By most measures, Dick Dobson should be about 150 years old. He’s got some hard miles on him, but at 81, he’s still got his memory and his health, and at that age, you can’t ask for much more.
For those of you who don’t remember him, Dobson is the former editor and publisher of the Minot Daily News, and probably knows more about North Dakota politics than anyone alive. He befriended me back in the 1980s, when I was executive director of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party, and we’ve stayed in touch over the years — just barely.
He’s retired now and living with his son in Fargo. He reads the Fargo Forum but not the Minot Daily News. It was a darn good paper when he ran it, but it isn’t anymore. I could tell you a few stories about him but he wouldn’t like that — not the ones I know.
His name showed up on my caller ID screen when my cell phone rang the other night. I answered, “No shit, you’re still alive?” “Oh, so you’ve got that caller identification,” he replied.
After a brief bit of small talk, reassuring each other that we were alive and pretty well, he launched into his reason for calling. “They’re saying you had something to do with the Democrats crossing over in the primary election last week. Do you remember the 1968 primary?”
I confessed that I didn’t — I was in the Navy at the time. I was arriving in Pensacola, Fla., about the time of the September primary, and I wasn’t old enough to vote yet — I was two days short of my 21st birthday on the day of the Sept. 3 primary. I did vote by absentee ballot in the general election a couple of months later, though, the first election in which I was eligible to vote. I remember voting for Hubert Humphrey for president of the United States. He got trounced by Richard Nixon, both in North Dakota and nationally.
But it was the 1968 primary Dobson wanted to talk about.
“Tell me the story,” I said. He did.
The Republican Party that year nominated newspaper publisher Ed Doherty from New Rockford, N.D., as their candidate for governor. Bismarck auto dealer and political maverick Robert McCarney challenged him in the primary election.
As Dobson tells it, Larry Erickson, chairman of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party, sent out a press release urging Democrats to cross over and vote for McCarney because Democrats felt he would be easier for Democrat Bill Guy to defeat in the fall.
It worked. McCarney beat Doherty by a little over 4,000 votes, 47,000 to 43,000. Incumbent Democratic-NPL Gov. Guy got about 33,000 votes. About 90,000 voters cast ballots in the Republican governor’s race. By comparison, Sen. Milton Young got 82,000 votes and the Republican congressional candidates got about 84,000. Erickson claimed victory.
In the fall, Guy beat McCarney by more than 25,000 votes, in spite of the fact that Richard Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey from neighboring Minnesota by almost 45,000 votes. Guy, running in his last election for governor, actually got more votes than Nixon. And Guy was the only Democratic-NPL-endorsed candidate to win election in a North Dakota statewide race that year.
Republicans won race s for U.S. Senate, both seats in Congress (North Dakota had two congressmen until the 1970 census took one away), attorney general, agriculture commissioner, treasurer, insurance commissioner, Public Service commissioner, secretary of state and auditor.
Guy’s re-election was fortuitous. It changed North Dakota politics in a big way because of the chaotic state of the North Dakota tax commissioner’s office in the 1960s.
At the time, the tax commissioner was elected on the no-party ballot (it remained there until North Dakota voters changed the state constitution in 1986).
In 1960, Arthur Engen had been elected tax commissioner, but he died in office in 1963, and Gov.Guy appointed a Democrat, Lloyd Omdahl, who at the time was Guy’s administrative assistant to the office. (Omdahl later served as lieutenant governor of North Dakota under George Sinner.) Omdahl won election in 1964, but resigned to return to Guy’s staff in 1966, and Guy appointed another Democrat, Ed Sjaastad, to the post.
Sjaastad was elected to a full term as tax commissioner in 1968 on the no-party ballot — in the same election Guy beat McCarney — but just a few months into his term, he committed suicide in his office in the spring of 1969, giving Guy the opportunity to make his third appointment to that office. He chose a young MBA graduate from Regent, N.D., named Byron Dorgan. You know the rest of the story.
Well, just in case you don’t …
Dorgan went on to become one of North Dakota’s most popular politicians. He won election to the office of tax commissioner in 1972, was re-elected in 1976, was elected to Congress in 1980, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1992 and retired in 2010. He did lose one election in that more-than-40- year career, ironically the same year Guy lost his only statewide election, in 1974.
That story goes like this. Guy had left office in 1972 to prepare for a 1974 U.S. Senate race against incumbent Sen. Milton Young, turning the governor’s chair over to Art Link. The Democrats endorsed Guy for Senate at their 1974 convention.
Knowing that Guy had a real chance of beating Young, who had held the seat since 1945 but had never really been threatened, Republicans decided to try the crossover strategy Democrats had used in 1968. McCarney filed as a Democrat in the primary against Guy, and urged Republicans to cross over and steal the nomination from Guy.
It didn’t work. Democrats, led by Guy’s campaign manager, a young political genius named David Strauss, put together the state’s first sophisticated Get-Out-The-Vote program for the primary, and Democrats turned out in big numbers to hold the slot for Guy. More than 50,000 Democrats turned out to vote for Guy. McCarney managed to persuade only about 11,000 Republicans to cross over and vote for him in the Democratic-NPL column.
Meanwhile, because of Dorgan’s popularity, Guy had persuaded Dorgan to run with him that year as the opponent to Republican congressman Mark Andrews. Together, they were a formidable team at the top of the ticket.
Not formidable enough. A third-party challenger in the Young-Guy race, James Jungroth, foiled Guy’s plans. Jungroth, a known Democrat and former Democratic-NPL Party chairman, had some personal differences with Guy, and the more-than 6,000 votes he got in November threw the election to Young by just a couple hundred votes out of more than 235,000 cast. Dorgan was soundly defeated by Andrews, but that story got lost in all the attention paid to the Senate race. Dorgan would just as soon have it forgotten anyway, since it was his only defeat ever at the polls in North Dakota.
Dobson brought all this to my attention with his fortuitous call this week. Democrats crossed over to vote for McCarney over the Republican-endorsed candidate in the 1968 primary, McCarney won, Guy beat McCarney in the general, enabling Dorgan’s career.
And there’s more. Dorgan hired a young fellow named Kent Conrad as his chief assistant in the tax department. Conrad succeeded Dorgan as tax commissioner and then served 26 years in the U. S. Senate. Conrad hired a young law school graduate named Heidi Heitkamp as the tax department’s lawyer. She succeeded him as tax commissioner when Conrad went to the Senate in 1986, served six years there, then eight years as attorney general, and is now four years into her first term in the U.S. Senate.
All that because Larry Erickson told his Democrats to cross over and vote for Republican Robert McCarney in the 1968 primary.
I never heard Erickson take credit for the political success of Dorgan, Conrad or Heitkamp, but he probably should have.
Larry died two years ago next month. He’d have loved the outcome of this year’s primary election. He’d have crossed over and voted for Doug Burgum. He knew something about that.