MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Let me take you to the Hart Senate Office Building. This is about a block from the U.S. Capitol. And the hall outside Senator Heidi Heitkamp's office looks all business as usual. Inside, she's packing up. Heitkamp, Democrat of North Dakota, lost her bid for re-election last month to her Republican challenger Kevin Cramer. Now photos and newspaper clippings and plaques that line the walls are coming down.
HEIDI HEITKAMP: You know, when you do this for a lot of years, you end up with a lot of stuff. Like...
HEITKAMP: ...You know, I have a houseful of stuff from when I retired as attorney general. I have a houseful of stuff when I was tax commissioner - lots of campaign memorabilia. So...
KELLY: This morning, I sat down with the senator to talk about her time in the Senate and her impending departure.
Who are you going to miss...
HEITKAMP: Oh, I'm going to miss everybody.
KELLY: ...In Washington? But who?
HEITKAMP: Capitol Police (laughter). They're actually some of my best friends.
KELLY: Just keeping you safe?
HEITKAMP: Well, just, you know, normal people.
HEITKAMP: For me, when you say, who will you miss, there's a lot of people who work here who do really, really good work.
KELLY: Yeah. You're talking staff...
KELLY: ...Who've held you up.
KELLY: And not just her own staff that Heitkamp says she'll miss when she leaves the Senate.
HEITKAMP: There's a lot of people who make the trains run on time here - the people who paint the walls, the people who vacuum the floor, the people who serve you lunch, the people work in the cafeteria. And they get walked by every day, and they shouldn't.
KELLY: Heitkamp is saying goodbye to all these people, in large part because of what is surely the most consequential vote of her career.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Senator Heidi Heitkamp today telling WDAY News she is voting "no" on Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation to the Supreme Court.
KELLY: Do you think that cost you the election?
HEITKAMP: I think that it certainly didn't help (laughter) my re-election. I think that when you run in a state that is as Republican-leaning and as red as North Dakota and your message is that you are willing to work across the aisle and then you take a very, very visible and controversial vote in your state - and the narrative that, you know, you're just going to do whatever a political party tells you to do becomes more solidified. And so it definitely created a headwind I didn't need.
KELLY: You've talked about it in very personal terms, that your mother was sexually assaulted. Would you talk about how she talked about that?
HEITKAMP: You know, not - I mean, what I tell people is it's her story. I didn't intend to say anything about it. I just, in a kind of peak of anger, said it because I think it's important that I be respectful to her legacy and respectful to her memory and soul. You know, what I would say is that I have done a lot of work over the years with sexual assault victims. So when I watched Dr. Ford, I saw the dozens of women that I have worked with who had exactly the same kinds of experiences. You know, I believed her. And I believe her to this day. And I believe she is certain. And I did not believe him.
KELLY: It sounds like you had reached a point where your conscience wouldn't let you vote any way other than you did. But who do you think...
HEITKAMP: I don't even know if it's conscience - my judgment.
KELLY: Your judgment.
HEITKAMP: You know, I tell people - people say, well, you know, 64 percent of people in North Dakota wanted him confirmed. I don't know that I agree with that number. But what I will tell you is I didn't make the decision based on a public opinion poll. You don't have any do-overs in this place, and you're making it for 30 years.
KELLY: And you must've known when you cast the vote how that would play in...
KELLY: ...As you describe it, a very red state, your home state. Did you know it was going to cost you the election?
HEITKAMP: Well, I mean, I knew that it wasn't, as people would say, a smart political vote. But you know, what I said, this is never about politics. It should never be about politics. Wasn't it a smart vote, probably, not to vote for the tax bill? At the end of the day, you have to - in these jobs - and I've done it for a lot of years. And I've won elections, and I've lost elections. And with every loss or every challenge that you have, you develop a new level, I think, of maturity about who you are and what's important.
And to me, I could not live with the decision of saying "yes" to Brett Kavanaugh. I could not, in 20 years, look up and say I voted for a tax bill that exploded the deficit and was irresponsible giveaway to the richest people in this country, me included. And so there's a lot of these votes that you take almost daily if you're in my situation where you are a Democrat representing a red state. And you have to decide, you know, what your job is. And is your job to get re-elected, or is your job to try and move the country forward and govern?
KELLY: I want to ask about the Senate.
KELLY: A lot of women coming in in this next class...
HEITKAMP: Yeah, it's incredible.
KELLY: ...Particularly in the House.
HEITKAMP: Young women - and I think that's an important point.
KELLY: Why? How's it going to change?
HEITKAMP: Because they come with a different set of issues - you know, when I started out in this business and we talked about women in politics, typically, how women got in is they raised their family. You know, it was almost you had to be a grandma before you ever got involved in politics. And I would tell the story about when I ran for governor in 2000. John Hoeven was my opponent. And people would say, how old are your kids? And just say 10 and 14. Or they would say, how old are your kids? - meaning this is not something you should be doing - to which I would respond, they're the same age as John Hoeven's.
And you know, people almost physically would back away from me. And I think that that was a real telling message for them. I think each one of these women who are coming and each one of these people who are coming are coming with a different life experience that doesn't look like it looked 20 years ago.
KELLY: We were in Senator Duckworth's office not so long ago, which, as you'll know, has the changing table and...
KELLY: ...The Diaper Genie and everything for her two very small children right there.
KELLY: You think we'll see more of that?
HEITKAMP: You know, I hope so. I think that the more people come with diverse experiences here, the better attention to real-life problems. You know, I used to say about the North Dakota legislature - you know, when it was 70-, 80-year-old guys, I mean, they weren't thinking much about day care. They weren't thinking much about kindergarten. You know, that's not their life experience. And so I think that this diversity of life experience is going to be really, really valuable for the Congress.
KELLY: And you, are you done with politics?
HEITKAMP: You know, I think I'm done with electoral politics (laughter). I've been at this a long time. This was my seventh statewide race.
KELLY: Is it the campaign part of the process...
HEITKAMP: I've never liked - I mean...
KELLY: ...You don't want to go through again?
HEITKAMP: I like the getting out and visiting and meeting people. And if you could just wipe out all of the day-to-day back-and-forth that makes people weary and disrespectful and distrustful of politicians, that's got to end. And so you know, I started out this business at the age of 28. I got into a Ford Fiesta, and I went to every little coffee shop all across North Dakota. If you could run a campaign like that and win, I'm all in. But it has gotten ugly and mean and unproductive. And you see it in how the American public responds to politicians. And so the sooner we can get back to respecting each other so the public can respect us, the quicker we're going to see a turnaround in how the public perceives their elected officials.
KELLY: Senator, thank you.
HEITKAMP: You bet.
KELLY: Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. Elsewhere on the show, we'll ask her about tariffs and her complicated relationship with President Trump.
(SOUNDBITE OF STACEY KENT SONG, "NEVER LET ME GO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.