TONY J BENDER: That’s Life — Kretschmar On The Sidelines After 40 Years In Legislature

After serving four decades in the North Dakota Legislature, William “Billy” Kretschmar no longer has a seat in the House chambers. What the Venturia resident does have is perspective and more than a few thoughts on the state of politics today.

Kretschmar (on left in above photo), who was first elected to the House of Representatives as a Republican in 1972, as one of the few lawyers in the Legislature at that time, has seen his district expand from McIntosh and Logan counties to one that now also encompasses Emmons County and parts of Dickey, LaMoure and Burleigh counties. More land, fewer people and “a lot more cows,” he quips.

Early on, Kretschmar concentrated on restructuring a cumbersome judiciary system, as a matter of efficiency. “We have a Constitution that was written in 1889,” he said. “It needed updating.”

In the 2016 primary election, Kretschmar was the odd man out, with fellow Republicans Mike Brandenburg, R-Edgeley, an incumbent, and Jeff Magnum, R-Hazelton, a newcomer, claiming the two House seats from District 28. With the exception of a defeat in 1998, and the subsequent two-year interruption, Kretschmar, 83, had been an institution in Bismarck.

Kretschmar understood there were questions about his age. If time worked against him, it had as much to do with his shrinking base, as anything. Every funeral took a voter. But few would question the caliber of his intellect.

Former legislator Bill Kretschmar (left) with Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Kermit Bye.
Former legislator Bill Kretschmar (left) with Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Kermit Bye.

Even in a special session in 2016, his last, when a proced-ural question arose, all heads turned to Kretschmar. “As parliamentarian, he was always a stable and grounding force in his rulings,” said Rep. Andy Maragos, R-Minot. “What will be missed the most by the House is his cumulative institutional knowledge, which he made available to any member who needed the information. His absence leaves a gap that will not be filled soon.”

In North Dakota, where Republicans have solidified a supermajority with a decidedly more strident brand of conservatism, Kretschmar is a species almost as endangered as Democrats — a moderate Republican.

“I’m a Teddy Roosevelt Republican, not a Donald Trump Republican,” Kretschmar said. He supported John Kasich for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

Trump’s thin skin and inability to resist responding to perceived slights concern Kretschmar. “It’s not presidential,” he said.

Kretschmar was an old-school representation of the Ronald Reagan/Tip O’ Neill brand of politics. He was often the host of “Billy Club,” an after-hours gathering of legislators from both sides of the aisle, during which issues were bandied about over a few drinks and a few laughs.

Kretschmar was Speaker of the House from 1988-90. Shunning ideology, he earned a reputation for judging issues on their merit. In a political environment where moderation was painted as liberal, one fellow legislator told him, “Maybe you should have been a Democrat.”

“He was a man that anyone could work with,” said former state Sen. Joel Heitkamp, who is now a liberal radio talk show host at KFGO in Fargo. “He cares and always focused on what was right.”

Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, said, “Rep. Kretschmar is an independent thinker. Ten years ago, I sponsored a Peace Resolution in the Legislature, and he was the only Republican willing to take the risk to sign on. I recall him saying, ‘This is not difficult, we should all be for peace’.”

A District 28 colleague, Sen. Robert Erbele, R-Lehr, said, “I will be forever grateful for Rep. Kretschmar’s mentorship. I know of no one who has greater institutional knowledge of our legislative history, North Dakota’s political history, as well as knowledge of our state and national Constitutions. I have often said that traveling around the district with Rep. Kretschmar was like having a library in your car.”

Among the governors Kretschmar liked and admired most in his tenure, he mentions Republican icon Ed Schafer — no surprise, there — as well as Democrat George Sinner, a bit of a surprise, and Republican Jack Dalrymple, the beleaguered ex-governor whose legacy is intertwined with the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, perhaps the biggest surprise of all. Kretschmar served with Dalrymple in the Legislature and considers him a friend.

Kretschmar gives Dalrymple credit for not trying to forcibly remove the protesters, in what would have become a global event and a black eye for North Dakota. Kretschmar allows that criticism that Dalrymple fell short in creating a dialogue with the protest leaders has merit. By contrast, newly elected Gov. Doug Burgum met with them last week for five hours on the Standing Rock Reservation.

Kretschmar, who said he supports the right to protest, disagreed with the decision by House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, to cancel the traditional address to the Legislature by tribal leaders during the 2017 session. “I think that was wrong,” Kretschmar said. “But I always got along well with Al Carlson, even if I didn’t always agree with him. He was always good to me.”

Kretschmar likes Burgum’s chances for success. Although Burgum flanked to the right during the election, Kretschmar thinks he may prove to be a more moderate administrator.

Burgum and the Legislature have their hands full with budget woes. Kretschmar said he’s seen a 15 percent increase in his own property taxes, largely due to valuations.

Barring a miraculous increase in oil-related tax revenue, which fueled property tax relief, Kretschmar expects landowners will pay more in the near future. “You can’t keep lowering taxes and expect to keep services up,” he said.

When prices began to plummet in the last session, Kretschmar voted with the majority to effectively give oil companies a 23 percent tax break. In light of a current budget proposal that calls for a 5 percent tax increase on nursing home residents, Democrats argue Republicans care more about out-of-state oil barons than about their own constituents. It’s a fair argument, Kretschmar says, but, “At that point, I thought it was a reasonable step to ensure the viability of the oil industry.”

Kretschmar watches with interest as the Republican majority appears to be foot-dragging toward implementation of Initiated Measure No. 5, the Compassionate Care Act. It legalized medical marijuana and passed with 64 percent of the vote. Medical marijuana now has received approval in 28 states. Kretschmar says he’s a supporter of the initiated measure process and that the Legislature must respect the will of the people.

The hard swing to the right in North Dakota that mirrors President Trump’s rise to power and the hubris of the supermajority in the state Legislature has even progressive Republicans concerned, Kretschmar said, adding that a two-party system functions better with a modicum of balance.

Kretschmar can be found at The Shed Cafe in Ashley most mornings, having coffee with “the boys.” He doesn’t do much legal work these days but still maintains an office in town. Kretschmar claims he’s not stir crazy sitting back while the Legislature is in session. On the surface, he seems satisfied with his long run. “I always tried to do what was right,” he said.

If Kretschmar made enemies in doing so, they aren’t talking. “He was universally admired and respected by his House colleagues,” Maragos said.

Leave a Reply