Why The Republicans Control North Dakota Government

Pretty much every political pundit (including me) has declared the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party dead after this year’s election, and the debate continues to rage (well, maybe not rage, but to be discussed) among Democrats about what caused the demise of the party after so many years as a major political force in our state. Most of my friends have heard me blame it on the 1992 election for Governor, a quarter of a century past now, but still fresh in the minds of people my age. Most agree that election was key.

Republicans in North Dakota also acknowledge that election—the election of Ed Schafer as Governor—was a turning point in state politics, and the beginning of their rise to total control of state government, according to a story in Sunday’s Bismarck Tribune. Party leaders, including Chairman Rick Berg and Senator-elect Kevin Cramer, tried to claim the Republican Party’s rise to domination was because North Dakotans like Republican policies. Wrong. The real reason: Whoever holds the Governor’s office in our small state uses it to build a strong party, and right now the Republicans have that office and won’t give it back. Let’s review.

Democrats held the Governor’s office for 28 out of 32 years between 1960 and 1992. And they used that office to build the strongest party our state has ever seen. In 1992, Governor George Sinner, first elected in 1984, declined to seek a third term and the Democratic-NPL Party nominated State Senator Bill Heigaard for Governor over Attorney General Nick Spaeth in a bitter and hotly contested state convention. Heigaard was the champion of progressives, who were flexing their muscles into party leadership here, and Spaeth was a moderate, and widely popular, statewide figure who everyone expected would get the party’s nomination and go on to be elected Governor.

I admit to some role in both of their careers. I worked closely with Heigaard during his years as North Dakota Senate Majority Leader (more about that in a minute) and was one of those who encouraged him to run for Governor in 1992, when everyone was pretty much conceding the nomination to Spaeth, and I served as an advisor to him during the run-up to the state convention.

But I had also been one of the party leaders who recruited Spaeth, a young unknown Fargo lawyer, to run for Attorney General in 1984, and he upset incumbent Robert Wefald in what was something of a “wave” election period in our state.

Democrats had taken a shellacking in the Republicans’ own wave election of 1980, the Reagan landslide, losing the Governor’s office for the first time in 20 years, and almost every statewide elected office. When the dust settled after the 1980 election, Allen Olson was the first Republican elected Governor since John Davis in 1958, and there were just two Democrats in the Capitol tower, newly-elected Tax Commissioner Kent Conrad and longtime Public Service Commissioner Bruce Hagen. Republicans won every other statewide office that year, and also won huge margins in the Legislature, 40-10 in the Senate and 73-27 in the House.

But Democrats bounced back quickly in 1982, led by Buckshot Hoffner’s “Majority ’82 Committee,” capturing control of the House by a 55-51 majority (reapportionment had increased the Legislature from 50 to 53 districts that year) and more than doubling their Senate caucus to 21 members. Among those elected to the House was George A. “Bud” Sinner, who went on to capture the Governor’s nomination in 1984 in a raucous convention process over Hoffner, a longtime Legislator who had lost a race for Agriculture Commissioner in 1980, former longtime State Highway Commissioner Walter Hjelle, and former Governor Art Link.

Link could have easily beaten Sinner if he had chosen to ignore the wishes of his party’s convention and gone on to a Primary Election challenge. But he didn’t. If he’d run and won the primary, he’d have had a rematch with Olson, who had beaten him in 1980, but things had changed in North Dakota, and Link’s odds of winning would have been pretty good. But he chose party unity instead, threw his support behind Sinner, and Sinner won. An aside–Link’s concession speech at the convention, after losing on the third ballot to Sinner, was probably the best political speech I’ve ever heard. There wasn’t a dry eye on the convention floor.

Democrats also won a bunch of the other statewide races in 1984, including Spaeth’s race for Attorney General, and then went on to win a majority in the State Senate in 1986, a majority they held for 8 years, with Heigaard as their floor leader. But when Sinner chose not to run for a third term in 1992, Heigaard left the Senate to run for Governor. And was nominated at the state convention over Spaeth.

But Spaeth challenged Heigaard in the Primary and won the nomination easily that way, and then ran a lackadaisical campaign against Ed Schafer, and lost the General Election in what was considered a huge upset. Schafer’s chief strategist that year, by the way, was a young fellow named Kevin Cramer.

Buoyed by the power of appointment and the attention of the state’s media, Schafer began doing what Bill Guy and Art Link and Bud Sinner had done before him, using the office to begin building a party. And man, he was good at it.

Democrats never recovered. A critical loss was Heidi Heirkamp’s Governor’s race in 2000, after Schafer declined to run for a third term, where circumstances beyond her control—a battle with cancer—cost her the race against John Hoeven. A win by Democrats that year could have stopped the Republican tide.

Hoeven continued Ed’s party-building work, going on to the U.S. Senate after 2½ terms as Governor, and with his help, Cramer put the final nail in the Democrats’ coffin this year with his win over Heitkamp for the other Senate seat.

And that’s pretty much the end of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party–for now.

There’s no way to stress enough the importance of the role of the Governor’s office in party building. The power of appointment is a huge tool, in two ways. First, officers at every level in a political party become important because they help determine WHO gets WHAT in an administration. There are government jobs to dole out, at every level, from appointing a successful businessman as Economic Development Director or OMB Director, to hiring a local supporter to run the motor vehicle offices in remote corners of the state. Those kinds of rewards draw people to a party organization, providing campaign workers and campaign cash.

And then there are the BIG jobs that come available from time to time—vacancies in statewide elective offices. A LOT of well-known North Dakota elected officials got their start by first being appointed to office by a Governor.

Bill Guy, for example, appointed Bruce Hagen to the Public Service Commission in 1961, and Hagen served 40 years before retiring in 2000. Guy appointed three Tax Commissioners, including Lloyd Omdahl, who later became Bud Sinner’s Lieutenant Governor by appointment after Ruth Meiers died in office, and Byron Dorgan, who got his start in politics and government when Guy appointed him Tax Commissioner in 1969, when he was just 26 years old, the youngest constitutional officer in state history. The rest is history that you know.

Art Link appointed Myron Just as Agriculture Commissioner and Bob Hanson as Treasurer after their predecessors died in office. Al Olson got just one appointment, Dale Sandstrom to the Public Service Commission when Richard Elkin resigned to go to work as a lobbyist for the railroad, which he had regulated from his seat on the PSC for 15 years.

Sinner got to appoint Omdahl as his Lieutenant Governor when Lieutenant Governor Ruth Meiers died in office, and Heidi Heitkamp Tax Commissioner when Kent Conrad was elected to the Senate. He also got to appoint a United States Senator, appointing Jocelyn Burdick to fill her husband’s seat for a few months after Quentin Burdick died in office in 1992. Sinner also got two critical State Supreme Court appointments, including Beryl Levine, the first woman to serve on the court, endearing Sinner and the Democrats to women voters.

Then in 1993, Schafer and the Republican took over, and began their own string of appointments—and there were a lot.

Schafer appointed Susan Wefald to the Public Service Commission when Sandstrom quit to become a North Dakota Supreme Court Justice.

Hoeven got the most significant appointments, and it was during his term that the Republican Party really grew in strength and the Democratic-NPL Party started to really fade away. Hoeven appointed Corey Fong Tax Commissioner, Adam Hamm Insurance Commissioner, Doug Goehring Agriculture Commissioner and gave Kevin Cramer his elective office start, appointing him to the Public Service Commission after Leo Reinbold resigned during a sexual harassment scandal.

Dalrymple, who himself became Governor without getting elected when he succeeded Hoeven, who resigned as Governor and went off to Washington to be a Senator, also had four appointments, including Drew Wrigley as his Lieutenant Governor, Ryan Rauschenberger as Tax Commissioner, Julie Fedorchak to the Public Service Commission, and little-remembered Bonny Fetch, who he appointed to serve for a few months on the Public Service Commission when Tony Clark got appointed to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, prior to Randy Christmann’s election in 2012.

Burgum’s also had one appointment in two years, appointing Brian Kroshus to the PSC to replace Brian Kalk, who resigned with a little more than a year left on his term.

Public Service Commissioners and Tax Commissioners seem to have a revolving door, with many of them, if not most, getting appointed to the job before getting elected. And all were elected in their own right after their appointments. Of the nine people who have served as Tax Commissioner since 1960, six of them were first appointed to office before being elected. Fourteen people have served as North Dakota Public Service Commissioners since Bill Guy took office in 1961, and exactly half—seven of them—were appointed to the job. All but Fetch were elected on their own later.

The long point I am making here is that when you give someone a jump start on a political office, it is easier for them to get elected and stay in office when their appointment term is up. So having the power of appointment is a real factor in building the strength of a political party, if you measure strength by how many offices they hold—and I do. Right now, in North Dakota, Republicans hold EVERY statewide political office. That’s strong.

And those appointments are only half the story in building a party. There are hundreds of boards and commission jobs in North Dakota, and the appointments to those positions are how governors and party leaders reward the party faithful. Most governors actually have a person on their staff whose job it is to fill those appointments. When I was working for the Democratic-NPL Party, my best friend quickly became Carol Siegert, who handled appointments for Governor Sinner. We found people for boards and commissions who were qualified to serve, but who were also Democrats, and we often called on district chairmen to help fill the jobs. District chairmen were important to a strong party. If they were rewarded by having people from their district appointed to the barber’s board or the nurse’s board or the cosmetologist’s board, they worked a little harder to raise money for the party, to find good legislative candidates, and to put together a local organization to help elect more Democrats.

I recall a day in the Spring of 1985 when I was working for the Democratic-NPL Party and got a phone call from Highway Commissioner Walt Hjelle, who had just come back to work in that job for Sinner after a four-year hiatus when Olson was Governor.

“Jim,” he said “we’ve got a big highway project up by Devils Lake and there will be a whole bunch of summer jobs for young people. I told my district engineer I was going to have the District Democrat Chairman send Democrats’ kids out for those jobs. So you call up Bob Whitney and tell him to spread the word that there are summer jobs for Democrats up there. I’m tired of all those Republican kids getting those jobs.”

It really used to work like that. To the victors go the spoils. Democrats did that for more than 30 years. For almost as long now, the Republican Party has had those perks, and the Democrats haven’t.

So all of that, I believe, the ability to use the office of Governor to buiId the party, is the key factor that has led to the dominance of the Republican Party and the demise of the Democratic-NPL Party. It’s a bit of an over-simplification, but it’s a reality. When you’ve got the Governor’s office, you can build a strong party. When you don’t, it’s a problem.

There’s been much speculation over the years that the 1992 Heigaard-Spaeth battle split the party, left bad feelings, and caused the long, steady decline of the Democratic-NPL Party to the state it’s in today, its lowest point since the Democrats and the Nonpartisan League merged in 1958. I’ve never believed that.

Yes, Spaeth’s loss cost the Democrats the Governor’s office after a long period of control. And yes, that led to the Republican party’s strength, because control of the Governor’s office, and using that control effectively, is how you build a party. And strong parties win elections. And if you win enough elections, pretty soon you hold every statewide office and veto-proof supermajorities in the Legislature.

But I’ve certainly not seen any lingering effects of the Heigaard-Spaeth battle among their supporters that would have hurt the party’s effectiveness. Heck, I was pretty involved, and I couldn’t tell you today how was for Spaeth and who was for Heigaard, and I certainly didn’t lose any friends over it. At least I don’t think so.  Yeah, people felt that Spaeth ran a shoddy campaign that cost the Democrats the Governor’s office, but the blame for that fell squarely on Spaeth’s shoulders, not on any of his supporters. Spaeth committed suicide a few years ago, and I have no doubt there were some lingering memories of that 1992 failure that contributed to that.

So for the Democrats to start rebuilding, they need to focus every waking moment now on grooming their Governor candidate for 2020, to replace the outgoing Doug Burgum, to defeat Brent Sanford or Julie Fedorchak, or, who knows, maybe even Wayne Stenehjem, when Burgum calls it quits after one term.

There may have been a day when political parties were built from the bottom up. No more. I’ve just explained why I think they are built from the top down. I think I am right. Get busy, Democrats. Get ready, Heidi.

 

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