North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, a former legislator and the state’s longest-serving attorney general, died at age 68, his office announced Friday, just hours after he was taken to a hospital.
Stenehjem died about 6:20 p.m. at a Bismarck hospital, his spokeswoman Liz Brocker said. She said she could not provide additional details, including his cause of death.
Stenehjem’s brother, Allan, told KFYR-TV that Stenehjem had been taken to a hospital Friday morning after a medical call to his home. Allan Stenehjem told KFYR that his brother had been dealing with an ulcer that may have become inflamed, but he later told the Bismarck Tribune that his brother had no known health issues that might have caused his hospitalization, and that his brother’s condition was not related to COVID-19.
Stenehjem spent 24 years in the Legislature before being elected attorney general in 2000, then winning five more times. In that long career, he supported an overhaul of North Dakota’s court system, laws against domestic violence, consumer protection measures and legislation to keep North Dakota’s government meetings and records open to the public.
Gov. Doug Burgum said his fellow Republican “embodied public service” both as a legislator and as the longest-serving attorney general in the state.
“Like so many North Dakotans who treasured his friendship and admired him for his more than four decades of exceptional service to our state, we are absolutely devastated” by Stenehjem’s death, Burgum said in a statement.
Stenehjem had announced last month he would not seek another term. He said he wanted to spend more time traveling and with his family. He echoed concerns from several other retiring politicians about an increase in vitriolic social media criticism of politicians.
Stenehjem told the Tribune at the time that fighting illegal drugs was a top challenge of his tenure. Among his proudest accomplishments, he cited getting a $30 million settlement following a diesel spill in Mandan in 1985, establishing a 24/7 sobriety program for people convicted of subsequent DUIs, establishing the state crime lab and improving the training of state crime bureau agents.
Stenehjem ran for governor in 2016 and was his party’s choice to replace Jack Dalrymple, who didn’t seek a second term. But Burgum, a wealthy former Microsoft executive, bucked party tradition to challenge him and won the primary easily, then went on to win the general election.
The intraparty battle between Burgum and Stenehjem featured a spirited and expensive debate about which candidate was better suited to revive a state economy that was slumping due to depressed oil and crop prices.
Burgum tried to paint Stenehjem as part of an establishment that had done a poor job at managing money and put the state’s future in doubt. Stenehjem argued that North Dakota was well-positioned to handle the downturn in oil and farm prices and the state needed an experienced hand at the helm.
Stenehjem was born in Mohall. He attended high school in Bismarck and graduated from the University of North Dakota and received his law degree from the UND School of Law in 1977.
Survivors include his wife, Beth Bakke Stenehjem, and a son, Andrew. Funeral arrangements were pending at Bismarck Funeral Home.