If I were a North Dakota Democrat, here’s what I would say to my fellow party members:

I turned on the Rachel Maddow show last night and, as usual, she had her headlights on bright, and the deer in those headlights was a young North Dakota Democratic-NPL legislator named Corey Mock. The subject was the 3 million barrel saltwater spill in North Dakota, an incident that warrants national attention and concern because it has invaded the Missouri River, threatening to reach all the way to the Father of Waters, the Mississippi, and eventually the Gulf of Mexico, in a worst case scenario.

Like most deer caught in headlights, Corey hesitated for a moment, then stammered and shuffled his way out of the road and made an escape, with little damage. But it was an opportunity missed. Rachel gave him the opening he needed, a chance to tell the story of why these things happen, more and more frequently now, and unless someone tells the story in a large, loud voice, they are going to continue to happen. They are happening because of political failure.

They are happening because Corey didn’t know THE ANSWER.

I’m going to get very political now, and a lot of you aren’t going to like it. I’m going to be critical of Democrats first, because they are a big part of the problem. When I was young and strong, Democrats controlled the Governor’s office and much of North Dakota state government, for many years. For 28 of 32 years, they owned the Governor’s office and all the appointive offices that go with it. At times Democrats held most of the other statewide offices, and half of the Legislative seats, and for 24 years all three of the Congressional offices.

But politics is cyclical in North Dakota, and the power has shifted to the Republicans, and they now run the state in what I believe is a careless and oftentimes frivolous manner (read: Tax Commissioners getting drunk before noon), and this is North Dakota’s most critical time, and I believe they are mismanaging it. When that happens, it is the responsibility of the party out of power to speak out, to call into question errors in leadership, to challenge the established thinking of the majority of voters who have elected those now in charge. To do that, they have to know THE ANSWER.

So here’s a memo to North Dakota Democrats:  It doesn’t matter what the question is, or who asks it. Here is THE ANSWER.

“North Dakota’s oil industry is regulated by a three-member commission called the North Dakota Industrial Commission. The three members, all Republicans, are the Governor, the Agriculture Commissioner and the Attorney General. The oil industry owns the first two, but the Attorney General, not so much.  He is, though, a member of the team and generally acquiesces. The oil industry owns the Governor and the Agriculture Commissioner by virtue of having paid for their election campaigns.”

“Ironically, the campaigns were against the same man, a cowboy-rancher named Ryan Taylor, who was defeated for Governor by Jack Dalrymple in 2012 and for Agriculture Commissioner by Douglas Goehring in 2014. In both cases, the oil industry paid most of the Republicans’ campaign bills—more than half a million worth in 2012, something less than that in 2014—even though Taylor was probably going to lose anyway. But the industry knew he was going to be a thorn in their side, and they wanted an insurance policy that guaranteed the two men who had kept the doors open to their greedy march across the prairie, unchecked by onerous regulations, were going to remain In office. So they opened their fat wallets and paid for a couple of campaigns. Now they own two of the three most important politicians in North Dakota.”

“In North Dakota the industry is regulated only to the extent that when regulations are needed, they are drafted in the offices of the North Dakota Petroleum Council and delivered to the Capitol for implementation. The most recent example is the regulation on flaring of natural gas, which the industry wrote and presented to the Industrial Commission, saying this is how much we are willing to do to try to keep the state from getting such a bad reputation about all this gas, enough to heat all the homes in Minneapolis, being burned at the top of tall pipes sticking out of the ground every mile or so in western North Dakota.”

“The Industrial Commission, with ruffles and flourishes, adopted the rules, with the industry providing them political cover by sending in a few shills to mildly protest that they might be a bit stringent, making the politicians look like they were getting tough on industry boys who didn’t like even these watered down rules. Now, of course, as the economics of the industry have tightened, a cry has already risen that the flaring rules may be too burdensome, so don’t be surprised if they’re revisited in the next couple of months.”

“Pipeline spills can be prevented, but not by state officials who look the other way instead of sending in inspectors with rigorous safety standards. There were more than 2,000 spills reported in 2014, the worst year on record. We don’t know how many were not reported.  There have been more than 9,000 spills reported since the Department began keeping track, including what was previously the single worst on-shore pipeline leak in U.S. history (now superseded by this latest one), the largest salt-water disposal case in U.S. history, and the worst train derailment incident in U.S. history. There’s no doubt we’re making history here in North Dakota, all right.”

“That’s the record of the Republicans in North Dakota. When the industry owns the regulators, nobody gets regulated.”

That, North Dakota Democrats, is THE ANSWER.

It doesn’t matter what the question is. It’s called using your talking points, staying on message. It’s so simple, even Republicans have mastered it. It doesn’t matter what you ask John Hoeven, he’s going to talk about “good paying jobs.” It doesn’t matter what you ask Kevin Cramer, he’s going to talk about how important our veterans are. It doesn’t matter what you ask John Boehner, he’s going to bash Obamacare. It doesn’t matter what you ask Mitch McConnell, he’s going to tell you how important the Keystone Pipeline is. They’ve all got THE ANSWER.

Today’s Democrats need to learn from their old master, Byron Dorgan, one of North Dakota’s best politicians ever. I’m pretty sure this story is true. In  his first campaign for Congress, at a town hall meeting in some small North Dakota community, a woman in the audience stood up and asked “Mr. Dorgan, are you for abortion or against it?”  Dorgan’s response was “Thank you, I was hoping someone would ask about the farm bill.” And then he launched into a ten minute detailed explanation of what he would do in Congress about farm payments, crop subsidies, land set-asides, disaster loans and everything that rural North Dakotans wanted to hear from a Congressman. Dorgan was elected, that year, and over and over again, because he knew THE ANSWER.  It didn’t matter what the question was.

Besides controlling the Governor’s office for the last 22 years, Republicans occupy every single statewide office in North Dakota, four-fifths of the Legislature and have two-thirds of the Congressional delegation. Until two-party government returns to North Dakota, bringing with it healthy debate and a balanced approach to growth, the industry’s going  to continue to run amok, pipelines will keep bursting, flares will  keep burning, trains  will keep exploding, and the magnificent landscape of our precious state will be despoiled in a manner our grandparents could have never imagined. Shame on us. For not knowing THE ANSWER.

Now, Democrats, back to the beginning: Repeat after me:

“North Dakota’s oil industry is regulated by a three-member commission called the North Dakota Industrial Commission. The three members, all Republicans . . . “

10 thoughts on “THE ANSWER

  1. That’s why Byron was so interested in George Lakoff’s work on “framing.” See

    40 years ago I had friend in Winnipeg, Lawrie Cherniack, who was on the city council. His father was Saul, finance minister in Ed Schreyer’s NDP government. I asked him why, in a parliamentary system, the majority listens to the opposition if it can pass any legislation it wants to. He said, the majority has to listen to the opposition. They’re the reality check. They see things from a different perspective. When you don’t listen, you make mistakes. In a parliamentary system everybody knows whose fault it is when something goes wrong, and you’re voted out in the next election.

    In North Dakota, nobody in government listens to the Dem-NPL any more, and a lot of mistakes are being made. But the Dem-NPL needs to firmly grasp its role as the loyal opposition and make people listen.


  2. Thanks Jim. Media messaging 101. It is not rocket science. To get a platform such as the Rachel Maddow show( I did not watch it)and not be prepared as you state and not be prepared is indeed painful to read about.


  3. Sadly, it’s not just ND Dems. Most national Dems are bad too. Timid. And don’t connect on any kind of emotional level. Wonkish BS that inspires no one.


  4. All elected by a vote of all those who choose to vote. Your problem is not the answer, it is the individuals you select to run.
    Some of “us” voted for Dorgan, Conrad, Link, Promery to name a few. I would suggest it maybe the messenger. A message telling us exactly what they would do besides tax and spend would help. More regulations, higher taxes, higher cost of government does not sell


  5. North Dakota’s oil industry is regulated by a three-member commission called the North Dakota Industrial Commission. The three members, all Republicans!

    Another point to keep in mind, citizens elect these people, They need to want change.


  6. Good comments/observation on the ND Industrial Commission. I’m guessing, in spite of all the oil news, most North Dakotans are not aware of the very important role the commission plays in energy development and regulation in ND. Another news aspect. The New York Times may be taking a more critical and objective look (economically, politically and socially) at the impact of oil development in ND than any of our state’s newspapers. Keep up the good work/writing Jim. Myron Just Berlin and St. Paul


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