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Published November 16, 2010, 08:50 PM

Kelsh, Kaldor Chosen as ND Dem House Leaders

North Dakota House Democrats picked Fullerton Rep. Jerome Kelsh on Tuesday as their new minority leader. Kelsh replaces Merle Boucher, who held the position for 14 years. Boucher ran unsuccessfully this year for North Dakota agriculture commissioner.

By: Associated Press,

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Rep. Jerome Kelsh, a longtime North Dakota state senator who is serving his first House term, was elected as the House's Democratic minority leader on Tuesday, defeating Parshall Rep. Kenton Onstad for the job.

Kelsh, 70, succeeds Rep. Merle Boucher, who was the House Democratic leader for 14 years. Boucher declined to run for another House term in favor of a race for North Dakota agriculture commissioner, which Boucher lost to Republican incumbent Doug Goehring.

Onstad, 57, was Boucher's assistant during the last two sessions of the state Legislature. North Dakota Democrats were pummeled in this month's elections, losing nine Senate seats and 11 House seats. Republicans now hold 69 House seats to Democrats' 25.

"We all know we have to rebuild this party, and that takes a lot of work," Kelsh said. "If we don't work together, we're not going to get it done."

House Democrats also elected Rep. Lee Kaldor, D-Mayville, as Kelsh's assistant. He defeated Grand Forks Rep. Corey Mock, who ran unsuccessfully this fall for secretary of state.

Kaldor served as the assistant to Bismarck Rep. Bill Oban, who was then the Democratic House leader, during the 1993 and 1995 sessions of the Legislature before Kaldor ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1996. He lost to Republican incumbent Ed Schafer.

Kelsh's son, Scot Kelsh, a Democratic state House member from Fargo, was picked without opposition as the House Democratic caucus chairman, a position that involves helping to raise money and provide other assistance to House Democratic candidates. Scot Kelsh succeeds Rep. Joe Kroeber, D-Jamestown, in the position.

Both Kelsh and Onstad stressed the need for North Dakota Democrats to rebuild their grass-roots organizing after what Kelsh described as the "thrashing" that the party's candidates took at the polls.

Kelsh compared the 2010 results to what happened to North Dakota Democrats after Social Security and Medicare were approved. He predicted voters who punished Democrats because of their support for new federal health care legislation would eventually see the merits of the bill.

"I really believe the health care program will be good too," Kelsh said.

A retired farmer and restaurant owner, Jerome Kelsh served in the North Dakota Senate from 1984 through 2002. He declined to run for re-election when a newly drawn redistricting map put Kelsh in the same district as then-Sen. Joel Heitkamp, D-Hankinson.

Democrats were in the majority for eight years of Kelsh's tenure, and he served as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Kelsh worked as the state Democratic Party's executive director and as a field representative in the late 1990s. He was elected to the Dickey County Commission after he left the Senate; he is stepping down as a county commissioner next month.

Kelsh said he called each House Democratic member at least twice during his campaign for the leadership job, and said he was questioned about whether his age and health would allow him to serve. He said a recent physical "checked out fine," and that his House running mate, Rep. Bill Amerman, D-Forman, had complained about Kelsh's pace when the two men campaigned for their House seats in 2008.

"He'd give me heck half the time, that we were working way too hard," Kelsh said.