Political parties exist for one primary purpose: to nominate candidates, generally of a like mind, for political office. Everything else political parties do is secondary to that.
To be sure, there are other important secondary functions: to provide a platform on which those candidates base their campaigns, to provide a supporting organization, and to provide money, or a means to raise it, for those campaigns.
But first and foremost, they endorse candidates and get them on the ballot. By that measure, the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party failed in its primary purpose at its convention this weekend. There are nine contested offices on the North Dakota ballot this year. Democrats nominated candidates for four. Democrats failed to nominate candidates for a majority of them. I am pretty sure that is unprecedented, even in the days prior to 1956 when the Nonpartisan League filed its candidates in the Republican column, and the election was decided in the September Primary Election.
In the 44 years I’ve been attending Democratic-NPL Party State Conventions, there have only been a couple of times that I can recall hearing those dreaded words from the floor of the convention: “Mr. Chairman, I move that the executive committee be empowered to endorse a candidate for the office of . . .” I heard it four times this weekend, and out of embarrassment, the party didn’t even fuss with providing a traditional letter of support for a candidate for the nonpartisan office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Dr. Wayne Sanstead, who held that office as a member of our party for 28 years, left the convention shaking his head.
A lot of us old timers left the convention shaking our heads. What’s happened to the party we’ve been part of, a party we’ve led, in various roles, for much of our lives? We’ve not won every election, but after the merger of the Democrats and the NPL, between 1960 and 1992 we held the governor’s office for 28 of those 32 years. When Wayne Stenehjem completes his first term in that office at the end of 2020, the Republicans will have even bettered our 28 years. Their 28 will be all in a row.
The four candidates we did manage to nominate will do just fine. They won’t embarrass our party. The two legislators who stepped up to run for Governor and Lieutenant Governor, Marvin Nelson and Joan Heckaman, are smart, well-spoken and sincere in their efforts to uphold the honor of our party. I’ve only gotten to know Marvin lately, but Joan and her husband Dewey have been friends of mine, and I cautioned her a couple of weeks ago about running. She wrote to me “We know we will be outspent, but we want to move issues forward that may help other candidates and set the stage for future years. I am very concerned about the party. That is why I am willing to run.” Good words from a good person.
Chase Iron eyes is an up-from-the-bottom story unlike any candidate ever to run for high office in North Dakota. I’m going to have him help me tell the whole story one of these days. Eliot Glassheim ‘s brilliant mind lives in a shell of body devastated by cancer for the last two years, which means we won’t see him much out on the campaign trail, but we’ll certainly hear from him. He might just be the smartest person ever to run for the U.S. Senate in North Dakota, and certainly the funniest. And funnest.
Then there are the offices of Auditor, Treasurer, Insurance Commissioner, Public Service Commissioner and Superintendent of Public Instruction. The Convention failed to nominate anyone for those offices.
Only one Democrat, Arthur W. Porter in 1892, has been elected state auditor. He served two years. I don’t know why North Dakotans don’t trust Democrats to audit their books, but it just never happens. So we’re not giving up much in that race. Still, it could happen in 2016. Because for the first time since 1972, there won’t be a man named Robert Peterson on the ballot. It’s an open seat, and an unknown bureaucrat was endorsed today in Fargo by the Republicans. Sigh.
We’ve won the other four offices many times, though, and could win them this year. Republican incumbent Insurance Commissioner Adam Hamm is leaving his job, making that an open seat. Kirsten Baesler in the education office has her own personal trials to deal with. Treasurer Kelly Schmidt and PSC member Julie Fedorchak are a bit tougher, although Schmidt is probably the most incompetent person ever to hold that office. Expect Fedorchak’s next six years to serve as her grooming ground for higher office. She’s ambitious and is likely the next rising star in the Republican Party.
So we just give those four a free ride? Well, this is the next test of leadership in the Party. Will someone step up and take charge? Because the Party’s chairman, executive committee and staff have abdicated. The next step is up to the party’s Legislative Leaders, Sen. Mac Schneider and Kenton Onstad.
There are 12 Democratic-NPL Legislators who are not running for office this year because they are in the middle of four year terms, in addition to the two who are running for Governor and Lieutenant Governor. By comparison, there are 56 Republican Legislators who are holdovers this year. That’s how far our party has sunk. 56-14. In the 2014 election, there were 70 legislative seats up for election. Republicans won 56. Democrats won 14. So it is hard to lay all the blame on the current leadership of the party. The ship was sinking when they got on. The 2014 election was the worst for our party since the blowout of 1966. Last election, we didn’t even field candidates in 16 Legislative races, also an unprecedented number, so there was the beginning of the current trend. In fact, I have to give the youngsters who took on the challenge of running the party this year credit for even jumping in. But they’re obviously over their heads. And that’s why our Legislative leaders have to step up. Here’s what they have to do.
The filing deadline to get candidates endorsed for statewide office is a week from Monday, April 11. So this week, Onstad and Schneider need to get those 12 holdover legislators in a room, lock the door, and say “Okay, nobody leaves this room until five of you volunteer to run for statewide office. Let’s not take all day with this. Who’s first?”
The 12 are:
Sen. Richard Marcellais, Belcourt
Sen. Tim Mathern, Fargo
Sen. Carolyn Nelson, Fargo
Sen. Erin Oban, Bismarck
Rep. Tracy Boe, Mylo
Rep. Ron Guggisberg, Fargo
Rep. Kris Wallman, Fargo
Rep. Kathy Hogan, Fargo
Rep. Mary Schneider, Fargo
Rep. Alisa Mitskog, Wahpeton
Rep. Pamela Anderson, Fargo
Rep. Lois Delmore, Grand Forks
Pam Anderson is a retired banker. She’s surely qualified to be State Auditor or Treasurer. Kathy Hogan, Fargo’s longtime Social Services Director, can take the one Pam doesn’t want. Ron Guggisberg is a fireman—perfect for Insurance Commissioner. If he doesn’t want it, Mitskog, a chiropractor, surely fits the bill. Mary Schneider is a lawyer. We could use one of those on the PSC. Carolyn Nelson, Erin Oban and Lois Delmore have teaching degrees, and Kris Wallman is a former Fargo School Board member, just like Kirsten Baesler was before she became State Superintendent. Just pick one of those four.
There, Mac and Kenton. There’s a ticket. Don’t let the party down.
Aside: Notice a trend in that list? 9 of the 12 are from the Red River Valley. Of the 14 Democrats elected to the Legislature in 2014, only five were from outside the Red River Valley. All of North Dakota west of I-29 elected only five Democratic-NPL Legislators in 2014, and three of those were from the Turtle Mountain Reservation district, District 9. Other than District 9, the only two Democrats elected from west of the Red River Valley were Joan Heckaman from New Rockford and Erin Oban from Bismarck. That is very, very scary. It is very nearly the end of our party west of Fargo. I talked with the Dem-NPL caucus co-chair, young Ben Hanson, at the convention, and he told me that in spite of rumors, Legislative candidate recruiting is going pretty well this year. He thinks there’s a chance there’ll be candidates in every district, with most district tickets full. A marked increase from last election, when there were 16 vacancies on our Legislative ticket. He and a couple of his House and Senate colleagues will be hard at work this week. I have some confidence in them. We’ll see.
Here are some random Convention notes. The Party was good enough to give me media credentials to get in the door, so I figure I better write something about the Convention.
A STRATEGIC ERROR
When the Convention convened Friday morning, the Credentials Committee reported 252 registered delegates. That’s the fewest in my 44 years of conventions. Here’s why. Convention planners (the same leaders responsible for most of our party’s ills) scheduled the convention for a Friday and a Saturday, instead of a Saturday and Sunday That’s stupid. Teachers and working people make up a good core of our party’s faithful who attend meetings and conventions and work the phone banks and knock on doors. They work on Fridays, so we’ve always had our convention on the weekend, so working people could attend. Especially this year, with enthusiasm for our party on a statewide level at an all-time low, we made a big mistake by shutting them out for half the convention. A couple hundred more showed up Saturday, when there really wasn’t much on the agenda. Most came to see friends. But a lot more didn’t come at all, because they didn’t want to pay a full registration fee for a half-day of activity. They’d rather give that money to their local legislative candidates. With more than 1600 Republicans gathered down the road in Fargo, Democrats at their best managed only a fourth of that. Another sign of weakness. Another embarrassment.
EQUALITY VS. CHIVALRY
Saturday morning was Woman’s Day at the convention. Senators Heidi Heitkamp and Kirsten Gillibrand gave rousing speeches. Convention Chair Kylie Overson pointed out that we have at least one woman on every legislative ticket in the state so far. A House of Representatives member herself, she trotted out all the female legislators and candidates onstage. It was a great moment, and it is obvious that women have come far in our party. There is equality in our party, and we should be very proud of that. We were. Until we went to the luncheon upstairs sponsored by the state party. We were seated at tables of 8. At my table there were six men and two women. A server came toward us with two plates. She squeezed between the chairs occupied by the men and set the two plates down in front of the two women, and then left to get plates for us men. I feigned indignation over that, which made my friend Laura Anhalt, sitting at my table, laugh. WTF? Equality AND Chivalry are alive and well in our party, I guess.
THE MISSING PRESIDENT
Heidi gave a darn good speech, I thought. She went on a tear about the accomplishments of our Democratic Presidents. Franklin Roosevelt brought us the New Deal. Lyndon Johnson brought the Great Society. Jimmy Carter fought for farmers. Bill Clinton balanced the budget. We all cheered each one. And then she stopped. No mention of Barack Obama bringing health care to millions of Americans and leading us out of recession. That made me sad. In fact, Obama’s name wasn’t mentioned once from the convention podium all day Friday and most of the day Saturday, until Earl Pomeroy’s return appearance and speech to the convention late Saturday afternoon. Thank you Earl. He gave a fiery speech, like the Earl of old, noting that he was glad to be there because the Democratic-NPL convention had endorsed him for office 12 times (he pointed out he won 11 of those races.) He was the only one to mention the man who might just be one of our greatest Presidents ever. That made me sad.
Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad weren’t there. Previous commitments. Grace Link, at 97, sat in the front row with her son and grandson and was recognized twice, as was Bruce Hagen, who became the Democratic-NPL’s first (and only) Public Service Commissioner in 1961. I mentioned Sanstead, who served as Art Link’s lieutenant governor for 8 years, earlier. George Sinner, now nearing 90, is frail and wasn’t up to making the trip. He was my boss for eight years, and I sat in the back of the hall and thought about the joyous conventions during his years: the year we had four candidates traveling the state vying for the right to run against an incumbent Republican Governor (a race he won); the two years we had a majority of the House of Representatives; the eight years we had a majority in the State Senate; and those years in the 1980s and 1990s when we controlled almost every office in the State Capitol. I don’t think he would have liked this convention much.
EYES OF IRON
Chase Iron Eyes is the first Native American to be endorsed for Congress by either major political party in North Dakota. If he wins he will join just two other Native Americans in the U.S. House of Representatives, both Republicans. In our country’s history, just 14 Native Americans have served in the U.S. House. He gave a great speech, his story is a good one, and he is a skilled organizer. Kevin Cramer is not a shoo-in for re-election with Iron Eyes as an opponent. His presence on the ticket will be an asset to the rest of the ticket (such as it is), because he will turn out huge numbers of traditional Democrat votes on the state’s four reservations. I think Heidi kind of wishes she was on the ticket this year, because, while she ran a great campaign four years ago, the reservation vote was critical to her 53-47 percent victory. I expect she’ll be trying hard to get him elected so he’s on the ticket when she runs in 2018. Chase has built an impressive following as the founder of the Lakota People’s Law Project and Last Real Indians, an organization which describes itself as “a media movement grounded in our pre-contact ways of life. We are independent media with direction. We are an adaptation of our story-tellers. We are content creators of many origins with a vision of returning Indigenous peoples of all “races” to a state of respect for generations unborn. We are a confluence of the waters of many peoples flowing quiet and mighty. We are taking our place, telling the world. Creating the New Indigenous Millennium.” Those are Chase’s words. “A confluence of the waters of many peoples flowing quiet and mighty.” Wow. I think his campaign will impress you.
Eliot Glassheim’s presence on the ticket—and his Skype appearance at the convention after he was drafted by his District 18 Legislative colleague Sen. Connie Triplett—lent a true moment of inspiration to an otherwise dreary convention. Glassheim was diagnosed with cancer last year, and was pretty much given a death sentence. He subsequently announced his retirement from the Legislature after 26 years of service, ending a life of public service that also included about 20 years on the Grand Forks City Commission. The city of Grand Forks held what was basically a wake for him last year and showered him with praise and honors. And then he began an experimental chemo-therapy program and, miracle of miracles, it worked. He was declared cancer-free last week. Tall, lanky, skinny (and even skinnier now), sardonic and very, very bright, he would be the first PhD to win a U.S. Senate seat from North Dakota if he should beat John Hoeven. Oh, and I said earlier Eliot was funny. Here’s one of my favorite Eliot Glassheim quotes. Eliot was asked to comment on the retirement of Rep. Ken Svdejan, a conservative Grand Forks legislator with whom Eliot served on the House appropriations committee. Eliot searched hard for something nice to say, and finally came up with this: “I thought he (Ken Svdejan) was more fiscally cautious than he needed to be (and) unreasonably afraid of disasters that might occur in the future. I think North Dakota would be better off if he had voted with me at least 10 percent more frequently.”
ONE ON ONE
Finally, a wish for something I’d love to see. Jim Poolman, husband of Republican Lt. Governor candidate Nicole Poolman (I picked her out of a crowd earlier this year—you can read about her here if you want) and Duane Heckaman, husband of Democratic-NPL candidate for the same office, Joan Heckaman, are the two tallest spouses of competing Lieutenant Governor candidates ever. Poolman’s about 6-3. He’s 45, so he’s probably quit growing. Heckaman was 6-8 when he played basketball for Dickinson State in the 1960s. He may have lost an inch as he passed 70. I want to see them go one-on-one at the Y and just settle this Lieutenant Governor thing right now. Heckaman’s got a few inches on Poolman, but Poolman’s 25 years younger than Heckaman (although I’ve seen Dewey shooting around at the Y during Legislative Sessions and he moves pretty well for a senior citizen). They’re both in pretty good shape. So I think it’s a pretty even match. I bet we could sell tickets for that, and the campaigns could split the proceeds.
BURGUM AND WAYNE
I’ll conclude with a note about Republicans. Doug Burgum has been a sort of friend of mine for a number of years. I think he has real leadership qualities, and I was happy to see him get involved in politics. I remember that he joked once that he purposely kept his hair long to keep the Republicans away from his door. But I’m not impressed with his political skills. I told him early this year I thought if he could get 25 per cent of the convention delegates, he could set the stage for a good Primary race. That didn’t happen. In spite of spending a lot of money, and running a pretty good by-the-book ground game before the convention, his message didn’t take. He made a miserable showing at the Republican convention this weekend. Changing his name from Doug Burgum to Conservative Doug Burgum didn’t fool most people. And his promise not to take a salary didn’t work in a state like North Dakota, which doesn’t have a lot of people who could do that. Or would see much sense in it. It sounded too much like trying to buy the election. Now he’s got to decide tomorrow whether to run in the Republican Primary against Wayne two months from now or to take out petitions and run as an independent in November. I said it earlier, and I’ll say it again: If he runs in the Primary, he’s going to have a very short political career. If he runs as an independent in November, he will create the most interesting race for Governor this state has ever seen. And he might just be Governor. Which he says he wants to be. By the way, you’ll notice a few sentences back I said Doug would be running against Wayne in the Primary, not using Wayne’s last name. There’s a reason for that. I told Wayne last week that after years of trying to type our current Governor’s last name and getting it wrong about half the time, I’ve been looking forward to him going away, and to having a governor whose last name I can spell. And then along comes Wayne with his goofy Norwegian last name which sounds like Sten-jum but isn’t spelled that way. So I’m dropping it. From now on its just Wayne. I’m retired. This is a blog. I shouldn’t have to work so hard at it. I’d rather be fishing than sitting at my computer trying to type a name I can’t spell.
Note: I had an error in the section of this post regarding the number of Democratic-NPL Legislators elected in 2014. I have fixed the numbers. They are correct now. That’s the beauty of a blog. In my old newspaper days, I’d have just had to live with the wrong numbers.