Posted 3/29/16 (Tue)
By Cecile Wehrman
“It seems like yesterday,” said Levi Andrist, when the ringing of the afternoon school bell propelled him into The Journal office to visit with his father, Steve and grandpa John.
Though a fourth generation of family ownership of the newspaper was never really in the cards, said Andrist, the example of his forebears’ autonomy and independence as small business owners is beginning to bear fruit in his own life.
Andrist and a partner and mentor, Joel Gilbertson, early this year formed their own government relations law firm -- GA Group, in Bismarck.
It’s a direction Andrist, 31, could not have envisioned when he left his hometown of Crosby after high school graduation in 2003, but one his past experiences seem to have been steering him toward all along.
Andrist credits music and good mentorship as a youngster for providing the foundation for any success he has attained and he sees that thread in others, too.
“Even if you look at my class as a sample pool,” he said, you will see young people who have pursued a variety of education-intensive career paths all over the nation and the world.
All received what Andrist calls a “breadth” of opportunity as small town youths -- from participating in band, scouting, sports, church activities and more.
“It takes people like John Fosland and Brad Johnson and dedicated teachers like Mr. (Bob) Brown to put you in the right mindset to help you follow through,” he said. “Folks like John Fosland just said yes to everything and gave, gave, gave.”
Though the influence of parents and grandparents is paramount, “It’s those other folks community-wide that pushed kids,” that reinforced the formation of character.
A liberal arts view
Though far from a typical path, Andrist finished a degree in music with an eye toward entering law school.
“I kind of have a liberal arts approach to life,” said Andrist, who found his music studies provided a great basis for learning critical thinking skills.
Though Andrist didn’t know of any other music majors heading to law school -- they more typically come out of history, political science or business backgrounds -- he brought with him a unique perspective.
“Learning how to express the message is what lawyers do,” he said, not unlike how musicians express notes in a score.
Even though Andrist served as a Senate page during a possibly unprecedented three legislative sessions while grandpa John was in office, it was a legislative internship during law school that set him on the course of government relations.
“That’s when I got to see the machinery of the legislature and gained an understanding of how the process works,” Andrist said.
Following law school, in 2010, Andrist spent a year clerking for N.D. Supreme Court Justice Gerald VandeWalle, another Divide County native. Andrist said he most cherishes hearing stories from VandeWalle’s 60-plus years inside the Capitol.
Andrist spent the next five years with the Vogel Law Firm, one of the largest homegrown firms in the state. It was Gilbertson who recruited him to work in government relations there.
The decision to open a new firm, Andrist said, made sense both personally and professionally.
On the professional side, working outside of a large farm with many clients reduces the possibility of any conflicts of interest. On the personal side, the move represented a chance for Andrist to have a work life more like his dad’s and grandfather’s.
“They got to create the culture in their company that they wanted to create,” while also having some flexibility in what their work life looked like.
Andrist considers stay-at-home wife, Bethany, an “active partner” in the enterprise, providing moral support and caring for their children, Theodore, 5, and Arthur, 18 months.
Public and community service
Through his work with the GA Group, said Andrist, “We represent, in my mind, some of the premiere organizations in the state and country and try to advance public policy objectives in North Dakota.”
When the legislature is not in session, that means attending interim committee meetings, strategizing with clients over the possible creation of new legislation and assisting with the drafting of administrative rules resulting from new legislation.
During a legislative session the pace intensifies.
“That’s the full time, sucking water from a fire hose” time, often seven days a week, for four straight months or longer.
As Andrist explains it, “You don’t have to be a lawyer to be a lobbyist but you’re an advocate,” either way.
Critical to this work is developing a relationship of trust and integrity, “so when you present information to a policy maker they can take it at face value.”
Andrist also devotes work as chair of the statewide pro bono committee of the state bar association -- a group seeking to create a culture in North Dakota in which more lawyers agree to provide civil counsel to people unable to pay for it.
In his personal life, Andrist keeps an eye toward giving back to his community the way so many adults contributed to his early life in Crosby.
He and Bethany -- former Burning Hills Singers in the Medora Musical -- together lead their church Sunday School music program and they also perform as a family -- little Teddy is already playing the violin -- at nursing homes and other small venues.
“We want to do community service but we want to do it as a family,” said Levi, at least until the children are a little older.