ban in early May after the governor of South Dakota signed into law measures to criminalize protest against the Keystone XL pipeline, according to a letter the president of the tribal council sent to the governor.
Obridgewitch followed up with a question about if “fair market value” could be used on the reservations where disputes involved pipeline right-of-ways. “Like they do with us, they condemn it and we can’t stop them…. but can they do that on the reservation?”
“Generally speaking,” the senator answered, “for the commercial projects like an oil pipeline they try not to condemn at all. That is not necessarily a public good. Can they do that? Yes. I suspect they have done a fair bit of that and maybe even through reservations…. I don’t know.
“If Trans-Canada had listened to me 10 years ago, they wouldn’t have put that pipeline where they put it,” he said.
The senator then explained that almost a decade ago (2011), when he was the public service commissioner, he posted a video on Youtube which explained what the pipeline company should have used a different route.
His short video is less than five minutes long and titled “Kevin Cramer on the XL Pipeline.”
In the video, he proposed a different route than the one proposed. His route would have gone through the Bakken and used existing pipeline routes.
Dr. Jerry Siler focused his question to the senator on healthcare in rural areas.
“This community would blow away without health care,” he told the senator. “The federal government is doing everything they can to strangle it with regulations that are totally inappropriate for rural health care.”
The doctor recounted how a former senator and congressman, Mark Andrews, had come with several people from congress to show them what could be done in rural healthcare. “The idea that a rural community could have urban style care is in danger now.”
“I think that the Republican Party is in a lot of danger if you don’t move up and bring something up that can change… and let the democrats hammer away…”
The senator responded that it was very well known that Hettinger had the most urban health care system in rural America. “It really is that spectacular. I mean, you have a MRI machine in Hettinger North Dakota.
“There are 36 critical access hospitals in North Dakota. That is defined as a rural hospital where the distance to next hospital is 40 miles or more and has no more than 25 beds,” the senator said. He also identified some of the rules covering those hospitals that he disagreed with.
“One of the silliest ones is the 36-hour rule. When someone is admitted into Hettinger or another critical access hospital, the attending physician has to certify he won’t be there more than 36 hours and if they are, then they have to medevac to a real hospital,” he said, with air quote hand signals before and after real hospital.
“This is a real hospital. Why would you want to do something like that. In most cases, you are getting as good as or better care here,” he said. “So every year we have to put in a waiver.”
He also cited how bureaucratic health care has become. “There is a code for everything. It is one of those heavily bureaucratic things which hampers doctors and keeps them from really seeing patients while they are doing paperwork.
“How many more hours are spent in front of computer screens than seeing patients,” the senator added. “These regulations have been on steroids since Obamacare,” he said, noting that the current president has been able to roll back a lot of regulations.
For Ted Uecker, the fund development officer for West River Health Services, it was a chance to stress the importance of rural healthcare to the freshman senator from North Dakota.
“I admire Kevin for traveling to all these local communities for these stand up town hall meetings. It is great that he is accessible. In fact, I hear somewhere that he is the most accessible senator in the country. He does more town hall meetings, stand up coffees and shop meetings than anybody else in the country. He’s been on the radio all the time. He has been in Bismarck and Dickinson and all over.
“We are glad he is in Hettinger.”
As much as he liked being able to meet with the senator and ask some questions, Uecker said he thought more could be done by Cramer and the country when it came to veterans and their care.
“I think these people should be able to go wherever they want,” Uecker explained after the meeting ended. “What is happening is that almost all of the veterans feel like they need to go to the veterans hospitals … so their options are going to Sturgis (South Dakota) which is 150 miles away or Fargo, 300 miles away,” he said.
“My answer is that if they live in Hettinger, or Reeder, or Bison or Lemmon, why aren’t they driving five miles or five blocks? I know a lot of local people who are going to Sturgis for a physical or a check up,” Uecker added.
“Why, in our country, if you have served your country, why can’t the federal government have you show that same (veterans) card at West River and get in and be taken care of here,” he added.
According to the senator, there is a union which imposes a lot of problems in the Veterans Administration. “That is not a problem that we have here in North Dakota. In fact, we have a good relation with the VA in North Dakota, which is a long way from here.
Sen. Cramer recalled that early in his time in the U.S. House of Representatives, he responded to a recommendation from his Veterans Advisory Group. “I said lets make every critical care access hospital a VA hospital and have a certification that says this is your VA.
“We have critical access hospitals operating on very thin margins,” he said, hold his thumb and forefinger barely apart. “Can you imagine if you were in Carrington North Dakota what 10 more beds on a regular basis would mean? It would mean the difference between staying open or not. On the other hand, you have these veterans who, instead of driving 200 miles to Fargo, could get the care they need right here.”
The senator also said he had it where Medicare would reimburse the hospitals so the veterans never had to be burdened. In part, the union is trying to sabotage the changes, he said. “By union, I mean the VA people,” he added. “They just see it as a move toward privatization, which they find very offensive.
“This is the political struggle (in the VA). Out here in Normalville, where we all live, this is common sense.”
One person at the meeting with Cramer asked about some of the previous statements the senator has made about members of the LGBTQ community and its impact on people like his son.
“From your prior voting record, I would like to know how you would tell him that he can’t have equal rights because he is bisexual. He loves North Dakota, but he has no reason to come back because of the way you vote.”
The senator responded, asking the father if he could give an example of where his son is not equal. “What right doesn’t he have? I think they have exactly the same rights.
“I appreciate what you are saying, but I am struggling to find a right that he doesn’t have. The equal employment laws and the equal housing laws all cover all of that.
“To be fair, that doesn’t mean they are treated equally everywhere they go. It doesn’t mean that every landlord adheres to them without lawsuits. I don’t want to imply that society has necessarily embraced all of this,” Cramer added.
“To be fair, I am not very interested in your son’s sexuality. But I don’t expect for him to be interested in mine. I don’t like to make a cause where someone is not asking for equal rights but for special recognition. I am sort of a level playing field sort of guy … most conservatives are. Most conservatives are ‘stay out of my business’, not please take my business and make it yours.”
He added that on some of the very personal issues, the laws protect the same people the same way.