JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Some Thoughts On The Election

“All the Republicans are going to win.”

“All the ballot measures are going to lose.”

No, that’s not my election prediction for 2016 (although it’s pretty close). Those were my election predictions on my blog for 2014, written two years ago this week, just before the 2014 election. (You can go back and look at them here and here, if you want to.) I missed by one. One of the ballot measures passed. But the other four failed, and all the Republicans on the statewide ballot won. Democrats picked up a couple of seats in the North Dakota Legislature, but other than that, 2014 was pretty much a Republican landslide. Pretty much like this year’s election is going to be, at least here in North Dakota.

Then, there’s this, I wrote in September 2015:

Start practicing now, so you are ready, in 2017, to say “Gov. Stenehjem” and “President Clinton.”

Well, I was half right about that. I can’t think of anything much better than going to bed Nov. 8 this year knowing we’re finally going to have a woman president. I’m excited by that.

As for “Gov. Stenehjem,” well, in that blog post last year, I speculated on the 2016 North Dakota governor’s race: “The wild card is Fargo’s Doug Burgum, who sold his software company to Microsoft for many millions and has been doing good works with his family foundation and real estate company. He’s already a member of the Roughrider Hall of Fame, the state’s highest honor, and is a favorite of both parties. But he’s no conservative, and has never really been interested in elective office. But times change, he’s a restless soul, and he’s hinted he might be interested. A race between he and Stenehjem would be fun to watch.”

Well, turns out he was REALLY interested. He got into the race last spring, and their primary election matchup WAS fun to watch. He kicked Stenehjem’s ass all over the state, and now he is, indeed, going to be Gov. Burgum.

I’m wishing him well, but he’s going to be facing a recalcitrant Republican majority in the North Dakota Legislature, most of whom supported Stenehjem, and he’s going to have to sit beside Stenehjem at Industrial Commission meetings where, although Burgum will be the chairman, he could be a minority voter against holdover members Stenehjem and Douglas Goehring on critical energy issues.

I say that because the oil industry pretty much owns Stenehjem and Goehring, but you won’t find many, if any at all, oil contributions to the Burgum campaign on the Secretary of State’s website.

And he might be in a minority on other issues as well, since they are the top two reigning members of the “Good Old Boys Club” Burgum lambasted with a couple of million dollars worth of television ads last spring in the run-up to the primary election.

Well, that’s the governor’s race, in a nutshell. Burgum’s opponent next week, Democrat Marvin Nelson, is running a tune-up for 2020, hoping Burgum will get bored or tired of fighting with his own legislative majority after four years and go back to Fargo.

But Nelson needs an injection of energy. He’s the most boring candidate for governor since, well, Dalrymple. My advice to him is to challenge for the Democrats’ leadership position in the Legislature this winter, grab onto a couple of causes and sell them and himself to the public for a couple of legislative sessions, keeping his name in the news.

The rest of the North Dakota statewide races feature a lackluster slate of candidates on both sides, none of whom I can see with much more than a long shot at future political stardom in North Dakota, with the possible exception of Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak. She (and all the other Republicans on the statewide ballot) will win her election this year and, like her predecessor in that office, Kevin Cramer, she has a future beyond the Public Service Commission, I think, but that’s a ways off, because she’s a pretty dedicated mother to her three school-age children right now. She needs to hope Burgum decides to serve eight years in office, and not just four. She could be our first woman governor.

There’s a little buzz about some of the legislative races in eastern North Dakota, and Democrats might pick up a seat or two here and there (I’m hoping Dean Meyer is successful in his bid to return to the Legislature out West, for example), but not enough to change the outcome of any party-line voting in the next session of the Legislature.

The only real interest on the ballot here this year is in the five ballot measures. Let me just start the discussion of them by saying this: I’ll be surprised if North Dakota voters change their constitution for any of the things on the ballot this year. But there’s big money in two of the measures, and we’ll see if that can sway North Dakotans voters the way Burgum’s money did in June.

The most controversial and outrageous proposed constitutional change is Measure 3, the so-called Marsy’s Law amendment, sponsored by California zillionaire Henry Nicholas, with Drew Wrigley’s wife, Kathleen, running the front end here in North Dakota.

This week, North Dakota Supreme Court Justice Dale Sandstrom shocked the political establishment by calling the ballot measure “a hobby farm for an eccentric billionaire.” Now Dale’s retiring at the end of the year, but still … that was something a sitting Supreme Court justice has never done before.  Good for Dale. That’s why I like him. A lot. A lot more after his statements this week. I’m going to tell you my favorite political story about him at the end of this article.

The rich guy Nicholas seems to have a goal of getting his sister’s name into every state constitution in America, and this year, he’s picked the two Dakotas and Montana, along with Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky and Nevada. If it passes here, Nicholas will actually have put his deceased sister’s name in our constitution, which most lawyers and constitutional scholars in the state say is pretty inappropriate. He’s got the money to do it — putting several million dollars into all the states where it’s on the ballot this year. But in North Dakota, I think it might go the way of the other constitutional changes — down.

In the other big money measure, Big Tobacco is pumping millions into the campaign against raising the cigarette tax (although this one’s a statutory change, not a constitutional change). The tobacco money is about as dominant as the oil money was against the Outdoor Heritage Amendment in 2014.

But the people behind Measure 4 pulled a fast one — they tied the huge increase in the tax on cigarettes to veterans’ benefits. Good one. If we raise the tobacco tax, hopefully fewer people, especially young people, will smoke. And the carrot for doing this is, a bunch of the money from the tax will go to veterans programs.

I don’t smoke, and I’m a veteran, so I’m for this, and I think most North Dakotans will be for it, too, although the tobacco industry’s millions might make a difference. We’ll see if big money prevails on this.

The other three measures are kind of riding under the radar. Measure 1 is a solution in search of a problem. A couple of current legislators moved out of their districts in the last couple of years. Neither is seeking re-election from the district they left. After a bunch of talk during the last legislative session, the four floor leaders, both Democratic and Republican, sponsored Senate Concurrent Resolution 4010, which puts a clause in our state constitution that the Legislators can’t serve if they don’t live in the district. Which sounds logical to voters, I guess, so this is the one constitutional change that might pass.

Still, I think it is a huge overreaction. But the Legislature’s record on constitutional measures is a poor one of late, and smart voters will reject this, just like they reject most constitutional changes the Legislature (read: Republican Party) puts on the ballot. We’ll see if there are enough smart voters.

I really don’t get Measure 2. School boards are fighting with teachers and administrators over this. As best I can tell, this is the beginning of a raid on trust funds to fund schools and government, just like Earl Strinden and Allen Olson did in the 1981 session when the earlier oil boom went bust. That led to voters making Strinden the minority leader in 1983 and making Olson the ex-governor in 1985. We’ve gotten used to having a lot of money and when it runs short, we go looking for trust funds to shore up our needs. I’m guessing it’s another constitutional change that voters will reject.

And Measure 5, if passed, will give the little guy who used to live next door to me a chance to see if medical marijuana will help stop his awful seizures. The measure has way too much in it, mostly because it was model legislation from other states, and the folks running it are political amateurs with great big hearts, but North Dakota is not like other states where model legislation works.

I wish there was no provision for growing it in the measure, for example. That scares a lot of people away and gives law enforcement a reason to come out against it. If the measure was just to make it legal to use, the medical marijuana could come from any number of states (Minnesota or Montana, for example), and the measure might have a better chance of passing.

The jury’s out on this one. We’ll see if North Dakotans’ compassion can overcome their skepticism of marijuana. If so, it might just squeak by. I expected a bigger campaign against this from Big Pharma, but it hasn’t developed, so maybe they have polling data that says North Dakotans won’t pass it and they are saving their money.

In summary, I feel pretty strongly that we ought to pass Measures 4 and 5, but as for the first three, as Thomas Jefferson would say, they “Neither pick my pocket nor break my leg.” The ones to watch are the money contests — lots of money FOR Measure 3 and AGAINST Measure 4.

Finally, the Dale Sandstrom story. It goes back to 1982. Dale was just starting his political career by running against longtime incumbent Bruce Hagen for a seat on the Public Service Commission. I was executive director of the Democratic-NPL Party at the time. On Election Day 1982, I was helping to give rides to the polls. I picked up an elderly blind lady at her apartment building and we went to the polling place. The election judge said I could go with her into the booth and read her the names and she could tell me who she wanted to vote for and I could mark her ballot (That was the age of innocence — can you just see Donald Trump freaking out about THAT?)

So we went down the list. I read the names of the candidates and their party affiliation, and she told me who to vote for. I started at the top. “The candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives are the Democrat, Byron Dorgan, the Republican, Kent Jones, and the Independent, Don Klingensmith.”

She said “Dorgan.”

And as we went down the ballot, she voted for every single Democrat. The last race on the ballot was Public Service Commissioner, because in those days, PSC members were elected on the no-party ballot.

I said “The candidates for Public Service Commissioner are Bruce Hagen and Dale Sandstrom.”

“Which one is the Democrat?” she asked.

I explained that there was no party affiliation in that race because it was on the no-party ballot. I held back from telling her that it was well known that Hagen was a Democrat and Sandstrom a Republican, since it was a no-party race.

She hesitated, and then said “Sandstrom. He did a good job as lieutenant governor. He’ll do just fine there, too.”

Of course, she was confusing him with the well-known Wayne Sanstead, who had just finished eight years as Art Link’s lieutenant governor. I thought about explaining that to her, and then thought “Nah, Bruce is going to get enough votes. We’ll let it go.”

I later told that story to Dale, Bruce and Wayne. They all thought I did the right thing.

After that bit of light-heartedness, I’ll end with this. North Dakota is a Republican state. I can live with that. Most of the Republicans I call my friends have a brain and a heart. But I am sad to know that, this year, if North Dakotans were called upon to choose the next president of the United States, that president would be Donald Trump. I am very sad about that.

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