Wayne Stenehjem, North Dakota’s longest-serving attorney general, died Friday in Bismarck, according to a statement from his office. He was 68.
Bismarck police responded to a medical call at Stenehjem’s home around 8:27 a.m., and he was then taken to Sanford.
His cause of death has not yet been released.
In December 2021, Stenehjem announced he would not seek re-election for a seventh term as North Dakota Attorney General, an office he first won in the 2000 election and held for the next two decades.
Prior to attorney general, Stenehjem spent 24 years as a member of the North Dakota House and Senate.
He also served as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee from 1995 to 2000.
He said the biggest challenge he faced in his tenure as attorney general was crime, especially illegal drugs. He said he was most proud of establishing the state’s crime lab, overseeing the sobriety ankle bracelet program and getting Bureau of Criminal Investigation agents better equipped and trained, among other accomplishments.
Born in Mohall in 1953, Stenehjem attended Bismarck High School and Bismarck State College. He later graduated from the University of North Dakota and received his law degree from the UND School of Law in 1977.
He was first elected to the North Dakota House in 1976, serving two terms. In 1980, he was elected to the North Dakota Senate, serving until his election as North Dakota Attorney General in 2000.
His brother, Robert Stenehjem, also served in the North Dakota Legislature from 1993 until his death in 2011, rising to North Dakota Senate Majority Leader.
Wayne Stenehjem is survived by his wife, Beth Bakke Stenehjem, and son, Andrew.
Shortly after the announcement of his passing, Gov. Doug Burgum issued the following statement:
“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 the passing of Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem. Wayne embodied public service, both as a dedicated legislator and the longest-serving attorney general in our state’s 133-year history. As the top law enforcement officer in North Dakota for over two decades, Attorney General Stenehjem always put the safety and well-being of our citizens first. North Dakota is a safer place because of his unwavering commitment to law and order, his loyalty to his team members and his utmost respect for our men and women in uniform. State and local governments also are more transparent thanks to his strong enforcement of North Dakota’s sunshine laws.
On a personal level, Wayne was extremely proud of his small-town roots, his ties to UND and time spent practicing law in Grand Forks, and especially his Scandinavian heritage. His dry Norwegian humor was at its sidesplitting best at Norsk Høsfest in Minot during the induction ceremonies for the Scandinavian-American Hall of Fame – an honor he himself received in 2007. Most of all, he was a loving husband and father, often sharing photos of his travels with Beth and beaming with pride as he would carry a plate of her Scotcheroos into a meeting or talk about son Andrew’s military service and latest adventures.
It was an honor and a privilege to serve alongside Wayne on the North Dakota Industrial Commission and state Land Board. No matter how complex or contentious the issue, we all benefited from his incredible intellect, legal expertise and professionalism. He cared deeply about North Dakota and wanted only the best for its citizens. Kathryn and I extend our deepest condolences and prayers to Beth, Andrew and the entire Stenehjem family, his current and former colleagues from the Attorney General’s Office and Legislature, his friends throughout state government and the entire law enforcement community as we grieve this terrible loss.”
He also directed all government agencies to fly the U.S. and North Dakota flags at half-staff until further notice. He encouraged North Dakotans to do the same at their homes and businesses.