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.

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