It’s Election Day; Have A Beer

It was a warm dry day, June 8, 1990. North Dakota was still in the grip of one of its most severe droughts, with little or no spring rainfall in most of the state and temperatures running well above normal. I was driving back to Bismarck from somewhere in the northeast part of the state late in the afternoon. I had taken my favorite route, Highway 19 west from Devils Lake, across Highway 3 north of Harvey to what is known as the “Anamoose Corner,” and turned south toward Anamoose, where I would pick up Highway 14 and drive through the upper reaches of the Sheyenne River Valley to I-94, just 25 miles east of Bismarck.

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and the temperature must have been in the 80s. The ten mile stretch between the Anamoose Corner and the town of Anamoose was unpaved at the time. I think the Sheridan County Commissioners were not all that interested in the traffic that road would attract if they paved it. I was driving a 1986 Isuzu Trooper with no air conditioning, so I had the windows down as I turned onto the gravel. There was no wind, and the dust I kicked up began pouring into the Trooper. My only choice was to close the windows, most of the way, leaving the driver’s side window down just a crack for some air. It got hot in there. Very hot.

I looked at my watch. I was going to arrive in Anamoose right about 5:00. Quitting time for a state employee. I knew that the beer at the Copper Penny bar was going to be very cold when I arrived in town. And it was going to taste very good. I’d made this stop before. I can’t remember for sure, but I may have timed my previous return trips from wherever I was in northeast North Dakota to arrive in Anamoose at just this time. Anyway, it was working just fine this trip. For that fifteen minute drive down that gravel stretch, all I could think of, the Sheridan County dust mixing with the sweat pouring down my cheeks, was a cold Pabst Blue Ribbon at the Copper Penny.

I pulled up in front of the Copper Penny a couple minutes after 5, jumped out of the Trooper and headed for the door. I gave it a tug and it resisted. Locked. “Shoot,” I thought to myself, “they’ve gone out of business.” Happened in small North Dakota towns a lot in those days. Well, no problem, there’s another bar across the street (the name escapes me now), so I walked across and pulled the door of that bar. Locked. WTF?

Then it dawned on me. Election Day. Primary Election Day in North Dakota. And in North Dakota, that means the bars are closed until 8 p.m., when the polls close. Friends my age will remember that “blue law” we held onto for much of our statehood. In order to make sure we were totally sober and knew what we were doing when we went in to vote, we just locked the bars until the voting was done.

So here I am, hot, sweaty, dirty, 100 miles from home and not a chance for a cold beer until I get there. Well, there’s a pop machine in front of one the businesses, so I dropped a couple quarters in, grabbed a cold Coke or Pepsi, and hit the road. Steaming all the way about how much better I’d have felt after 20 minutes and a cold one in the air conditioned Copper Penny. It’s time to get rid of this stupid law, I said to myself.

So, a day or two later, I called up my friend Dave Meiers, who at the time was head of the North Dakota Hospitality Association, and arranged a lunch meeting. Dave and I essentially worked for the same people. Dave’s association was made up of owners of restaurants, motels and bars—the hospitality businesses that I, as North Dakota Tourism Director, tried to help, by bringing tourists to spend money in their establishments. I told Dave of my experience in Anamoose and said that his industry should try to get that law changed. It was outdated and made us look silly.  He agreed. He said he’d talk to his board of directors and see if it was something they wanted to tackle.

Well, they did, and so in the next session of the North Dakota Legislature, in 1991, they found three Legislators willing to back them, and House Bill 1408, striking down the provision of state law that kept bars closed on Election Day, was introduced. It had sponsors from both political parties, and was met with pretty broad approval in the House of Representatives, and sailed through there pretty quickly. In the Senate, though, it ran into a little resistance, and stalled out.

The chairman of the Senate Industry, Business and Labor Committee was pretty supportive, and told Dave he would hold the bill in committee until there were enough votes on the floor to pass it. Dave got to work, and kept track of commitments. But as the session drew to a close, he was a vote short. We got together and he showed me his list. He had 26 votes, one short of passage in the 53-member Senate. There were a few undecided, and he needed to snag one of those to give him the last vote to pass the bill. One of those undecided was a good friend of mine, Jim Dotzenrod, a Democrat from Wyndmere in District 27. I told Dave I would have a talk with Jim.

Now, as State Tourism Director, I wasn’t really supposed to be lobbying the Legislature, but Jim was a good enough friend that he wouldn’t mind if I asked him to support the bill. Our conversation went something like this.

Me: “Jim, the vote on House Bill 1408 is this afternoon. That’s the bill that would let the bars stay open on Election Day. The hospitality industry would really appreciate it if you could vote for it.”

Jim: “How many votes do you have for it?”

Me: “We have 26. We need one more to pass it.”

Jim: “Well, I’m not real excited about it, but I don’t think it would get me in too much trouble back home. I’ll tell you what—I’ll check the board when lights come on, and if you really just need one more vote, you’ll have mine.”

Me: “Thank you Senator. See you this afternoon.”

Well, that was about 11:45 in the morning. The bill calendar had the bill coming up mid-afternoon, so about 2:30 I wandered over to the Senate Chamber to watch the vote. Sure enough, when Lt. Gov. Lloyd Omdahl said “The vote is on the final passage of House Bill 1408. The Secretary will open the key and Senators will cast their votes,” the board lit up about half red and half green. Everybody’s name had a light after it except one—Jim Dotzenrod. He was counting.

The clock ticked. Lt. Gov. Omdahl intoned “Has every Senator voted? Senator Dotzenrod?”

Just as Omdahl finished, a green light came on beside Dotzenrod’s name.

Omdahl again: “The secretary will close the key and record the votes.” Pause. Then “The vote shows 27 Senators in favor, 26 opposed. Therefore House Bill 1408 is passed and title is agreed to.”

The bill was headed for the Governor’s office. Dave and I talked to Gov. Sinner sometime during the next couple of days, and he didn’t have a problem with it. He signed it shortly thereafter. Since it was an odd-numbered year, there was no statewide election that year. The next one was in June of 1992, and I stopped off at a bar and had a beer and toasted Jim Dotzenrod, en route to an election night party. And now, whenever I pass through Anamoose and the sun is over the yardarm, I stop for a cold beer, although the Copper Penny is long gone and has been replaced by a bar whose name I don’t recall right now. And I toast Jim Dotzenrod.

So if you are having dinner tonight in a nice North Dakota restaurant and want to order a glass of wine, you can. Or if you are celebrating or commiserating at an Election Night Party, go ahead and order a beer. And remember to toast Senator Jim Dotzenrod.

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