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N.D. Senate Majority Leader Bob Stenehjem dies in Alaska SUV accident

In this Jan. 17, 2011 file photo, North Dakota state Sen. Bob Stenehjem, of Bismarck, the GOP majority leader in the North Dakota Senate, sits at his desk on the Senate floor. (AP Photo/Dale Wetzel, File)

BISMARCK - North Dakota Senate Majority Leader Bob Stenehjem was killed in a single-vehicle accident Monday while on a fishing trip in Alaska.

Stenehjem, 59, was near the Alaska community of Homer on the state's south coast. He had been visiting his older brother, John, and his son, Rob, both of whom live in Alaska, said state Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who is Bob Stenehjem's brother.

The sport utility vehicle Bob Stenehjem was riding in went off the road and overturned, said Megan Peters, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Public Safety. Peters said she did not know who was driving the SUV, and said few details of the accident were available late Monday. She said she was unaware of any adverse driving conditions on the road, known locally as the Sterling Highway.

Bonnie Nichols, a spokeswoman for the Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna, Alaska, said Rob Stenehjem, 34, was being treated for a broken right wrist and facial injuries. Rob Stenehjem's son, Daniel, 11, who is Bob Stenehjem's grandson, was treated at the hospital and released, Nichols said.

Another man was in the car, but Wayne Stenehjem did not know his identity or condition.

Wayne Stenehjem said the accident occurred just before 3 p.m. Bismarck time north of Homer, which is more than 120 miles south of Anchorage.

Wayne Stenehjem's voice broke as he spoke of his brother, who was one year older.

"He was a good guy all around and people felt he was honest and his word was his bond. We were really close," he said.

Wayne and Bob Stenehjem were at one time in the state senate while their younger brother, Allan, was in the state House.

"Three brothers," Wayne Stenehjem said. "I think that might be unprecedented in the country."

He remembered how he and Bob pledged to face the public at times like this.

"I always told him if I went first, he had to stand up and speak for the defense," Wayne said with a quiet laugh, explaining that he was returning calls all day from friends and reporters.

State legislators and officials across the state were in shock Monday evening after hearing the news.

Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, said he talked to Stenehjem about a week ago.

"He was so looking forward to this trip and fishing with his son," Holmberg said. "It is just so sad."

Stenehjem, a Republican from Bismarck, was elected to the state Senate in 1992 and became majority leader in 2001. Holmberg said Stenehjem was able to mold "a very diverse caucus" and lead them through five sessions.

"He will be missed," Holmberg said. "He was a hell of a nice guy."

Sen. Tony Grindberg, R-Fargo, said he was in shock and couldn't comprehend what had happened. He and Stenehjem joined the Senate at the same time and were close, he said.

"He had a heart as big as a heart can be," Grindberg said. "He was kind of gruff at times, but he had a big heart and a big passion for taking care of people."

Stenehjem sought and lost the Republican nomination for Public Service Commission in 2008. On his campaign site, Stenehjem described himself as being born and raised in North Dakota and learning the importance of public service at an early age.

"My father, Martin 'Buck' Stenehjem, taught us that public service is a great and noble endeavor," he wrote.

He said his public service career began as a member of the Teenage Republicans, then on to the College Republicans. In 1991, he was elected chairman of the District 32 Republican Party before winning a Senate seat to represent District 30 in Bismarck.

Stenehjem worked as the city of Bismarck's road and streets foreman, and his legislative interests reflected his background. His career included serving as chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, and he was intimately involved in legislative debates about how the state should pay for road construction and upkeep.

Stenehjem was criticized for missing the early days of the 2011 session to attend a bipartisan trade mission to India.

When he returned, he said he didn't tell anyone he would be gone because he "didn't realize this was going to be such a big deal. It's nice to know people miss me."

Stenehjem called this year a "landmark session," citing the passing of major tax relief and infrastructure funding.

Stenehjem was most recently noted for his assistance to House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, who sponsored the legislation that put UND's Fighting Sioux nickname and logo into state law earlier this year, defying the NCAA and a legal settlement between the athletics association and the state Board of Higher Education.

Stenehjem shepherded the bill through the Senate and planned to join Carlson and other state leaders later this month in talks with the NCAA leadership about the law.

Carlson said his thoughts and prayers are with Stenehjem's family.

"It's a terrible loss," he said. "He was a good friend and a great legislator. He was my partner."

Assistant Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider of Grand Forks called Stenehjem's death "heart breaking."

"This is a shocking and tragic loss. The North Dakota Senate is a small group, and Senator Stenehjem was a respected colleague and the kind of person who had friendships which bridge the partisan divide," Schneider said.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple said he and the first lady were saddened to lose a friend and longtime colleague.

"Bob was a great asset to the North Dakota Legislature, and his warmth and friendliness will be sorely missed," Dalrymple said in a statement.

Assistant Senate Majority Leader Randy Christmann of Hazen said North Dakota lost a great leader.

"Bob was always looking out for what he thought was the best interest of the state of North Dakota," he said. "It's just such a shocking thing to think that he's not going to be there to provide that leadership anymore. The contributions that he's made to this state, I think, are immeasurable."

Sen. Judy Lee, R-West Fargo, said Stenehjem was dedicated to helping communities. As Bismarck's roads and streets foreman, he was right there driving truck to help out during Fargo's 1997 flood, she said.

"It demonstrates, I think, his attitude about what's good for one place in North Dakota is good for every place in North Dakota and a challenge for one place is a challenge for all of us," she said.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said he and wife Mikey pray that Stenehjem's family will take comfort in knowing that he served his state well.

"As a public servant, as a citizen, I know Bob's deep love of North Dakota informed every decision he made in the Legislature, and his legacy today is a more vibrant and secure state than it was when he was first elected to represent his district," Hoeven said in a statement.

Stenehjem is survived by his wife, Kathy, and four children. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Herald reporter Stephen Lee, reporter Wendy Reuer of The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Herald.