JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — The Race For An Open Seat In Congress

North Dakota’s Democrats will hold their state convention in Grand Forks later this week, and the highlight, if there’s to be one, will be choosing a candidate to run for North Dakota’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. So I’ve been thinking a bit about politics and conventions, especially past ones, similar to what we might see this week.

I’m remembering the 1992 North Dakota Democratic-NPL State Convention, which was held at the Bismarck Civic Center. I was helping out with one of the campaigns, so I was at the Civic Center the day before the convention started when word spread like wildfire across the convention floor: Sen. Kent Conrad announced he was not seeking re-election to a second term.

Kent had been elected to the Senate six years earlier in a stunning upset over Mark Andrews. During that campaign, he pledged that he would not stand for re-election if the federal budget deficit had not fallen substantially by the end of his term (a promise that made a lot of us cringe). By 1992, it became obvious that this would not be the case, and although polls showed that the electorate would have welcomed his reneging on that pledge, Conrad considered his promise binding, and said he would not run for re-election.

Kent’s announcement set in motion a chain of events I want to talk about today. But first, let’s go back a little further.

In 1980, Republicans creamed the Democrats. It was the year of the Reagan landslide, and North Dakota was not unlike most states around the country that generally tilt a little Republican. Republicans made big gains in state capitols and legislative chambers. That reduced the ranks of Democrats in both the North Dakota House and Senate — Republicans led 73-27 in the House and 40-10 in the Senate. But there were a couple of surprise winners in the House races — Democrats Earl Pomeroy of Valley City and Bill Heigaard of Langdon.

By the end of the 1983 legislative session (during which I worked for the Democratic-NPL House and Senate caucuses), Minority Leader Dick Backes told me “You watch that Heigaard and Pomeroy — they’re going to be stars.” Backes was right.

In the 1982 election, Heigaard moved over to the Senate, where he eventually became Senate majority leader for four sessions and got his party’s nomination for governor in 1992, only to lose in the primary to Nick Spaeth.

Pomeroy was re-elected in 1982, but in 1984, he ran successfully for North Dakota insurance commissioner, and he was re-elected in 1988.

Which brings us back to 1992. Earlier that year, Pomeroy announced that he was not going to seek re-election. He and his wife were going to join the Peace Corps. They’d be leaving North Dakota at the end of his term, in January 1993. His brother, Glenn, had announced he would seek the job and was about to be endorsed at the state convention.

When the news of Kent’s decision hit the convention floor we all said, “Well, then Byron has to run for the Senate.” Yep.

Byron Dorgan, Kent’s protégé, had been in the U.S. House of Representatives since his election in 1980. He had declined to challenge Andrews in 1986, so Kent ran and was elected. So on that April 1992 morning, Byron wasted no time announcing he would seek Kent’s seat. That left an open seat for the state’s lone congressman’s job.

All eyes turned to Fargo’s John Schneider. Schneider was the Democrats’ floor leader in the North Dakota House of Representatives, widely recognized for his speaking and leadership skills, and was the next star of the Democratic-NPL Party. Earl Pomeroy had announced he was quitting politics, and Heigaard was running for governor, so Schneider was the obvious choice to fill Dorgan’s shoes. He quickly let it be known he was interested in the party’s endorsement for Congress.

But the tug of a U.S. Congress seat was too powerful for Pomeroy to resist. After a long conversation with his wife, Laurie, he sought out Schneider and the two of them talked. And talked. And talked. And then John Schneider blinked. It was an incredibly magnanimous gesture. John likely conceded (not many are privy to those conversations) that Earl, having already won two statewide elections, was probably more electable. John stepped aside.

Earl was elected by a wide margin, and remained in Congress for 18 years, until his defeat by Rick Berg in 2010. John Schneider’s prize was the job of U.S. Attorney for North Dakota in the Clinton years. Sadly, he died young, of a brain tumor in 2001.

All of which brings us to 2018, and the point of all this history I’ve been boring you with. Once again there is an open seat in Congress up for grabs this fall, with Congressman Kevin Cramer’s decision to take on Heidi Heitkamp for a Senate seat.

Late last summer, a young fellow from Fargo named Ben Hanson decided to run for North Dakota’s lone seat in Congress. He’s done an admirable job of raising funds and meeting people, and until last week was the likely nominee of the Democratic-NPL Party. No more. Former State Senator Mac Schneider’s entry into the race last week makes it a likely tossup for the nomination at next week’s state convention. A third candidate, state Sen. John Grabinger, is a nonstarter with those two in the race.

Now, there will be a good number of people, but probably not a majority, at the State Democratic-NPL convention this week, who remember the 1992 convention and John Schneider’s concession to Earl Pomeroy. With those folks, there’ll likely be some sympathy for his nephew, Mac.

And the Schneider family has a long reach. Besides his Uncle John’s prominence, his mother, Mary, is a state representative from Fargo. His dad, Mark, is a former state Democratic-NPL Party chairman. His other uncle, Steve, worked for Pomeroy in the Capitol when Earl was insurance commissioner, and he and his wife, Donna, are longtime party activists. His aunt, Lois, John’s widow, was a longtime employee in Sen. Kent Conrad’s office. Her son, Jasper, Mac’s cousin, is a former state legislator, once a candidate for state tax commissioner, and an Obama administration appointee as North Dakota’s Rural Development director. And Mac’s sister, Libby, last I heard, was managing Heidi Heitkamp’s Senate campaign — unless Heidi turns her loose to run her brother’s campaign if he’s nominated. There won’t be many Democrats at this week’s convention who don’t like the Schneider family and don’t know at least a couple of them.

Mac’s entry into the race at such a late stage, a little more than a week before the party’s nominating convention, is a bit puzzling. Ben Hanson is a solid candidate who’s done everything right so far. He’s built a strong campaign organization, raised a bunch of money — more than $100,000, I think, including, I’d guess (I haven’t seen Ben’s FEC report), a contribution from Mac Schneider, who has said consistently he would not run for anything this year — and has traveled the state tirelessly, all things a Democrat must do in North Dakota to have a chance.

Ben’s talked to pretty much every delegate to next week’s convention and has told me he had pretty much universal support going into the convention. Of course, that was before Schneider and Grabinger got in the race. The test for Hanson now is to hold onto a majority of those delegates in a contested race. Knowing how hard he has campaigned to date, I suspect he’s still on the phone shoring up his support.

So can Schneider’s late entry into the race make any sense? Who, or what, caused him to change his mind? We may find out the answer next week, if Earl Pomeroy gives Mac’s nominating speech. That would make some sense. Earl doesn’t owe the Schneider family anything, but he’s a gracious man, and this would be a good way to thank John Schneider’s widow, Lois, and his brothers (and law partners), Mark and Steve, and the kids and nephews, all of whose lives would have been considerably different back in the 1990s, and beyond, without John’s magnanimity at that 1992 state convention.

In any case, both Hanson and Schneider are good ballot names, and the two who bear them are good candidates. For either, though, it’s a tough race, because they have a near-fatal flaw — they’re Democrats in North Dakota.

And Kelly Armstrong, their likely opponent unless something really weird happens at the subsequent Republican state convention, comes from one of the richest families in western North Dakota. Armstrong’s father, Mike, is an uber-successful oilman, and I’m guessing he’s got at least one more zero in his net worth than the also-rich banker from Grafton, N.D., Tom Campbell, who’ll be duking it out with Armstrong at their convention.

So, attention: Ben Hanson and Mac Schneider: Good luck if you get the nomination. This is going to be an expensive campaign. I’d say you’re going to have to raise a million dollars, at minimum, between now and Election Day, to have a chance because Kelly Armstrong is going to have at least that much, maybe more.  Your campaign starts Sunday. There are 233 days between then and Election Day. That means you have to raise at least $4,000 a day, every day, to compete. Starting Sunday. If you don’t raise any money Sunday, you have to raise $8,000 on Monday. And if you don’t raise $8,000 on Monday … well, you get the drift. So don’t let those folks down who voted for you at the convention. Get busy.

The only real thing operating in Hanson and Schneider’s favor is that it’s an open seat, with no incumbent, and that makes it a bit of a wild card in a year when Democrats nationwide are expected to do well in November. Open seats offer at least a chance to anyone running.

History lesson: Open congressional seats

A note about open congressional seats: They don’t happen very often. Here’s a brief history of North Dakota’s congressional representation in what we call North Dakota’s modern political era, since 1960.

North Dakota had two seats in Congress until 1972. We elected two people to Congress at large. In 1960, the two seats were held by Quentin Burdick, a Democrat, and Don Short, a Republican. But our U.S. Senator, William Langer, had died in office and a special election was held in June of that year to replace him. Burdick won, and resigned his seat in the House. Hjalmer Nygaard, a Republican, was elected to replace him in the general election that November.

But before the 1962 election came along, Congress changed things and divided the state into two congressional districts, East and West. In 1962, Short and Nygard were re-elected, Short from the West and Nygaard from the East.

Then Nygaard died in office, and Mark Andrews was elected to replace him from the East. And in 1964, Short was defeated by Democrat Rolland Redlin. Redlin served one term and was defeated by Tom Kleppe in 1966. Kleppe was re-elected in 1968 and then was appointed to serve as Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Interior and did not seek re-election in 1970, the year Art Link won the seat (an open seat) by beating Robert McCarney.

But by the time the1972 election came around,, everything changed. In the congressional reapportionment year of 1971, North Dakota lost one of its two congressional seats, which would have meant that incumbents Link and Andrews would have had to compete in 1972 for the same seat. Link decided instead to run for governor, and won.

So Andrews, having first been elected to Congress in 1962, held the office until 1980, when he moved over to the Senate, and Dorgan was elected to the open seat. Dorgan held it until 1992, when he ran for Senate, and Pomeroy won the open seat. Pomeroy held it until 2010, when he was defeated by Berg, but Berg abandoned it in 2012 to run for the Senate seat being vacated by Dorgan’s retirement. And Cramer was elected to fill the open seat.

So you can see that seats in Congress from North Dakota don’t come open very often. Our congressmen tend to stay in office until they die or are defeated. Since 1970, almost 50 years now, only in 1980, 1992, and 2012 have there been races for an open seat in Congress. Until this year, when Cramer decided to abandon his seat in Congress to run against Heidi Heitkamp for Senate, creating an open seat in Congress.

And that’s why we have so many candidates running for Congress this year.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Ben Hanson For Congress: A Good Idea

So it begins. North Dakota has its first official candidate in the 2018 election. Given all the weird shit (read: Trump) that’s been going on over the past eight months or so, I’m eager for a fresh start, and my young friend, Ben Hanson, has provided that. Thank you, Ben.

Ben sent me an e-mail shortly after midnight last night announcing he is running for Congress, to represent the great state of North Dakota in Washington, DC. I hope he wins.

He’s running against another friend of mine, Kevin Cramer (who I used to vote for until he went crazy on me in this Trump thing), if he gets the endorsement of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party next spring. To do that, he may have to sneak past a couple of other Democrats who are said to be considering the race, former State Senator Mac Schneider and current State Senator Merrill Piepkorn.

Both are better known across the state, Schneider, the former Senate Minority Leader and Grand Forks attorney who was ousted from his District 42 State Senate seat last November, and Piepkorn, the longtime voice on Prairie Public Radio, who won his first race for the State Senate in the same election in Fargo’s District 44. Neither has announced, but if they do, it will be a healthy thing for the Democrats.

I can see them traveling around the state together seeking the party endorsement, like the four Democrats — George Sinner, Art Link, Buckshot Hoffner and Walt Hjelle — did in the run-up to the 1984 Democratic-NPL convention. That was good for the party, and the attention it got helped Sinner defeat incumbent Allen Olson in the November election that year.

I really like Hanson (no relation to Bob Hanson, the former Democratic-NPL state officeholder) and will support him in his efforts to get the nomination, despite my friendship with Schneider and Piepkorn.

I first met him in 2006, when he was a teenager getting involved in Democratic-NPL Party politics. He was making a video about Art and Grace Link, and I think we showed it at the State Democratic-NPL Convention. I could see he had an intense interest in politics, even as a young college student.

He went on to get his college degree and become a real estate broker. He got involved in his local district party and got himself elected to the state Legislature from Fargo’s District 16, where he served two sessions before losing a re-election effort last year. He quickly got involved in leadership in the Legislature, becoming his party’s House Caucus Co-Chair, and he called me from time to time to get together and talk strategy for the future of the party and the state.

He called last spring, and we sat and drank a beer, and he said he thought he’d like to run for Congres, and asked me what I thought. I said, “Go!” in the strongest possible terms. I like his ideas about our state, his political knowledge despite only being 30 years old and his belief that people should be involved in politics for the future of the state, not the future of the candidate. Whether or not he becomes our state’s congressman, he’ll be around in leadership roles for a long time.

It’s heartening to see young people like Hanson getting involved in politics and government at this level. I hope he becomes our congressman. Here’s what he had to say in his announcement e-mail:


Vows to fight for North Dakota families, create good middle-class jobs & grow North Dakota’s economy

(FARGO, ND) — Lifelong North Dakotan Ben Hanson announced today his intention to run for North Dakota’s lone seat in the United States House of Representatives. Hanson released the following statement:

“I’m excited to be running to become North Dakota’s next Congressman because I love North Dakota. I was born here, raised here, and my family has farmed North Dakota ground for generations. They taught me North Dakota values like hard work, dedication and looking out for your neighbor. These values have guided me this far in life and just as I have lived by them I will run by them.”

“I’m running because I believe that North Dakota deserves a congressman who will focus on the needs of hard-working North Dakotans — creating good paying jobs for working families, strengthening the middle class, and building an economy that works for everyone. Over the course of my campaign, I will focus on boosting job growth and jumpstarting our economy by investing in small businesses, an all-of-the-above energy strategy, and rebuilding our infrastructure.”

“North Dakota needs an advocate in Washington to help solve problems and navigate its complexities. Unfortunately, Kevin Cramer has lost focus on issues that matter to North Dakotans and instead has become part of the mess that is Washington, D.C. Together we can move forward — with an eye toward bringing North Dakota values and work-ethic to the halls of Congress. I look forward to the privilege of representing the people of North Dakota and earning your support.”

  • Kenton Onstad, Former House Minority Leader, Parshall School Board Member: “Ben not only understands the complexities and the dynamics of Western North Dakota but the entire state of North Dakota. He would represent all of the citizens of our state. Young or old, male or female, those fortunate or less fortunate, Ben would be proud to represent you, as you would be of him.”
  • North Dakota State Senator Tim Mathern: “I’m excited to see Ben Hanson enter the race, as well as this new leadership for our state, and a rebirth of the party. As an added bonus Ben Hanson’s roots are deep across North Dakota, from Crosby to the Red River Valley. We will all benefit with Ben Hanson in Congress.”

About Ben Hanson:

With family from Crosby to Casselton, Ben Hanson is a lifelong North Dakotan with deep roots in this community. Ben grew up in the Red River Valley, attending Fargo South High School, and he is a graduate of Minnesota State University-Moorhead.

As a North Dakota state representative, Ben was focused on making North Dakota a leader in creating good-paying technology jobs and making state government more transparent.

Ben currently works as a commercial broker for Archer Real Estate Services and lives in Fargo.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — The Accidental Senators

They’re going to bury Jim Pomeroy today. Former State Sen. Jim Pomeroy. Jim was a lot of things in his life. A minister. A carpenter. A musician. A counselor to the aged, sick and infirm. A husband. A father. A grandfather. A volunteer. A loyal Democrat. A cousin to a U.S. congressman. He was those things on purpose. He was a state senator almost by accident. Here’s that story.

After the 2004 election, Jim volunteered to be the chairman of Fargo’s District 27 Democratic-NPL Party organization. That’s how I came to meet him. I took the job of executive director of the Democratic-NPL Party early in 2006. I immediately set out across the state meeting with the District Democratic-NPL organizations, helping them to recruit candidates for the Legislature in districts where no candidates had come forward.

Two of the districts that were struggling a bit were Jim’s District 27 in Fargo and District 19 in rural Grand Forks County. Because the state convention was in Fargo that year, I also spent a quite a bit of time in the eastern part of the state, so I got to know the district chairmen over there pretty well.

On one trip, as we approached the time for filing candidates for the Legislature, I half-jokingly told Jim Pomeroy, who was pushing 70 years old and retired, and the chairman up in District 19, Art Behm, who was about 75 and had been involved in local politics almost all of his life, that the “Fuglie rule” was that if a district chair was short a candidate on their ticket, the district chair had to run.

As filing deadline approached, Art and Jim still hadn’t found candidates for the State Senate, so, being good soldiers, they both filed for the Senate.

Well, they jumped in with both feet, and with their running mates, they ran great campaigns. And they both won.

Art Behm
Art Behm

Behm defeated Duane Mutch, a Senate fixture who had first been elected in 1958, had served 46 years in the state Senate, spanning six decades, and who generally didn’t campaign much. Mistake in 2006.

Art DID campaign, and it was certainly the upset of the new century. Art had been a trench worker for the Democrats for 50 years or so, and he and his lovely wife, Phyllis, were giddy, if not a bit awestruck, when they reached Bismarck in January 2007. Art died in 2012, just a couple years after completing his term in the Senate.

Jim Pomeroy
Jim Pomeroy

Jim and his wife, May, found his victory over Fargo businessman and incumbent state Sen. Richard Brown a bit overwhelming. I met them at the Capitol on the first day of the session and found the most sincere North Dakota couple I had ever known ready to go to work for the people of North Dakota. Jim joined eight other new Democratic-NPL senators that session, and the Democrats were within three seats of regaining the majority they had lost in 1994 election.

That was as close as Democrats ever got.

Oh, there was an insurgence of enthusiasm in the next election in 2008, as the Democrats filled every slot on the legislative ticket in 2002. But of the 26 seats up for election in the Senate, the Democrats won just seven. It wasn’t much better in the House, where Democrats won just 16 of 52 House seats on the ballot. It’s been pretty much downhill for the Democrats since then.

But wait! Something interesting happened this year. When the filing deadline for the 2016 election came around this week, the Democrats came darn close to filling their entire slate at the legislative level. The party is short just two House candidates, in District 28, the heavily Republican German-Russian Triangle in south-central North Dakota, and three Senate candidates, one each in District 2 (northwest corner of the state excluding Williston), District 8 (McLean and Burleigh counties) and Minot’s District 38. That’s pretty good.

From what I can tell, the party staff had a lot of help from the House and Senate caucus leaders. That’s really important when recruiting legislative candidates. State Party chair Kylie Overson, herself a legislator from Grand Forks, has said all along that the party was placing its emphasis on the Legislature this year, and the numbers prove her right.

The list of statewide office candidates is the weakest I’ve ever seen, though, and for the first time in the history of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party, there are vacancies on the statewide ballot, for the offices of state auditor and superintendent of Public Instruction. That saddens me.

But back to the Legislative races. There are 26 Senate seats and 52 House seats up for grabs this year. Democrats have nine incumbents on the ballot in each of the two houses. In terms of numbers, they trail Republicans by margins of 71-23 in the House and 32-15 in the Senate.

I haven’t really analyzed the tickets yet, but if the Democrats can hold their 18 incumbents and pick up, say, a dozen seats in the House and half a dozen in the Senate, I think that would be a respectable showing. And a start to the trip back to making North Dakota a two-party state again.

One other interesting note — Democrats nominated 23 women to run for the Legislature this year (although only two of them are for Senate seats), and Democrats have at least one woman on the ticket in all but four legislative districts. Republicans nominated just 10 women — four for Senate seats, six for House seats. Republicans have no women on the ticket in 16 of the 26 districts that have elections this year.

Finally, a couple of notes on the recently completed state convention. Some folks took exception to some of the things I wrote about the Democratic-NPL Party here after the convention. That’s OK. My skin is thick. I’ll stick by what I wrote, which is that the Democratic-NPL really screwed up at their convention and the party is badly in need of leadership. I also said that the kids in charge were dealt a bad hand by the last few party leaders.

As I have written in the past, there have been good times and bad times in politics in North Dakota for both political parties. Democrats run things for a while, then Republicans take over.

In the 1960s and ’70s, things were fairly balanced, with the Democrats controlling the governor’s office and a handful for other statewide offices — tax commissioner, insurance commissioner, attorney general, agriculture commissioner.

The Democrats all got thrown out in the Reagan landslide of 1980, but by 1988, they were in charge of much of the Capitol and the state Senate.

The Nick Spaeth debacle of 1992 started reversing the trend and now the Republicans have everything. I’ve written about the cycles of North Dakota politics a couple times here.

On Oct. 28, 2014, I wrote “Politics in North Dakota is cyclical. Parties, led by good candidates and strong organizations (something the Democrats have been sadly lacking the past few elections), can reverse their fortunes, and the state’s voters are open to new leadership when it looks like the current leaders are failing. Sometimes those current leaders are indeed failing. But sometimes good campaigns by challengers can convince voters they are failing when they may or not be.

Democrats need to decide it is time to do that — to produce good candidates and provide them a strong organization. In 2016, either Heidi Heitkamp or Sen. George Sinner could start that process.” You can read the rest of that here.

On Jan. 24, 2015, I wrote, “But politics is cyclical in North Dakota, and the power has shifted to the Republicans, and they now run the state in what I believe is a careless and oftentimes frivolous manner (read: tax commissioners getting drunk before noon), and this is North Dakota’s most critical time, and I believe they are mismanaging it. When that happens, it is the responsibility of the party out of power to speak out, to call into question errors in leadership, to challenge the established thinking of the majority of voters who have elected those now in charge.” You can read the rest of that here.

Yes, we are at the bottom of a cycle right now, and it takes leadership to start back up. It is time for our party leaders to rise to this challenge. Day after day, issues present themselves to us Democrats and we ignore them. I know that our party leaders have been consumed by candidate recruitment, but this is the 21st century, the era of multitasking. Candidates are recruited. Campaign planning has begun. While that goes on, we must multitask.

An issue presented itself this week and no Democrats have responded. Our attorney general, Wayne Stenjehem, has spent millions of dollars defending stupid anti-abortion laws, all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court, but when the State Historical Society needs a lawyer to defend itsself in a lawsuit over construction bills for the new Heritage Center, he tells them he doesn’t have any lawyers available and to go hire an outside law firm.


The attorney general is the state’s lawyer. It’s his job to defend state agencies in lawsuits.

Now, the Historical Society has to find money — likely from our tax dollars — to pay an outside law firm. That really pisses me off. But I haven’t heard a single Democrat leader point out that maybe if the attorney general was not running for governor, and one of his top lawyers wasn’t on leave to run his campaign for governor, maybe they could defend the Historical Society. This situation is outrageous.

So, Democratic-NPL legislators and candidates, it’s time to join the fray. Candidates are endorsed. Issues are apparent. Let the campaign begin in earnest.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Oh, Woe Is Me, I’m A Democrat

What’s a Democrat to do?

Just when the North Dakota Republican Party appears more vulnerable than it has been in almost 25 years, the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party has retrenched into a hole so deep that it’s unlikely Democrats here will be able to climb out of it in time to compete in an election about 280 days hence.

The Democrats have no announced candidates for any statewide office. They had a candidate for governor, but now, Sarah Vogel is out, so there’s no apparent experienced, qualified Democrat to challenge the leadership of a party that has been so fiscally irresponsible that we’re looking at a $2 billion budget hole over the next three years.

We’re not bankrupt, to be sure. In fact, we are rich. We’ve got money stashed in every corner of state government that creative minds could think of. Figuring out how to get at it, to cover our freewheeling spending spree, is the problem.

It’s been just about a year now since Jack Dalrymple, Al Carlson and Rich Wardner loaded up a plane with a billion dollars in “surge funds” and took off on a wild flight across western North Dakota, dumping money out the window as they passed over every hamlet and village west of U.S. Highway 83.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Pretty near every county needs a new jail to house the bad guys the unregulated oil boom has brought to our state.  Pretty near every paved highway needs to be fixed because of the incredible truck traffic that’s been pounding them for the last few years. Schools that were once consolidated between neighboring towns are now finding the need to “unconsolidate” and reopen. Streets. Community Centers. Hospitals. Policemen. Homeless Shelters. Day Care Centers. The list goes on and on.

I mentioned the $2 billion budget hole. I know, the headlines are saying we’ve got a $1 billion shortfall this biennium, and the governor is cutting 4 percent out of the state’s budget — and then replacing the rest of that shortfall with “rainy day funds.” In the end, we’ll be spending only about a quarter of a billion dollars less than the 2015 Legislature budgeted. We’ll find the other $750 million in the reserve funds.

Problem is, in just a few months, state agencies will begin putting together their budgets for the 2017-2019 biennium, and unless oil prices jump back up to where they were a year or so ago, we’ve got another billion dollar shortfall next biennium.

It seems unlikely that our budget office would project revenue for that biennium any higher than it is for this biennium — that would be pretty risky business — so now we’re looking at a BIG cut — 20 percent or so — from the state’s current budget, for the next biennium.


No wonder the Democrats don’t have a candidate for governor. They’re smarter than we think. Who’d want that job?

The fact is this current Republican Party of ours, this party that claims to be fiscally conservative, is anything but. I listened to former governor, now university president, Ed Schafer on the radio the other day. He said, and I quote, “It’s easy to spend money when we have it. … We’ve spent too much money over the years because we didn’t keep in mind the fact that this (oil boom) wasn’t gonna happen forever, and now we’re in a situation where now we’ve got a billion dollar shortfall to deal with in state government.”

Ed’s right. The state’s general fund budget has jumped from $2.5 billion in 2007-2009 to $6 billion just eight years later. Way more than double. In terms of total state spending, that figure has climbed from just over $6 billion to more than $14 billion in the last eight years, again way more than double.

The architect of that spending is Al Carlson, the House majority leader, but it helps to have a couple of weak sisters like Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner and Gov. Jack Dalrymple sitting on the bench cheering you on. There’s plenty of blame to go around, and it’s all on the Republicans.

So now, Dalrymple is cutting government 4 percent, emptying our reserve funds to the tune of three quarters of a billion dollars and getting out of Dodge. Which leaves the fellow who’s been his alter ego the past few years, Wayne Stenehjem, as the odds-on favorite to be our next governor and deal with the problem.

Now that’s a thought to inspire confidence in our future. Put a lawyer in charge. Maybe he’ll do what lawyers do — sue somebody, win a big settlement and plug the budget hole that way. Yeah, right.

See, it’s Jack and Wayne and their buddy Douglas Goehring, the agriculture commissioner, who share much of the blame for the fiscal mess we’re in.  As the Industrial Commission, they let the oil boys go nuts the past half-dozen years, creating the boom economy that Carlson relied on to spend all that money, not counting on the Bust, with a Capital B, we’re experiencing now — and for the foreseeable future.

When it comes to regulating the oil and gas industry, the Legislature has very little to say. The constitution and laws written over the years give the Industrial Commission almost complete authority over the oil boys. The Legislature’s only role is to set the level of taxation. That tax remains at about 10 percent, thanks to an initiated measure 35 years ago headed up by Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad.  It was 11.5 percent for many years, but the Republican Legislature lowered it to 10 last session.

So, as I wrote here about five months ago, Stenehjem is likely to be the governor at this time next year. The only flaw in the plan is the entrance of Fargo businessman Doug Burgum into the race. Burgum’s running hard, but most of my Republican friends think it’s a lost cause. One went so far as to say Burgum can’t even beat Stenehjem in a primary election in his hometown of Fargo, much less in a statewide race.

But there are some Burgum loyalists in the Republican “establishment” who say different. Some are unhappy with the big spending by the Dalrymple/Stenehjem administration. And remember, until last fall, there was another challenger to Stenehjem who had a lot of party support — Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley. Wrigley supporters generally didn’t like Stenehjem and were crushed when a personal scandal forced him from the race, and some of them have drifted to Burgum.

Anecdote: Burgum’s advisers have told him to make a play for as many delegates at the Republican state convention as possible, to give him a base as he heads for the primary. Burgum has had volunteers on the phone calling his friends urging them to attend their district convention and become a delegate to the state convention.

Because of some association over the years, I ended up in Burgum’s rolodex. I got a call from a volunteer asking me to go to my Republican convention and become a Burgum delegate. I felt really bad when I had to tell her they wouldn’t let me do that because I am a Democrat. But that call told me Doug is doing the right stuff.

Personally, I agree with Doug’s own assessment that he can’t win at the convention, and I think his chances of winning a primary against Stenehjem are pretty slim, but I’m not dumb enough to ever bet against Burgum.

If the Democrats fail to field a candidate, or field a weak candidate, I think Doug would be better off skipping the primary and running as an independent in the fall. If he chooses to run in the Republican Primary, I’d probably cross over into the Republican column and vote for him.

I did that once before, when my friend, Kevin Cramer, was running for Congress. I went over to the Republican column and found his name, but my hand was shaking so bad over on that side of the ballot I could hardly hold the pencil. Did it, though. Kevin has since stretched my patience. Not sure I could do THAT again.

But that year, like this year, I thought it was pretty likely a Republican was going to win in the fall, and so I guess if we’re going to have a Republican governor for a while longer, I’d rather have Burgum figuring out how to get us out of this financial mess we’re in than attorney Stenehjem. And I think he’d have a whole lot less loyalty to Big Oil, which already has pretty close to $50,000 into Wayne Stenehjem’s campaign as of the end of the year.

Doug Burgum is in the race, I think, for all the right reasons. I think he doesn’t like the way things are going in the state right now, and and he’s truly concerned about our future, and he thinks his experience might be valuable right now. He’s also aware, I’m pretty sure, that North Dakotans don’t much like to elect lawyers as their governors, as I wrote a while back. 

I don’t have anything against lawyers — heck, some of my best friends are lawyers — but there’s something about a law degree that doesn’t seem to work very well in the top executive office in the state, and North Dakotans over the years have sensed that. Maybe that’s why Sarah Vogel opted out. Maybe Doug Burgum saw that as an opportunity.

Here’s another thing that troubles me about Stenehjem. During the 2015 legislative session, Republicans passed a bill, called the “Heidi Bill,” which said that a governor cannot appoint a U.S. senator if a vacancy occurs. There has to be an election. That was to prevent the possibility of popular Democratic U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp getting elected governor and then appointing her own replacement to the Senate seat she was vacating.

With Stenehjem in mind, Democrats argued that the law should apply to other offices as well as the Senate. Like attorney general. To no avail.

We know that since his quick retrenchment on his “Special Places” fiasco a couple of years ago that Stenehjem’s in the pocket of the oil industry. If he becomes governor, he gets to appoint his successor as attorney general. That essentially gives him two votes on the three-person Industrial Commission. His own — and the person he appointed.

Not that it matters much right now — Douglas Goehring, the third member of the Industrial Commission, is just as beholden to Big Oil as is Stenehjem. But if Goehring should retire or lose to a Democrat in 2018, that extra vote could make a big difference. Like, in reducing fines by 90 percent when an oil company despoils the countryside with millions of gallons of oil and salt water.

I feel kind of bad writing this stuff because I used to like Wayne Stenehjem, and I used to trust him. But he lost me on two issues last year — the lack of regulation of the oil industry and wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars pursuing a defense of the state’s incredibly stupid anti-abortion stance, both carried out under the thumb of Jack Dalrymple.

The old Wayne Stenehjem would have told Dalrymple to take a hike. The new one decided he wanted to be the next governor. And he probably will be. Only Doug Burgum stands in his way now.

Sigh. What’s a Democrat to do?