Over the years, I’ve been asked off and on if I’d ever consider running for public office. My response has always been the same: “You won’t see my name on a ballot until all my college roommates are dead.”
Dead men tell no tales.
A couple of my roommates are gone, but Ron and Jim and Len and Brad are still around . . .
Seems to me there are a few people who ought to pay attention to a theory like that. Like, um, Will Gardner . . .
And now there’s this fellow named Steve Bakken, a candidate for mayor of Bismarck. He seems to be kind of an angry fellow, but for a time became the darling of a group of Bismarck businessmen who have been at odds with Bismarck Mayor Mike Seminary.
Seminary and his fellow city commissioners have been tangling with home builders and developers for a few years, and awhile back those guys actually tried to launch a recall effort against him, but didn’t get their act together and came up short of valid signatures on their recall petitions, after a criminal investigation into petition fraud. I’m pretty sure mayor candidate Bakken had a hand in that screwed-up effort.
My understanding is that the Bismarck-Mandan Homebuilders Association has been unhappy with Seminary and the City Commission in general over the city attempting to assess utility costs to undeveloped lots in Bismarck, among other things. They’ve tried to convince some credible members of their group to step up and run against Seminary, to no avail.
Political gadfly Steve Bakken decided he was going fill the void, and was ready to run in the unsuccessful recall effort last year. When that didn’t work, he surfaced again this year to run against Seminary in the regularly scheduled election at the end of Seminary’s 4-year term. Knowing that homebuilders and developers were eager to get rid of Seminary, he approached them for support.
My friends who pay much more attention to city politics than I do say there was a lot of money at stake—the group had raised more than $75,000, and I heard from one friend it might have been as much as $100,000. If the group had given that money to Bakken, it might have been enough to get him elected.
But the group apparently did its homework and discovered a lot of dirty laundry in Bakken’s basket. I don’t know all the details, but people who seem to know this guy said his career had mostly been in radio, but that he had been fired from two different radio stations for behavioral issues.
Then someone dumped a bunch of paper in my mail box the other day, showing some court judgments against Bakken for unpaid bills, including one for several thousand dollars to Job Service North Dakota. Also included were a drunk driving arrest record and an apparent bankruptcy.
I guess the home builders group got the same documents, and just like that, I’m told, 75 grand and an endorsement from several local groups disappeared. And with that, probably his chance of getting elected disappeared too.
The money didn’t disappear, though. With an eye to dumping their other least-favorite commissioner, Nancy Guy, the builders and developers put more than $20,000 into the campaign of Greg Zenker, one of Guy’s opponents in next week’s election. Bismarck residents have probably noticed a big jump in spending on radio and fancy electronic billboards for Zenker in the last couple of weeks. Another challenger, Mark Splonskowski, picked up a few big checks from builders as well.
Oh, and there’s a couple other technicalities that probably ought to be pursued. First, I did take a look at the May 12 contribution reports, and Zenker lists a $400 donation from “Concrete Structures LLC.” LLC means Limited Liability Corporation. I’m pretty sure corporations are prohibited from making campaign contributions, and candidates are prohibited from taking them, in North Dakota. If the form is correct, Zenker is in violation of the law, the Corrupt Practices Act, I think.
Second, there’s a form that needs to be filled out by candidates to report their campaign contributions, so we know who’s contributing to them and how much they’re getting. Starting this year, city commission candidates need to report the total amount of money they raised, not just the contributions over $200.
Guy and candidate Beth Nodland did that. Zenker and Sponskowski used an old form and did not report everything, apparently in violation of the state’s campaign finance law. I’m not sure who is supposed to enforce that law, and what should be done about it, but if they want to be our city commissioners and make our city laws, they probably should comply with existing ones. I guess it would be up to the Burleigh County State’s Attorney to pursue legal action in these two cases.
I’m told there is still a big pool of money somewhere, maybe in the bank account of the Bismarck-Mandan Homebuilders Association, to try to influence city government. It remains to be seen when that will surface, but some of it may have already gone to Zenker. To look at all the contributions records you have to go to the 4th floor of City Hall and ask to see them, and its fishing season, and I have better things to do, so I haven’t seen all the records, just those pre-election records of Zenker and Splonskowski that were provided to me. As I’ve said many times, I’m a blogger–I don’t investigate, I speculate. Especially during fishing season.
The roots of this whole “Developers versus City Hall” scenario can likely be traced back to disputes over the location of an events center and of Bismarck’s downtown renaissance zones. A few years ago a developer named Ron Knutson wanted a new events center up north of town in his elk pasture, but the commissioners wanted it adjacent to the Civic Center, some say with an eye to encouraging the developers of Five South across the street. Knutson lost. Interestingly, Knutson’s name doesn’t appear on the one list of big check writers to Zenker’s campaign that I did see.
The dislike of Seminary and Guy and the departing Josh Askvig has been exacerbated by the somewhat clumsy handling of the whole city utility fees issue, which I don’t understand completely and won’t try to figure out here. But I think I’m going to vote to keep Guy in office (she is the daughter of my old friend Bill Guy, after all), and vote for Beth Nodland to join her (she is the daughter of my old friend Irv Nodland and the sister of my old friend Chad Nodland, after all). Okay, okay, they both deserve to be there on their own merits. I just can’t resist raising the hackles of my feminist friends once in a while.
The bottom line in the mayor’s race is this: There are a whole bunch of builders and developers who really wanted to dump the incumbent mayor of Bismarck, but picked the wrong horse (Bakken) to run against him. Worse, they failed to find a horse of their own and had no choice but to just back away to save their reputations. For better or for worse, it looks like we get Seminary for four more years. I think we could do worse.
I don’t really know Mike Seminary. I’ve had one encounter with him in his years as mayor. It was a chance meeting at a social event, and it happened early last winter, about the time the homeless crisis erupted in Bismarck when the Ruth Meiers Hospitality House closed its doors to homeless people as winter was coming on. In the course of our conversation, I said “Mike, you need to go and dig deep into the city’s budget and find some money for homeless people.”
Not long after that, the city found $10,000—not enough, but it helped—to support the United Way’s efforts to provide winter shelter. I applaud him for that. For that reason alone I’ll vote for Seminary and Guy next week. But they better drop that stupid idea of putting sidewalks in Highland Acres. We’re doing just fine over here without them.
UPDATE: I just learned, from one of my friends who actually did go to the 4th floor of City Hall and look at reports, that Greg Zenker filed an amended report removing the corporate contribution from his list of donors. I hope he also returned the check. And then he filed another report a couple days after the initial filing deadline, this time on the correct form, including his contributions under $200 and reporting total contributions of $26, 467.