JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Whither The Measure 6 Coalition?

Word comes this week that the organizing committee for a group of North Dakotans who want to raise North Dakota’s Oil Extraction Tax back to the level it was at before the Legislature cut it in 2015 has decided to postpone its initiated measure campaign. Postpone but not abandon. A wise choice, I’d say.

Although the group already has its petition language approved by the Secretary of State, signature-gathering time is short, and the task becomes even more difficult without the institutional support of organizations that were instrumental in the initial passage of the tax in 1980.

To review: We have an Oil Extraction Tax because of an initiated measure passed by the people of the state by a wide margin nearly 40 years ago. It came during our state’s first short-lived oil boom and was set at 6.5 percent of the price of a barrel of oil, which was added to an existing Oil Production Tax of 5 percent, giving us a total tax on oil of 11.5 percent. One of the highest, if not THE highest in the country.

The measure passed at a time when oil was gushing from the ground in western North Dakota and red ink was gushing from state coffers and agricultural balance sheets after the devastating hard times in agriculture in the 1970s.

The 11.5 percent tax stuck in the craw of the oil industry and Republican politicians for more than 30 years, although Republicans, who generally have governed the state since 1993, enjoyed the fruits of the income from the tax and the budgets it balanced for them.

But finally, in 2015, at the peak of the last oil boom when the state was flush with cash from the oil tax and a humming economy, Republicans mustered the courage to tackle the citizen-initiated tax and cut it from 6.5 percent to 5 percent. It was a devastating miscalculation. Within weeks of the governor signing the bill, oil prices began a death spiral, dropping from more than $60 per barrel to less than $30 (I don’t think there was any relationship between our tax cut and the price of oil, but still … ), and state budgets began bleeding red ink again.

It’s taken until now, more than two years later, for the price of oil to reach above $60 again. That combination of low oil prices and a lower oil tax means legislators have been forced to cut budgets, including some popular programs most North Dakotans like, such as property tax subsidies.

So sponsors of the current proposed initiated measure figured the time was right to go back to the people and ask them to raise the tax back to 6.5 percent. And they’re probably right. But there’s a difference between now and 1980. It’s the players.

Among political observers my age, we speak with reverence and awe of the “Measure 6 Coalition” — and those who organized it. It was probably the most powerful political coalition ever put together in North Dakota. It was the group that passed Measure 6, which created the 6.5 percent Oil Extraction Tax.

It was four organizations, led by four extraordinary men:

  • The North Dakota Farmers Union and its president, Stanley Moore.
  • The North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives and its executive director, Chub Ulmer.
  • The North Dakota Education Association and its executive director, Adrian Dunn.
  • The North Dakota AFL-CIO and its president, Jim Gerl.

Those four organizations probably represented a third of North Dakota’s population. And their members were activists, willing to rally behind their leaders because of the enormous respect for those four men, longtime leaders, giants of their era. I knew each of them personally and treasured any time they would share with me, sitting at their feet, as I was just entering the world of liberal political activism.

The four were brought together by then-Tax Commissioner Byron Dorgan and two of his chief lieutenants, Kent Conrad and Jim Lange. Dorgan, who had led the successful fight in the 1970s for implementation of a severance tax on coal, was the face of the movement. Conrad was the strategist. Lange was the number cruncher who figured out how and where to get the votes to pass it.

Those were halcyon days for populist activism in North Dakota, but they were nearing their end. 1980 was the year of the Reagan landslide. It was a wave election for Republicans, nationwide and in North Dakota. Republicans won every statewide election here but two in 1980, including the governor’s race, which saw the defeat of incumbent Gov. Art Link by Attorney General Allen Olson.

The only two Democrats to survive that election were the two men who went out on the stump and tirelessly, relentlessly, advocated for the passage of Measure 6, the Oil Extraction Tax: Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad. Dorgan was leaving his post to run for the U.S. Congress, a seat vacated by Mark Andrews, who was running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Milton Young. Conrad was running for tax commissioner, to replace Dorgan in that office. Both won by wide margins.

The two were the only Democratic-NPL candidates to campaign on a tax increase in a year when the country was headed inevitably to the right behind Reagan —  the rest of the Democratic-NPL ticket shied away. But Dorgan and Conrad had set the stage earlier, with their successful coal tax effort in the mid-1970s. Dorgan had even held a series of debates around the state with then-Republican House Majority Leader Earl Strinden, the two arguing both sides of a coal severance tax. It was classic North Dakota politics, the kind we don’t see any more. And Conrad was Dorgan’s chief strategist, behind the scenes then.

The pair, Dorgan and Concrad, were classic populists, leading the charge first against Big Coal and then Big Oil — and the people embraced them.

But in the end, it was Gerl, Ulmer, Moore and Dunn, the four coalition leaders, and their members, who swept the new oil tax into state law. And that’s what’s missing today. Those organizations, and their leaders.

To be fair, I can’t say whether the four leaders of those organizations today have the leadership capabilities to undertake such an effort, but what is obvious from the words of today’s organizing committee for the new initiated measure, is they are not yet all on board. Nor is there a Byron Dorgan or a Kent Conrad at the ready to lead them.

In the words of the organizing committee’s leaders, which I received in an e-mail today, “What we lack is endorsement from groups and organizations and their communication channels and infrastructure, all of which we need to get our message out to voters.”

Well. That could not be more clear. So they’ve made a timely, wise decision.

The strategy shifts now to the introduction of a measure in the 2019 Legislature to raise the Oil Extraction Tax back to 6.5 percent — an effort not likely to succeed, given the makeup of the Legislature. That’s what the Measure 6 Coalition understood back in 1980, and why they went directly to the people. Still, a concerted effort in the Legislature could attract a lot of attention and set the stage for an initiated measure in 2020.

But the Measure 6 Coalition does not exist today. A new coalition, with new leaders, must be assembled. Of the four leaders from 1980, only Jim Gerl is still alive. I think he’s approaching 80 and spends much time in Florida. But maybe we could get him back here to consult a bit.

I hope that the organizing committee for this effort can succeed in putting a new-old coalition back together. For in that effort lies success.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Charlie Creek To Belfield — A History Lesson

The last major threat to the visual integrity of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, at least that I can recall — though there have been many skirmishes with the oil industry — was in 1989, when the Western Area Power Administration came really close to putting a huge transmission line along the east boundary of the South Unit of the Park.

I’m reminded of that in the context of the Meridian Energy Group’s horrible idea to put their proposed Davis Oil Refinery in about the same place, along the east edge of the park.

In the 1960s, WAPA, one of four federal power marketing administrations that serves our part of the United States, determined there was going to be a need for more electricity in part of its region in the future, and Basin Electric, headquartered in Bismarck, had surplus power to sell. All that was needed was a way for Basin to get its power into the WAPA system.

They determined that the best way was to build a transmission line — one with those big metal towers — from Basin’s Charlie Creek substation in McKenzie County, near the junction of state Highway 200 and U.S. Highway 85, to tie into an east-west WAPA power line near Belfield, N.D., about 40 miles south. WAPA commenced a federal Environmental Impact Statement process to find the best location for the line and its towers (unlike Meridian, which refuses to even submit to a state site review process) in 1969, and issued a draft EIS.

Some 20 years later, when demand reached the point that WAPA decided it needed the extra power, it commenced a review process with a public comment period and public hearings on the project. The review process focused on two identified corridors for the power line: a western line, called W1-1, which was four miles shorter and a million dollars cheaper than one farther east, called E-4-1R. WAPA recommended using the shortest, cheapest route, W-1-1.

Unfortunately, that route ran beside the eastern boundary of Theodore Roosevelt National Park and would have been visible from most high places in the park. The eastern route ran alongside Highway 85, five miles or so east of the park, and out of sight from the park.

So in the spring of 1988, WAPA published a notice of its intent to build the line next to the park and opened a public comment period. Tracy Potter and I were running the State Tourism Office at the time, and if WAPA could have picked any two people on the planet it did not want in THAT office at THAT time, it would have been the two of us. Our boss, Gov. George Sinner, turned us loose to organize against building the line next to the park.

In advance of the public hearings, which were to be held in Belfield and Grassy Butte, N.D., on July 26-27, 1988, we got on the phone and began rounding up supporters to send letters to WAPA, asking it to move the line east, to the highway, out of sight of the park. We did a pretty good job.

U.S. Sen. Quentin Burdick wrote:

“In recent days, I have received a number of letters from concerned citizens who believe that the route recommended for the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) will have long term negative effects on the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. As well, the North Dakota Tourism Office and the State Highway Department have also expressed opposition to the recommended route.

“It seems clear from the concerns raised by the opponents that WAPA should reconsider the options and seek a more acceptable routing for the line. Granted, the additional $1 million in construction costs must be an item of consideration. However, when viewed in the context, it seems the additional $1 million is not too large a price to pay to protect such a national treasure as Theodore Roosevelt Park.”

How about that! Why don’t we have U. S. senators like that anymore?

And Congressman Byron Dorgan wrote:

“The visual impact (on Theodore Roosevelt National Park) is unacceptable. I hope you will hear the concerns of myself and of many others who are committed to protecting the natural, scenic beauty of the Badlands.”

I know that our newest senator at the time, Kent Conrad, weighed in on this as well, but I can’t find his letter.

Even our boss, Gov. Sinner, and his lieutenant governor, Lloyd Omdahl, sent a jointly signed letter (although I think Tracy probably wrote it for them):

“North Dakotans have jealously guarded the Badlands scenic areas from avoidable intrusions. Consequently the Park today still provides awesome views of natural beauty unmarred by artificial structures. Whether or not future generations will be able to share this beauty will be determined by this generation and the decisions it makes about development in the area. We must proceed cautiously in the consideration of proposals to change the landscape.”

Other letters came from concerned citizens, and the usual suspects — the National Parks Conservation Association, the Sierra Club, the Theodore Roosevelt Nature and History Association and others, many of whom are now involved, 30 years later, in the current fight to move the Davis refinery away from the park.

Tracy led the testimony at the public hearing in Belfield, followed by TRNP’s Chief Ranger Bob Powell, Gary Redmann from the State Highway Department representing then-Commissioner Walt Hjelle, Wally Owen from Medora, who ran the horse concession in the park, and finally, batting cleanup, Medora Mayor and President of the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation Rod Tjaden, who I think was also state chairman of the Greater North Dakota Association, the state’s chamber of commerce, at the time. (Humorous aside: Tjaden, not known for hanging out with the environmental crowd, sent me a note a few months later that said “Dammit, Fuglie, I’m getting mail from the Sierra Club, and it’s YOUR FAULT!”)

After the public hearings, WAPA went into hibernation for about six months, and in early 1989 released its final EIS, with its final recommendation on a route for their transmission line, which concluded with this statement:

“Through public comment, it was determined that visibility of the line from residences, local urban areas and TRNP was of significant importance. In particular, a large number of comments expressed concern for the visibility of the proposed line from TRNP. It was determined that the agency-preferred route would be changed from W1-1, as specified in the DEIS, to E4-1R (the environmentally preferred route).”

A loud cheer could be heard throughout western North Dakota. The system worked. The park was protected.

Well, that’s our history lesson for today. Sadly, history doesn’t often repeat itself. A month or so ago, I sent letters to our current governor, Doug Burgum, and to our congressional delegation, asking them to meet with the Meridian people and ask them to move the proposed refinery away from the park. I got a couple of responses.

This in an e-mail from Jodee Hanson in the governor/s office:

“The Governor respects the public comment period, which is still ongoing, and is staying apprised of the Department of Health’s permitting process being conducted within the boundaries of the law.”

To which I responded:

“Thanks for the note Jodee. Relay to everyone there that the ‘boundaries of the law’ are the minimum standard for action by public officials. There is much more that can, and should, be done. Like a one-on-one between Burgum and Prentice, heart to heart, CEO to CEO. I am inspired by Julie Fedorchak and Connie Triplett seeking a PSC review. The governor could make that happen by putting the hammer down on Prentice: “Y’know, Bill, we’re in this together for the long haul. We’re going to be looking at each other and talking to each other for a long time. Let’s be responsible and see what a PSC site review tells us.”

I also got an e-mail from a staffer for Congressman Kevn Cramer:

“Congressman Cramer has been in contact with both the N.D. Department of Health and EPA ensuring the project meets human health and environmental requirements.”

To which I responded:

“Relay to everyone there that meeting the “human health and environmental requirements” is not enough in this case. There is much more that can, and should, be done. As a former State Tourism director, Kevin understands the impact on our National Park. I’d suggest a one-on-one between the congressman and Meridian CEO Bill Prentice, heart to heart. I am inspired by Julie Fedorchak and Connie Triplett seeking a PSC review. The Congressman could help make that happen by meeting with Prentice:”

I’ve not heard anything from our two senators. I’m going to send them, along with Cramer and Burgum, a copy of this blog post to remind them of what can be done if everyone pulls their own weight.

Maybe. Just maybe …

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Refinery Company To PSC: ‘Screw You’

Of all the sleazy companies to show up in North Dakota’s oil patch in the nearly 10 years since the Bakken Boom began, the sleaziest of them all has to be Meridian Energy, the company proposing to build an oil refinery called the Davis Refinery just three miles from Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  Here’s why I say that.

Normally, when a company wants to build a large energy plant, like a refinery, it applies for a siting permit from the North Dakota Public Service Commission.  Most good companies do that. It’s the law. In the case of oil refineries, if the refinery is going to be capable of processing more than 50,000 barrels of oil per day, they have to obtain a site compatibility permit from the PSC.

Here’s Section 49-22 of the North Dakota Century Code:

“The legislative assembly finds that the construction of energy conversion facilities and transmission facilities affects the environment and the welfare of the citizens of this state. Therefore, it is necessary to ensure that the location, construction, and operation of energy conversion facilities and transmission facilities will produce minimal adverse effects on the environment and upon the welfare of the citizens of this state by providing that no energy conversion facility or transmission facility shall be located, constructed, and operated within this state without a certificate of site compatibility or a route permit acquired pursuant to this chapter. The legislative assembly hereby declares it to be the policy of this state to site energy conversion facilities and to route transmission facilities in an orderly manner compatible with environmental preservation and the efficient use of resources. In accordance with this policy, sites and routes shall be chosen which minimize adverse human and environmental impact while ensuring continuing system reliability and integrity and ensuring that energy needs are met and fulfilled in an orderly and timely fashion.” (My emphasis added.)

Well, that’s reasonable enough, I guess. Take care of the people and their environment while providing the energy we need. The two should be compatible. You’d think that it might also keep a refinery away from the boundary of a national park.

The proposed Meridian refinery is a 55,000-bpd facility. The Davis Refinery stock offering from January 2017 says: “Meridian Energy Group Inc. (“Meridian” or the “Company”) is a closely held South Dakota corporation that will construct and operate the Davis Refinery, a 55,000 barrel per day high conversion crude oil refinery on a 715-acre site in Billings County, near Belfield, North Dakota, in the heart of the Bakken formation.”

In its application for a state water permit, Meridian is requesting enough water — 645 acre feet per year — to supply a refinery processing 55,000 barrels of oil per day.

In its application for an air quality permit from the North Dakota Health Department, the company makes its projections on how much pollution they will be producing based on a 55,000 barrel per day refinery.

Well, OK then, it’s going to build a refinery processing more than 50,000 bpd. So the company has to get a siting permit from the PSC, right? Well, not according to the company’s lawyer, Lawrence Bender (I’m going to stop just short of calling him sleazy, too, but I will say the sleazy company found the right lawyer).

Bender wrote a letter to the PSC in which he says, “Please be advised that at this time, Meridian is designing its refinery to be capable of refining twenty seven thousand five hundred (27,500) barrels per day. Further, at this time, there is no design in existence nor plans to propose a design for more than 27,500 barrels.”

Huh? The company had told two other state agencies and all potential investors that the refinery is going to process 55,000 bpd. Oh, he does go on to say, “Though Meridian does not presently have any designs or plans to propose a Refinery with capacity beyond 27,500 barrels of oil per day, Meridian considers it a possibility that such addition could be made at a later date.”

Good grief. A “possibility?” Somebody better tell those investors looking at the stock prospectus for Meridian Energy that the refinery they’re investing in is only a “possibility.”

The PSC members and their staff ain’t stupid. They took note of that and wrote back, “The Commission has received information that Meridian’s application to the State Water Commission for a Water Appropriation Permit is based on a facility capable of refining 55,000 barrels per day. Further, Meridian’s applications to the North Dakota Department of Health for the construction of a new crude oil refinery are based on a facility with a nominal processing capability of fifty five thousand (55,000) barrels per day.”

The letter went on, “Since Meridian is filing applications with other state agencies for permits based on a facility that can refine up to 55,000 barrels per day of oil, and since an oil refinery of that capacity is jurisdictional to the Commission for siting under North Dakota Century Code chapter 49-22, it appears that the proposed refinery is jurisdictional under the siting law. Please let us know whether Meridian agrees, and if so, when we can expect an application.”

Well, good for Patrick Fahn, director of the PSC’s Public Utilities Division, who wrote that letter. He sent it March 1. It took lawyer Bender about three weeks to respond. He said, basically, “Screw you, PSC.”

Explaining the water permit request, Bender reiterated that Meridian only planned to build a 27,500 bpd, but again said again “it is a possibility” that the plan could expand in the future. And in response to the question on the air quality permit, he said basically, “the Health Department made us do it.” Well, of course, they did. They knew what Meridian was up to. They ain’t stupid either.

Bender then went on to say that under an old attorney general’s opinion, issued in 1976 by then-Attorney General Allen Olson, “applications to different state agencies concerning the same energy conversion facility need not be identical.”  What? That made no sense to me, so I went and read that opinion, and didn’t quite read it that way, but then I’m not a lawyer. I know former Attorney General (and Governor) Olson reads this blog. Maybe he’ll remember. Attorney General’s Opinion 76-130.

Bender’s conclusion: Meridian doesn’t believe those two applications trigger a site compatibility review by the PSC, and it will not seek a certificate of site compatibility. So it plans to just go ahead and start building a refinery, without PSC permission.

So we’ve got a standoff right now.

I’ve talked to two of the three PSC members about this, and they’re mulling it over. They gave it a run, and the company told them to get lost. So until Meridian puts a shovel in the ground, there’s not much the PSC can do. It’s pretty obvious that the reason Meridian doesn’t want to apply for a site compatibility permit  is that it believes the PSC might NOT issue a permit for this location if it applied for one. Well, that seems pretty stupid. Now Meridian has really pissed off the PSC. We’ll see how this plays out.

Meanwhile, Garland Erbele, the state engineer over at the Water Commission, did take some action, announcing he was granting a water permit for only 90 percent of the water Meridian had applied for. His logic: If he only gives Meridian enough water to build a refinery capable of processing 49,999 barrels of oil per day, then Meridian can’t build its 55,000 BPD refinery. There, take that, Meridian!

Cute. Real cute And pure pap. You don’t think Meridian might have a “fudge factor” of 10 percent or so in its request?

And what was Meridian’s reaction to that? Hey, no problem. Here’s a statement from their press release to potential investors: “William Prentice, Meridian CEO, commented on the Allocation Draft Permit, ‘We thank the Water Commission for the thoroughness and fairness of their review. While the recommended allocation is slightly less than we requested, I’m confident that we will employ our resources and determine how to make the Davis Refinery even more efficient, like we’ve done in so many areas thus far.’”

And the company’s engineer, Dan Hedrington, said in the same press release, “The Recommended Decision is the draft permit the Engineer’s Office has been working toward. The document appears very thorough and complete …”

In other words, Thanks, Mr. Erbele. That’ll be just fine.

Really, Erbele’s little stunt is beneath the dignity of a state government agency. That’s playing Meridian’s game. You want to send Meridian a REAL message, Mr. Erbele? Grant them a permit for enough water to process the 27,500 barrels per day.

Meridian says it “might” come back later and decide to expand its refinery capacity to 55,000 bpd, but right now, it’s at 27,500. So give them that much. And tell them if they decide to expand, you “might” give them more water.

There’s precedent for that. Way back in 1974, one of Erbele’s predecessors, Vern Fahy, who worked for Gov. Art Link and Agriculture Commissioner Myron Just (the two elected officials on the State Water Commission), got an application from Michigan Wisconsin Pipeline Co. for water to build a whole bunch of coal gasification plants in western North Dakota. The company requested 68,000 acre feet (Yeah, kind of makes that refinery look like small change, doesn’t it?) and the Water Commission granted them just 17,000 acre feet — a fourth of what they wanted. Wise men, Link and Just. In the end, they didn’t even need that much for the one plant they built — which, by the way, is still in operation today.

Further, they attached a whole list of conditions to the permit. At the time, North Dakota didn’t have much in the way of mined-land reclamation or air pollution laws, so they wrote some, and attached them as conditions to a water permit. Most of those conditions were eventually enacted by the Legislature and became law.

An aside — that water permit and its conditions became the entry point for then Tax Commissioner Byron Dorgan’s involvement in North Dakota environmental matters. Just and Link had Dorgan ask Attorney General Allen Olson if those conditions could stand the test of law. Olson opined that he thought they could, and so they were valid. Credit those four men for leading the way to protecting North Dakota’s environment. We could use four more of them today. Link’s gone, but the other three are still around. Wonder if they’re busy — today’s government leaders could use some advice about what to do with a rogue company like Meridian.

Meanwhile, today’s leaders need to do what those four great leaders did in the 1970s — circle the wagons and sit down and figure out what to do about this sleazy company. Gov. Doug Burgum and Public Service Commission president Julie Fedorchak need to display some leadership here. They need to get all the players in the room — the PSC, the Water Commission, the Health Department, and maybe even the State Securities commissioner (don’t be surprised if THAT office needs to engage at some point) — and figure out how to get this company in line. Surely, Dorgan, Link, Just and Olson would not allow a company such as this to build a refinery three miles from the national park named for our country’s greatest conservation president.

An oil refinery and a national park are not compatible. And we can’t move the national park.  we can move the proposed refinery. That’s why we have Section 49-22.1 of the North Dakota Century Code. Let’s enforce it.

Pretty much everybody would agree that building a refinery in North Dakota is a good idea. Pretty much everybody would agree that three miles from a national park  is the wrong place to build it (except for three people — the Billings County commissioners, who get to collect massive property taxes from it).

There’s going to be lots more to this story. I’ll try to keep you posted.

Meanwhile, there is now a 30-day comment period for people who commented on the application last year to submit more comments. Seems like a goofy law — anybody should be able to comment on action of a governmental body, any time. But then I was one of those who commented last year, so I get to comment again. Here’s my letter.

Garland Erbele, State Engineer

900 East Boulevard

Bismarck, ND 58505-0850

July 13, 2017

Dear Mr. Erbele,

As a follow-up to my earlier 2016 comments on the application of Meridian Energy for a water permit for 645.2 acre feet of water per year (enough to process 550,000 barrels of oil per day) for its proposed Davis Refinery, I want to tell you what I think of your decision to only grant them a permit for 90 percent of the water they requested.

It is pure pap. That’s what I think of your decision. It’s a cute little gambit that’s just as transparent as their request. Government shouldn’t be cute. Government should just stick to the numbers. Here are the numbers:

Meridian says it is going to build a 27,500 barrel per day refinery. In a letter to the PSC, the firm’s attorney states unequivocally, “Please be advised that at this time, Meridian is designing its refinery to be capable of refining twenty seven thousand five hundred (27,500) barrels per day. Further, at this time, there is no design in existence nor plans to propose a design for more than 27,500 barrels.”

So, Mr. Erbele, if that’s their plan “at the present time,” I suggest you give them enough water “at the present time” to operate a refinery capable of processing 27,500 barrels per day. If, as they also say in their letter, they may “sometime in the future” propose an addition to the refinery to process more than the 50,000 barrels per day which would trigger a site review, then they can come back to you “sometime in the future” and ask for more water.

Do you really believe that cutting their request by 10 percent will keep them from achieving the full potential of their proposed 55,000 barrels per day facility? No responsible engineer on their end would cut an estimate that close on a refinery not even completely designed yet. Surely they have built in a “fudge factor” in case their original water use estimates are too low. Just take a look at the press release they sent out to their investors — 90 percent will be just fine, thank you.

We all know the game Meridian is playing with North Dakota state agencies to avoid having to undergo an environmental assessment and plant siting review by the PSC. For a state agency, the North Dakota Water Commission, to join them in their game is beneath the dignity of government regulators.

Respectfully,

Jim Fuglie

MARTIN C. FREDRICKS IV: Four The Record — N.D. Dem-NPL, It’s Time to Stand Up

And, Please, No More “Republican Lite”

Byron Dorgan once got my ass kicked.

That’s not literally true, of course. I can’t remember the name of the kid who actually trounced me in a back alley half a block from Jamestown (N.D.) Junior High when I was in the seventh grade, but it did start with our future senator.

It was 1980. Dorgan was the North Dakota tax commissioner and Democratic-NPL candidate for the U.S. House. My parents were strong Democrats, and Dorgan was their guy. They talked about his campaign around the dinner table, about why they believed he was a good man. He stood for the right things, they said.

A few weeks before the real election, one of the seventh-grade teachers held a faux one. He wrote each open office and the candidates’ names on the blackboard, and we were to cast our ballots.

I stood up before voting began and proclaimed that anyone who didn’t vote for Byron Dorgan was a moron, and I’d meet them in the alley after school.

Dorgan won the votes, that day and a few weeks later.

I lost in a landslide.

Better, not lesser

Shortly after the election of Tom Perez as the chairman of the Democratic Party this past February, progressive commentator John Nichols wrote about “The Battle for the DNC.” To be successful, he said, Democrats …

… must resist the uninspiring lesser-of-two-evils arguments that leave voters wondering if Democrats stand for anything. … Parties win when voters know what they stand for, and when what they stand for isn’t winning for the sake of winning, but a clearly defined set of values.

A couple of weeks earlier, I was speaking to a Dem-NPL activist who has worked on multiple campaigns for the N.D. Legislature and helped several candidates get re-elected. “We don’t even say we’re Democrats,” this person said. “We just talk about how they should be re-elected because of the great job they’ve done.”

A few weeks after Perez’s election, I heard about someone who didn’t want a meeting of Dem-NPLers streamed live because, “Who knows what they’ll use against us,” referring, of course, to the Republican Party.

More recently, people have been saying the Dem-NPL needs to keep its message moderate, that if we’re too progressive, we’ll lose.

Hmmm. Seems to me we’ve already been doing just that for a long while.

Values first

It’s tough to be a Dem in one of the reddest states in the Union. It can be frightening to go on record for fear something will be taken out of context and used in a campaign ad. And admitting to being a progressive in this state? Some would say that’s the political equivalent to taking a razor blade to your own wrists.

I get it. But I’ll never believe in it.

Instead, I believe in the ideas and values I absorbed growing up in a Democratic-NPL home.

Helping people who are less fortunate is a responsibility, just like protecting our children, always telling the truth, caring for family members and admitting mistakes, regardless of the negative consequences.

Everyone deserves the same shot, and if they screw up, a second. Taking care of the planet is crucial, and it starts in our own backyards. Never judge books, or people, by their covers, figuratively or literally.

All people, regardless of gender, should earn the same for doing the same jobs. We should not cede governance over our bodies to anyone. Gay, straight, LGBTQIA  — doesn’t matter. We’re all human beings deserving of empathy and respect, until we do something to lose it.

In my judgment, people who believe in these things have a right, perhaps even a responsibility, to be proud of it.

Stand strong

I say it would be better to lose 1,000 elections, maybe even 10,000, standing up for what we believe in, taking pride in our values and view of how the world should work, than to win even one race by hiding who we really are or making so many concessions our core values are compromised.

If someone beats us up verbally for what we believe, stand strong. If they take us out of context, explain again what we mean and why it matters to our families, friends, neighbors and coworkers.

Own it.

Many Democrats will say we’re already doing this. I’ve seen individuals who are, and I applaud them. But I still see a tendency to downplay in the face of the supermajority, to round off the rough edges so, presumably, Dem-NPLers are more electable.

Dig in

The Dem-NPL lost 17 seats in the Legislature in 2016 and now holds only 22 out of 141. Zero Democrats — the big ol’ goose egg — hold statewide offices.

Boy, oh boy, are we sick of those numbers. Right? But the fact is they’re only a continuation of a years-long trend. We should post them, in huge letters, next to our nightstands so they’re our first sight of every day.

Clearly, we need to change our approach.

In my view, part of that is to stop being “Republican Lite.” We need to offer a more distinct alternative. Be Democrats. Say so loudly, clearly and without flinching from what might come.

Principles and backbone — what the old-timers might have called “sand” — still count for something in North Dakota. We should dig our heels into that sand, find bedrock and stand stronger.

We’ll lose some elections, but we’ll win some, too. And I believe that, over time, as people begin to appreciate our values and the way we stand up for them, we’ll win some more.

The first thing

I got my ass handed to me in 1980. No denyin’ it.

It was stupid to challenge my classmates to fisticuffs over a fake election, and violence never solves anything.

But if you’d asked me, even then, as I picked myself up from the back-alley gravel and wiped blood from nose to sleeve, I’d have said it was worth it.

Still is.

The only place real value can be found is in staying true to yourself.

We need to stand for something. Lots of things, actually. Let’s make sure “Democrat” is the first thing.

TOM DAVIES: The Verdict — Congress Deserves Failing Grade For Work Ethic And Motivation

Why would anyone want to serve in the Congress of the United States in the political climate of today?

Take North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven, for example. Unlike most high-ranking Republicans, he does not have the courage to denounce racism, bigotry, misogyny, sexism and other attributes of his party’s presidential nominee.

Back in the day, anyone who uttered the statements made by Donald J. Trump would have had no chance at gaining any support, save and except for a small radical minority. But then, back in the day, when North Dakota had Sens. Conrad and Dorgan, Hoeven could not have been elected.

At this point, hard-core GOP supporters will stop reading this … and that’s OK, because I’m directing my comments at “thinking individuals,” not them. By the way, I do find many of my GOP friends disagree with me, but unlike some of the rabid people on this planet, they don’t take it personally.

How is it we can pay Congress so much in salary, medical and retirement benefits that far exceed the income of most Americans — while, unlike the public work force, they don’t have to go to work to earn their pay?

Now, before you have a heart attack, I am referring to those like Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio, who campaigned for a year without showing up in the Senate most days and even missing his votes. Contrast his record with that of Sen. Bernie Sanders, who campaigned vigorously while showing up for work to earn his pay.

Congress spent millions on the Benghazi hearings in an attempt to smear Hillary Clinton. Three important things happened:

1. The CIA told both parties that U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, who chaired the panel, lied about and falsified the (classified) information he used to accuse Secretary Clinton of (allegedly) leaking the information and (allegedly) burning a spy in the process.

2. The family of Ambassador Chris Stevens, who was killed in the attack on the embassy in Libya, condemned the GOP for politicizing his death. They placed no blame on Clinton after looking at the total picture of what happened. If they were satisfied, what did Gowdy and company want to do other than assassinate Secretary Clinton’s character?

3. Absolutely nothing was uncovered by the Gowdy committee’s hatchet job. The taxpayers deserve a roughly $14 million refund.

Those D*mn Emails Again

Now that same Congress has grilled FBI Director James Comey — a man with impeccable credentials, a lifelong Republican, with a stature well beyond those who questioned him — about why he did not prosecute Hillary Clinton over the email servers she used while serving as secretary of state.

Time and time again, they tried to impugn his integrity … tried to imply he gave her special treatment … tried to suggest he was part of an FBI cover-up. It blew their minds when the director frankly and consistently answered their questions. He fully justified his actions and those of the FBI staff involved in the investigation.

It caused GOP hair to fall out when Director Comey said the final decision was not to prosecute, one in which he was joined by all those working within his department.

Comey had nothing to lose if he prosecuted. But being a man of character, he did not join in the political assassination attempt. He did his job and explained himself in a most commendable way.

Where else but in this broken Congress could we witness a man with such impeccable credentials be questioned in this manner?

Perhaps there should be a Committee to Investigate Committees. Or, should I say, there should be rules about what is appropriate subject matter for said groups.

Maybe they could instead act on the long list of federal judicial vacancies, as well as the vacancy on the Supreme Court. Maybe they might even work on the budget!

Maybe Congress should enact a rule requiring attendance and working five days a week, like the rest of personkind.

You know, a lot of folks correctly point out that Donald Trump is a lightning rod for bigotry and hate and mistrust. I was one of them initially — for that matter, I still am — but he has a lot of support for that kind of behavior in the Congress of the United States.

The political climate at the federal level — and in many states — is dangerous, to say the least. Hate groups flourish. The KKK is on the rise again. Too many people of color are being murdered — yes, I said murdered — by individuals in law enforcement who have no business in that profession.

We are so fortunate in this area that our law enforcement men and women are well-trained, intelligent and caring. They are truly here to “Preserve and Protect.” (Except in enforcing the fireworks laws …)

We have judges who know what their function is, prosecutors who know their jobs and defense attorneys who truly have no peers. But there are areas of this nation where that simply is not the case.

This election will have consequences far exceeding anything in recent presidential history. The GOP still has a chance to reclaim its roots by introducing an adult to defeat Trump at their convention, and they have many who could. But as long as there are cowards who follow the lead lemming right off the cliff, not only will Hillary Clinton win by huge margins, but the GOP will be lucky if it ever recovers.

When men like GOP presidential wannabe Paul Ryan don’t have the courage to slam Trump into the ground for the horrible things he says, their lack of leadership will surely destroy their party.

Ryan and Hoeven — no guts, no glory! Kasich, Romney … they are alternatives who could give Clinton a fight.

Mark my words: When the GOP endorses Trump, they will have elected Hillary Clinton president of these United States. And if Clinton picks Sen. Elizabeth Warren as a running mate, the GOP will find no one at all within its ranks to compete with that.