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Gem of the Week: Senator Heckaman breaking barriers

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BISMARCK, ND (WDAZ-TV) - This week's Gem is a first for the state of North Dakota.

She grew up on a farm in rural county, educated thousands of students, and is now doing something no other female has done in the Peace Garden State.

Her voice speaks for people from 5 counties in northeastern North Dakota.

Joan Heckaman is not a new face to Bismarck. She's been a state senator for the past decade.

Sen. Joan Heckaman: “I'm still excited about coming every day."

This year, though, the Democrat has a much bigger role. She is senate minority leader.

Sen. Heckaman: “I'm very honored to be doing this.”

No other woman has ever held a leadership role in either chamber in state history.

Sen. Heckaman: “I said, ‘nah, that can't be.’ Then legislative counsel came down with the report. Not a milestone I was looking for or anything that I was expecting.”

The 70-year-old's road to the top did not start in politics. She grew up on the family farm in eastern Eddy County, then went on to teach for nearly 3 decades. It was after her first retirement from teaching in 2004 that the mother of four started thinking about representing her community in Bismarck, when a seat opened up in the House mid-term due to a death.

Sen. Heckaman: “Someone asked me would you be interested in serving your people. I hadn't thought a lot about it.”

Heckaman lost by just 100 votes.

Sen. Heckaman: “That was the end of my political career.”

Not really. In 2006 the long time public servant decided to her goal was to bring her passion to the capital as a state senator.

Sen. Heckaman: “I'm interested in keeping our rural schools viable. I think that's important to our rural families and to the economy of rural areas.”

Serving as minority leader this year is no easy task. Republicans hold a 38-9 edge in the senate. That's near the record low of 5.

Sen. Heckaman: “Your work is not only harder because you have to listen harder, you have to watch, you have to ask, make sure you understand each piece of legislation.”

Though she won't brag about her accomplishment, Senator Heckaman hopes it will encourage not just young women to step up in their communities, but young men as well.

Sen. Heckaman: “A lot of the organizations in my rural area are seeing decrease attendance, decrease membership but I think it's a great opportunity for young people in North Dakota to step and step forward.

Heckaman, who refuses to describe herself as a politician, is up for re-election in 2018. It appears she plans to run again.

Sen. Heckaman: “I can still argue a little bit with everyone and take defeat once in a while, not very often.”

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WDAZ wants to know about the special people, places, and things in your area. Send your ideas to gem@wdaz.com or give us a call at (701) 775-2511 – they will be featured Thursdays at 6 on WDAZ.

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