Voting For Burgum: A Primer for Democrats

It was late afternoon on an dreary late October day in 1990. I was stopped at the 5th Street railroad crossing in downtown Bismarck, waiting for a train to go by on the tracks in front of me. I looked to my left and there, in the car beside me, was Ed Schafer. He spotted me about the same time. He pushed the button on his electric window to roll it down. I cranked the handle in mine. He leaned across the seat and shouted, over the roar of the train, “Jim, will you vote for me next Tuesday?”

I shook my head and yelled back “Sorry, Ed, I have to vote for Byron.”

We exchanged a couple more greetings over the train noise, and then the cross-arms went up and we went our ways.

I didn’t know Ed well then, not like I do now. He had returned to North Dakota after the sale of the Gold Seal Company about the same time I became North Dakota Tourism Director, and our mutual interest in Medora and the Bad Lands had caused our paths to cross a few times. I think he liked me, or at least liked the job I was doing as Tourism Director. I know I liked him, but not enough to vote against my nearly lifelong friend Byron Dorgan, who was running for his sixth term in the U.S. Congress.

I liked Ed well enough to vote for him for Governor two years later, though, and again when he sought re-election in 1996. My friends know I’ve been a Democrat ever since my dad told me he was voting for JFK in 1960. I asked him why, and he said, “Because he’s a Democrat. And a Catholic. I can trust him. Don’t think I can trust that Nixon.”

Trust. Good enough for him then, good enough for me today.

But I’ve never let politics transcend friendship. I’ve voted for enough Republicans, because they were my friends, to cause some head-shaking among my Democrat friends. I don’t always agree with what they say or do, or how they act or vote when they’re in office (witness: Kevin Cramer), but they are my friends, and I’ll stick by them. And if that means voting for a Republican, then I’ll do that.

I’m going to do that Tuesday. I’m going to vote in the Republican Primary Election for Doug Burgum for Governor of North Dakota. For more reasons than just friendship, though. In fact, we’re not close friends. We’ve visited a few times, shared beer and pizza, and we both love and care about the North Dakota Bad Lands. I like him (although I liked him a bit better before this campaign got so ugly) and I think he likes me. I had one of his campaign signs in my yard until my wife ripped it down when he endorsed Donald Trump (I didn’t argue with her about that—she was right). Like I said, I don’t always agree with my friends.

But I’m going to vote for Doug Burgum for Governor on Tuesday, and I’m going to urge all my Democrat friends—right here, right now—to do the same. There are no contests on the Democratic-NPL primary ballot, so it won’t hurt any Democrats if you do that.

Here’s why.

With apologies to my new friend, Marvin Nelson, the winner of the Burgum-Stenehjem contest is going to be the next Governor of North Dakota. For at least the next four years, Maybe eight. And between those two, I pick Burgum.

I wish I could predict that Marvin Nelson would win in November over whomever wins in the Republican contest on Tuesday, but it is not his time. Not yet. Not this year. But Marvin is younger than his white whiskers make him appear, and his time might yet come. He’s probably the smartest candidate on the ballot this year, maybe in many years, and if he’s as smart as I think he is, he’ll run a good preparatory race this year, looking ahead to 2020.

And the Democrats, if my friend Mike Jacobs is to be believed (and he usually is), may have reached their nadir this year. There are signs of Democratic-NPL life in young people running for everything from City Council to the Legislature this year, and holding local offices in places like Bismarck and Fargo and Grand Forks. Rebuilding is underway. But this year, it’s the Republicans who will win. Which makes Tuesday’s Governor clash important.

Because I think Doug Burgum will be better for North Dakota than Wayne Stenehjem. At least on the issues I care most about. There was a day not long ago when I could hardly wait for Jack Dalrymple to retire so Wayne could be Governor, but then somewhere along the line, Wayne became Jack. And we don’t need no more Jack. Jack’s been no leader at all, just a stumblebum riding the crest of an oil boom, and I feel like Wayne promises more of the same—if we get a boom back. If we do, and the oil industry goes nuts on us again, the lax regulatory policies of the Dalrymple administration will likely return, and we’ll get even more environmental damage this time around, because now they have to “catch up,” so we can’t mess with them—give them free rein to rip up everything in sight to get their blood money flowing again.

If we don’t get the boom back, I think Wayne promises more of the “head in the sand until we DO get a boom again” policies of Jack. And we can’t afford that. We don’t know what Burgum brings, but it has to be better. I know that he’s good on conservation issues (my main focus these days), although he’s kept it pretty well hidden in the 2016 Republican primary race—it ain’t cool to be a conservationist in this year’s Republican party—just a conservative. Funny how those two words with a common base have taken on such different meanings. Didn’t used to be that way.

And that brings me back to where I started this rant, with Ed Schafer. Ed’s done a few things this year which I really admire. And I’ll actually be thinking of him when I vote Tuesday. In a phone conversation earlier this year, I joking asked Ed who’s waiting out in the hall to see him after our call—Doug Burgum or Wayne Stenehjem. “Well, they’ve both been here,” he said. I asked him if he had made a pick. “Not yet,” he replied.

Well, he did, eventually, and he picked Burgum, and he endorsed him, and even made a TV spot for him. That was a big step. A former Republican Governor endorsing someone who’s running against the party’s endorsed candidate. Took some balls. And a belief, I think, that indeed, we don’t need no more Jack.

As might be expected, he took some heat, mostly from Legislators who made offhanded references to his position as interim president of UND, but Ed stood up to them. They were wrong. He was right. Good for him.

And then he said some more things I agree with about Burgum’s campaign. He was pretty critical of the campaign, laying the blame on out-of-state advisers. I think Burgum could have done better too. He started out using a club instead of a scalpel (Stenehjem supports Obamacare), and that turned a lot of people off, and it made his later, more finely tuned campaign messages a little harder for a lot of people to swallow.

For the most part, it’s been a textbook campaign: He had to admit to himself right away that the election is not about him, it is about Stenehjem—Stenehjem is viewed as the incumbent, and Burgum had to give voters a reason to throw out an incumbent. North Dakotans are nice people, and they don’t just go around firing people from their jobs for no good reason. But the Obamacare stint was not believable, and not effective, and it also really pissed off Democrats whose votes might be necessary, not just in the Primary, but in the fall, if he wins in June.

The Good Old Boys Club theme, in my mind, (there really is one you know, including Dalrymple and Stenehjem, Pat Finken, Shane Goettle, Ron Rauschenberger, Drew Wrigley and a couple of Poolmans, among others—a few of them whom I like, personally, and consider half-assed friends) was much more effective, coming at a time when North Dakota’s government was in a bit of a crisis mode. If North Dakotans who are going to vote in Tuesday’s Republican Primary Election can be convinced that things are NOT okay here, and a change in leadership really IS needed, that message works.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that will happen. I don’t think that Republicans in North Dakota are worried enough, and pissed off enough, to throw out their leaders right now. I think there’s a good bit of “head in the sand” mentality among voters too, not just elected officials. And I think that means Wayne Stenehjem wins.


Unless Democrats and Independents and others who NEVER vote in the Republican column in Primary Elections decide it’d time to throw out the state’s leaders. If enough others believe, as I do, that whoever wins Tuesday will be the next Governor, they should, and maybe will, turn out and vote for Doug Burgum.

My guess is that all the advertising will draw about 100,000 voters to that race Tuesday, about twice as many as normally vote in a Primary. It’s going to take 50,000 votes plus one to win. Wayne got that many in the 2014 Primary Election, running unopposed for Attorney General. I think Doug Burgum has made a good enough case to attract maybe as many as 40,000 Republicans to turn out and vote for him. So if 9,999 of my Democrat and Independent friends and I show up and vote in the Republican column Tuesday, this thing could be pretty close. I hope that happens.

I know, I know, it’s pretty uncomfortable doing that. Here’s how I do it. I look down at the ballot and ignore all the party names and columns and stuff, and I find the name of the Republican I want to vote for—this time, Doug Burgum. I take the pencil in my right hand (I’m right handed) and then I grab my right wrist firmly with my left hand to stop my hand from shaking, so that I  don’t scribble all over the page when I’m trying to fill in that little circle, and then I close my eyes and fill it in. Then I open my eyes and quickly scan down the page to the Superintendent of Public Instruction spot on the No-Party ballot, so that I’m not tempted to stop on the way down and vote for a Democrat and spoil the ballot.

And that’s how it’s done. Good luck.

P.S. Here’s something important to remember: If Doug Burgum beats Wayne Stenehjem in the Republican Primary on Tuesday, and goes on to win in the fall, he’ll take office in December. When he shows up for his first Industrial Commission meeting in January, he’ll be sitting right beside Wayne Stenehjem. Because Wayne Stenehjem will still be Attorney General. I’m not going to miss that meeting. On the other hand, if Wayne wins, he gets to appoint his own successor as Attorney General. That will effectively give him two votes on the Industrial Commission. The Industrial Commission regulates, so to speak, the oil industry. There will be two entirely different dynamics possible on that body next year, depending on the outcome of Tuesday’s election. In either case, if the old Wayne Stenehjem shows up at the meeting, things could be quite different than if the one we’ve been watching the last couple of years shows up. We’ll see. You can be sure the oil industry is taking a keen interest in the outcome. A keen financial interest. We’ll add it up later.


9 thoughts on “Voting For Burgum: A Primer for Democrats

  1. Rob Port would blather that Democrats should not be voting in the Republican primary to which I would respond that he would be happiest if Democrats had no voice in the state at all. The state is so completely Republican anymore. The Democratic party will be back when the Republicans have the state totally screwed up.


  2. A lot of stuff here, Jim. I agree with quite a bit of it. Nelson is the smartest but starts out with so many disadvantages including money that it is more than an uphill climb.

    I am not sure that Wayne became Jack— I suspect he always was but had Jack and other to cover for him. He really is a pretty good political lawyer. He can duck whatever controversy he needs to. His position of incarceration and addiction treatment is a breathe of fresh air and I really do not know where Burgum stands here.

    If the shoe was on the other foot, the Republicans would jump ship in a heartbeat to have a power position in just who the opposition is.

    Burgum is still a part of this ole boys club—–has been for a long time. A highly placed Republican recently told me that Burgum really is unhappy with how the state is being run. Could be.

    I would question Burgum’s positions on just how to do that. Government cannot be run just like a business. It does require its operation of some specific business principals and a far better run bureaucracy that we now have.

    We pretty much know who Wayne is beholder to. Oil has had a large voice here for some time. That needs to change. I do not know if Burgum can or wants to do that.

    I suppose that I have my own bias here as I am running for a House seat. To win, Democrats need to sort out what they really believe in and stand up and speak out. Saying a lot of nothing has not worked for a long time and it should not. Of course, our Republicans do not have to do much. Just have an R as your first name and you win. If we take the fight to them, we really can improve our state—for everybody. It is pretty early but some hopeful signs have appeared.

    Burgum might be the lesser of those who hold beliefs that the many should rule the few. Not much more.


  3. I was thinking of doing that too..but decided I won’t. It’s the Burgum campaign…if that’s what he believes in –hating the Affordable Care Act, endorsing Trump–he’s not for me. I won’t do it.


    1. Yeah Duane, the campaign was ugly. But this is not about Burgum. It is about Stenehjem–four more years of what we just went through. I’ll take anything else than that.


  4. Good read Jim. As you know I’m a pretty fiscally conservative guy with an R behind his name, but also a pragmatist. I can remember when I use to upset my R friends when Guy and the Dems took over the state. (ND has had a bit of a parlaimentary thinking — single party rule, whether NPL, Republican, Democrat, then Republican again). They got upset when I told them Dorgan and Conrad were getting elected and reelected because they were so good and worked so hard. Things started to unravel for the Dems back in the 80s. They would have been bad years for any governor, but the Dems for whatever the reason couldn’t get up the Hill.
    Now here is where I disagree with you. The Democrat debacle is not their fault. It’s the result of stars lining up for us guys ever since Ed S got elected. He was good. He steered us through the correction we needed. Then Hoeven kept the upward curve. Now, don’t choke on this, but Dalrymple has been as solid as either, because believe it or not, managing wealth is every bit as challenging and complicated as dealing with hard times. You can only do three things with too much money: spend it, give it back, or save it. We have done a bit of all three. I’m as confident as you and your legions are: The good old boys are bound to stub their toes and the Democratic party will one day rise again. It’s the way of all flesh. I just don’t think they have done it yet, nor will they do it under Stenehjem. Ad he will win handily. If I’m wrong you can send me an email that says Na, na nana na!.And that’s okay by me because I believe ND will still be in good hands. Wish I could feel the same on the federal level.


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