Life after Congress: Ex-Sen. Dorgan now writes thrillers

Ex-Sen. Byron Dorgan’s (D-N.D.) latest novel examines how foreign agents could shut down the U.S. power grid with a simple computer virus.

Gridlock, which will be published Tuesday, follows Blowout and is the second in a two-part series of thrillers following Sheriff Nate Osborne, the North Dakota action hero created by Dorgan and co-author David Hagberg.

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Both books touch on the populist brand of policies Dorgan championed as a member of the Senate for three terms.

In Blowout, Osborne tracked a crew of mercenaries who attacked a top-secret research team in the North Dakota Badlands that was developing a way to produce clean energy from coal. The mercenaries where hired by oil hedge fund managers.

Osborne returns in Gridlock to battle Yuri Makarov, a 

killer-for-hire at the center of a scheme to shut down major U.S. cities by turning off the power grid with a computer virus.

Dorgan got the idea for his sequel from a 2009 Wall Street Journal article that noted spies from Russia, China and other countries were trying to penetrate the U.S. electrical grid to cause disruptions.

“That made me think. David and I talked about it: What if there were a virus that could bring down our power system? What would that would mean to the country?” Dorgan told The Hill.

However, he was quick to add, the book is “not a how-to manual for terrorists.”

Dorgan has plenty of knowledge and experience to bring to the book’s pages.

He worked on technology issues as a member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. He’s also an expert on energy issues.

Dorgan, who began his writing career as a New York Times best-selling author of nonfiction, said he first got published by chance.

“Everybody thinks they have a book in them,” he recalled of his decision to write.

He was on a cruise with family members when he decided it was perfect time to look into it.

“I went to Google, and I downloaded ‘How to write a book proposal,’” he said. “I wrote a book proposal following those instructions.’ I wrote about a 45-page proposal. When I got back, I sent it to an agent in New York, and he liked it. He sent it around to publishers. Five publishers liked it and bid on it, so it was dumb luck.”

That first book, Take this Job and Ship It, was published in 2007.

He turned to fiction when a publisher contacted his William Morris agent to see if Dorgan would be interested in writing a two-part series of thrillers on energy issues.

Dorgan remains close to some of his former Senate colleagues.

He was meeting former Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) shortly after his interview with The Hill and he remains close to longtime friend Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat and  former Senate majority leader.

Dorgan’s wife, Kim, was the maid of honor at the Daschles’ wedding and Linda Daschle was maid of honor at the Dorgans’ wedding.

“You don’t discontinue those friendships,” said Dorgan, who served five terms in the House before moving to the Senate in 1992.

“I was up there 30 years, and I miss going to a vote and seeing all my friends on the floor of the Senate and swapping tall stories. I miss that. That’s a unique kind of fraternity,” he said. “I miss those nights on election night when they declare you a winner, and you’re standing up there in front of the people that supported you.

But he doesn’t miss the travel, which requires members to make the trip from D.C. to their home state nearly every weekend, and the 12 statewide campaigns he ran.

“I traveled on the weekends for 30 years,” he said.

He hasn’t completely left politics, helping freshman Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-S.D.) with her campaign last year. But he doesn’t regret his decision to retire in 2010.

“I was preparing to run for reelection. My wife and I talked about it every day — we would go for a walk, and that’s all we talked about for six months. I finally decided to not run.”

When he announced his retirement, many saw it as a sign he did not think he could win in 2010, a tough year for Democrats running in the wake of the passage of ObamaCare.

But Dorgan, 71, insists he could have won another term.

“At that point, I didn’t have a significant [rival] in the race,” he said, adding, “I think it would be unwise to bet against me.”

He said he thinks he would have defeated then-Republican Gov. John Hoeven, who won the seat.

It would have been close, Dorgan said, “but I think I would have won.”

Hoeven would have been Dorgan’s first significant challenge in years, but the former senator said his decision was more about the time commitment than the race itself.

“It’s a seven-year decision though. Do I run this year and serve six? There comes a time when a seven-year decision locks you into a circumstance, especially when you are in an institution that’s not functioning as well as you hope. I made the decision, and I’ve never had any second thoughts about it.”

He added: “I’ve also seen people who stayed beyond the time they should have stayed. I didn’t want to do that.”

Dorgan echoed a complaint that several other long-serving lawmakers have made: that Congress has become more partisan.

He blamed ideologues for criticizing those lawmakers who try to compromise in order to get legislation passed.

“We now have commentators on radio and television who, every day, are waiting for those who reach out and try to compromise to say ‘they’re not standing by their principles; they’re caving in.’”

That kind of pressure was seen recently in the immigration debate, when Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) took to the Senate floor to defend his decision to join a bipartisan group that crafted legislation approved by the Senate.

“To hear the worry, anxiety and growing anger in the voices of so many people who helped me get elected to the Senate, who I agree with on virtually every other issue, has been a real trial for me,” Rubio said of his conservative critics.

Dorgan no longer has to worry about those kinds of criticism, and he is relishing the freedom he has over his schedule.

“I’m busy doing things that I’ve chosen I wanted to do. These are the things I’ve said yes to.”

One of his biggest passion projects is the Center for Native American Youth that he founded.

“I donated $1 million in unused campaign funds,” he said.

The center focuses on issues affecting Native American youth, with a special emphasis on youth suicide prevention.

“Of all the children left behind in America, the children of the first Americans are right at the top,” he said.