JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — What If They Gave An Election In North Dakota And Nobody Came?

Headlines from this week’s papers:

“GOP grows supermajority in North Dakota’s Legislature; Dems have ‘collapsed completely’”

“North Dakota sees worst voter turnout this millennium”

“DFL wins full control of Minnesota government”

“Minnesota voter turnout shaping up to be highest in nation yet again”

The Democratic-NPL Party (my party, sadly) in North Dakota is now almost nonexistent. The number of Democrats holding partisan offices in North Dakota is the lowest in the 66 years since the merger of the Democratic Party and the Nonpartisan League in 1956.

Previously, the fewest number of Democrats in the Legislature was five senators and 15 representatives in the 1967 session, but Democrats held a number of statewide offices then. None now. There’s a wonderful old picture somewhere of the five 1967 Senate Democrats — Herb Meschke, Lee Christensen, George Rait, Lester Larson and Phil Berube — crammed into a phone booth, with a caption that read “Senate Democrats can caucus in a phone booth.” I’ve seen it but I don’t have it. If someone reading this has, it, please send it to me.

That 1967 session was the result of a great big red wave in the 1966 election. You’ve probably read that the party in the White House usually loses ground in the next midterm election. That’s what happened here in North Dakota this year, too, although there wasn’t much to lose.

But back in the ’60s, Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964 swept a huge number of Democrats into office nationwide, including here in North Dakota. The merged Democrats and NPLers took over the majority in the House of Representatives here for the first time, winning 65 House seats, and came close in the Senate with 20 senators.  But in 1966, the Democratic-NPL Party lost 50 — you read that right, 50— of their 65 members of the House of Representatives, and 15 of their 20 senators.

I wasn’t paying much attention to politics in those days — I wasn’t old enough to vote yet — but I do remember that in 1965 a little-known farmer from way out west, Art Link, served as speaker of the House of Representatives, and a bunch more of soon-to-be familiar names joined him in the Legislature that year, including George Sinner and Herschel Lashkowitz in the Senate and in the House, “Buckshot” Hoffner, Richard Backes, Herb Meschke and the famous Oscar Solberg. Solberg would go on to serve as speaker of the North Dakota House in the 1977 session, when the 1976 election left the two parties tied at 50-50, following the election of Jimmy Carter as president after the disgraceful resignation of Richard Nixon, creating a national Democratic landslide once again.

In North Dakota, House floor leaders Richard Backes and Earl Strinden sat down in the early days of January 1977 and tried to figure out how to organize the 1977 session, and they decided Solberg was the only legislator that both parties trusted enough to run the show.

But the Democrats faded again the next year, Republicans rebounded quickly, and by the 1981 session, they dominated the Senate 40-10, and the House 73-27. That was short-lived though, because in 1982, the first election following Ronald Reagan’s win in 1980, the country had another “blue wave” and the Democrats in North Dakota came back to take control of the House, 55-51, after the 1980 census redistricting increased the number of legislative districts to 53. They also more than doubled their number of senators to 22. By 1987, the Democrats had also  taken control of the State Senate, and held the majority there for the next four sessions.

But Democrats lost control of the House in the 1984 election, when a number of House members bailed out to run for statewide office, among them George Sinner, who was elected governor that year; Ruth Meiers, his lieutenant governor; Bruce Larson, who ran unsuccessfully for Agriculture commissioner; Buckshot Hoffner, who tried for the Public Service Commission; Earl Pomeroy, who was elected Insurance commissioner; and Wayne Sanstead, who took over as head of the Department of Public Instruction. Their defections cost the Democrats control of the House that year. (Representatives were only elected to two-year terms in those days — the way it should be again someday, in my opinion.)

But the big downhill slide for the Democrats started with that fateful 1992 election, when Republicans claimed the governor’s office after Democrats had held it for 28 of the previous 32 years. The party hung on to the three congressional seats (Byron Dorgan, Kent Conrad and Pomeroy — Team North Dakota) until 2010, then pretty much threw in the towel at both the statewide and legislative levels, the only bright spot being Heidi Heitkamp’s single six-year term in the U.S. Senate, which ended with an almost unthinkable loss to career politician Kevin Cramer four years ago. Kevin’s up next time, which begs the question — will Rick Becker challenge him, too?

And so we have one-party government in North Dakota now. Democrats in the Legislature can’t even fill committee assignments. The four Democrats in the the Senate — Tim Mathern, Kathy Hogan, Merrill Piepkorn and freshman Ryan Braunberger, all from Fargo — will choose one of their “Lunchroom Table Caucus” to be their floor leader and another to be the assistant, and then try to figure out which committees are important enough to join and which they will send staff to, to take notes. That is a sad, sad state of affairs.

Over in the House, the story is about the same. The Democrats will have enough members to send two to each committee, but that’s it.

As an aside, I should mention that it is hard to win elections when you don’t have any candidates on the ballot. Democrats left more than 50 Republicans uncontested in this election — I think I counted 55 empty spots in the Democratic-NPL column on the ballot. That’s just unforgivable.

And once again, there will be no Democrats working above the first floor in the Capitol building, so don’t be surprised if you are driving up the mall to look up and see the building leaning over to the right. And there will be no Democrats working in downtown Bismarck in the federal building.

So what’s to come of North Dakota’s Democratic-NPL Party? First, let me suggest you go back up and read those headlines at the top of this article. In Minnesota, which led the nation in voter turnout, Democrats have accomplished what Republicans did in North Dakota ― with a huge voter turnout, they took control of their state government. But in North Dakota, which had the lowest voter turnout ever, Democrats lost everything.

Want to guess who didn’t show up to vote in North Dakota?

It’s hard to get motivated to vote if you’re a Democrat and there are no legislative candidates on your ballot. And the vaunted Democratic-NPL Get Out The Vote program started by David Strauss and championed by Sen. Quentin Burdick back in the 1970s, and perfected by State Chairman George Gaukler in the 1980s, has disappeared.

When I worked for the Democrats, I preached to the district chairmen that it takes at least five contacts to make sure a Democrat turns out to vote. This year, I got none, except for mailings from my local legislative candidates. But not a single phone call. Democrats in North Dakota used to identify the political preference of at least 85 percent or 90 percent of the households in the state and print out the list of the Democrats in each legislative district for the candidates and the local volunteers to use to make sure their voters got to the polls. No more.

I was visiting with one of my Republican insider friends earlier this fall and he said, literally, “We stole your plan and we’re using it to get Republicans elected,” although he lamented that the federal candidates have taken it over from the local districts, and it’s not as effective anymore. That’s exactly what happened to the Democrats a few years ago, by the way. I learned that politics works best when it happens at the local level.

I met with a few of my Democrat friends the day after the election and they asked me what I thought needed to happen. I said the Democrats need to get back to basics. The winter and spring after an election is when the political parties reorganize to prepare for the next one. I said the leadership (?) of the party needs to get on the phone and in the car and see to it that every district has leaders willing to get to work and organize at the district level, send those local leaders to Bismarck and elect party officers and hire party staff that will raise some money and learn from the past to put it to work. There are still plenty of old leaders around willing to give advice. But it is not going to happen overnight.

If there’s anything bright on the horizon for Democrats in North Dakota, it’s that most of the Republicans elected Tuesday are now term limited. I think that means they only get eight more years in office. I think the clock starts ticking in January, when they head for Bismarck for the 2023 legislative session. In 2030, they’re out of here. Even Democrats ought to be able to get their shit together by then.

I scanned the papers Thursday looking for a good news headline. But the headline that jumped out for me was this one:

“Fire causes $50,000 damage to south Fargo mobile home.”

What the heck? A $50,000 mobile home? Dang, I guess this inflation thing is real. I thought maybe the marijuana measure had passed and I was stoned. Nope, we’re still going to have to go to Montana to smoke dope.

A couple of weeks ago, my friend, Mike Jacobs, wrote in his pre-election analysis in the Grand Forks Herald that he thought voters might legalize pot here and used one of the best lines I’ve seen in a newspaper in a long time: “I’m no stranger to marijuana …” Well, me neither, but I haven’t met up with it in a long time. Hmmm. Maybe I’ll call Mike and see if he wants to take a trip to Wibaux.

3 thoughts on “JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — What If They Gave An Election In North Dakota And Nobody Came?”

  • John Burke November 11, 2022 at 7:08 pm

    Thanks for this Jim, although it pained me to read it. I remember the 1967 session–I was working in the Tax Department–first for Lloyd Omdahl and then Ed Sjaastead. I feel some guilt about this turn of events, for I fear that I am representative of one cause of it–those of use who have abandoned North Dakota for one reason or another. Although much of my heart remains in North Dakota, I found that I just couldn’t face, in my retirement, either the winters or the right-wingers. I now live in a lovely place, but it doesn’t live in my heart and soul the way North Dakota did and does.

  • Darci Asche November 13, 2022 at 1:34 pm

    Wibaux has weed!? I know they have the best brewery. Have a Rusty Beaver with that toke.

  • Clyde Ereth November 15, 2022 at 3:13 pm

    This piece rings true and painful! I’m one of those old timers you speak of. I became disenchanted with the party when Spaeth ran in the primary and walked away from it. This however is getting to be seriously out of balance to say the least!


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