Musical Chairs Leaves Land Commissioner Without A Job

I really thought (and kind of hoped), when I read in the paper Friday morning that the State Land Board had said good-bye to its long-time North Dakota State Land Commissioner, Lance Gaebe, that the next story I would read about him would be his appointment as director of the USDA Rural Development office in North Dakota.

But Donald Trump, John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer slipped one by me. That job, one of the plum federal appointments up for grabs in each state when the presidency changes parties, vacated by Democrat Ryan Taylor last January when Trump took office, is already taken. It became official this week.

Clare Carlson, who held the position for eight years under George W. Bush, is back in his old office.

North Dakota’s new Rural Development Director, Clare Carlson – in.
Former ND Land Commissioner Lance Gaebe – out.

(Photos courtesy of Facebook)

I expect Carlson’s qualified—he did it before. But I thought Gaebe was probably the most qualified person in the state. He served as State Land Commissioner for more than seven years, and that job gave him one of the largest, if not THE largest, pool of money to be given away in all of state government. Before that he gave away money as director of the state’s Ag Products Utilization Commission. And that’s pretty much what the State Rural Development Director does—gives away money.

Although Carlson’s appointment wasn’t officially announced by USDA until Thursday, the same day Gaebe walked out of the State Land Department office for the last time, North Dakota Senator John Hoeven actually slipped it out in a news release November 6—the day before this year’s election.

Unfortunately, there was a bit of other news happening that week, and somehow the North Dakota media didn’t pick it up (they still haven’t). There was one piece of North Dakota news that did make the papers the next day though—that was the day Lance Gaebe lost his job—the day the State Land Board fired him and hired his replacement, Jodi Smith, on a 3-2 vote.

Bad timing. I might’ve thought Hoeven, who along with the rest of the Land Board hired Gaebe back in 2010, would have some loyalty to him, and favored him for the Rural Development  job, but I guess he, along with most of the rest of us, never guessed that new Governor Doug Burgum would side with State Treasurer Kelly Schmidt and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler in voting to let Gaebe go from his Land Department job.

If the timing had been different, maybe Gaebe would be headed to a new job in the federal building. And Carlson would still be the number two guy at North Dakota’s Workforce Safety and Insurance.

I guess it shouldn’t have been that great of a surprise. Burgum started replacing old Jack Dalrymple appointees slowly, but he’s been picking them off one at a time as he nears his one-year anniversary of taking office next week. So far, of the 17 appointed officials he lists as members of his “cabinet,” there are only five holdovers remaining from Dalrymple’s administration.

Gone are department heads at Commerce, Financial Institutions, Parks and Recreation, Health, OMB, Human Services, Information Technology, Job Service, Highway Patrol, Transportation, Labor, and Securities. Not bad.

Hanging on are the Adjutant General and the directors of the Game and Fish, Workforce Safety and Insurance, Indian Affairs, and Corrections and Rehabilitation Departments.

There are a few important jobs hired by boards on which the Governor serves, like the Land Board, from which Gaebe is departing, the Water Commission and the Industrial Commission. Gaebe’s the first to go. Nobody’s holding their breath waiting for State Engineer Garland Erbele or Oil and Gas Division Director Lynn Helms to depart, although there’d probably be a big party if Helms was dismissed. Erbele probably should have been fired for letting his engineers issue 600 illegal Little Missouri River water permits, though.

But back to matters at hand. Carlson and Gaebe have kind of parallel career paths, changing jobs as administrations change, always dependent on political connections. Both were mentioned on a short list to succeed Roger Johnson as State Agriculture Commissioner when Johnson left for Washington, DC, eight years ago, a job which went to Doug Goehring. Both Goehring and Carlson had run against, and lost to, Johnson, but Goehring had run twice and Carlson only once, so I guess that counts for something. Governor Hoeven appointed Goehring. Carlson gets the last financial laugh though. In his new job, he’ll probably be making about $135,000 a year, about $30,000 more a year than Goehring, whose salary is set by law at $105,000.

Goehring’s been Agriculture commissioner a little more than eight years now. Maybe he can find a place for Gaebe. But probably not at the $120,000-plus salary he was making at the Land Department. For now, Gaebe’s out of work. But I bet (and hope) he lands somewhere pretty soon.

Clare Carlson is in, continuing a career of more than 35 years in government, including service to Former Governors Hoeven, Dalrymple and Ed Schafer and former U. S. Senator Mark Andrews. He’s been a good Republican foot soldier, serving a couple years in the North Dakota Legislature and running for North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner. His most recent job was Deputy Director of Workforce Safety and Insurance (he tried really hard to get the head job at WSI, which was open at the same time as Johnson’s job in 2009, but Hoeven hired former Highway Patrol Commander Bryan Klipfel, I’m guessing with instructions to make Carlson his deputy—Carlson was out of work after losing his Rural Development job when President Obama took office). Carlson’s job at WSI actually paid around $125,000 a year, also more than the Ag Commissioners job.

Carlson’s paid his dues (he contributed more than $3,500 to North Dakota Republican candidates in the last election cycle), but at the same time, every job he’s held since about 1985 has been a Republican patronage job. And I’m sure he’ll do fine in this one. It’s not too hard to give away money, and his predecessors, Jasper Schneider and Ryan Taylor, built a good professional staff to carry out the real work of the office.

I feel bad for Lance Gaebe, though. He’s also been a good soldier for the Republicans. And, as a friend of mine who knows him well said, “He didn’t f**k up that bad” as Land Commissioner. I’m a little more charitable—I thought he actually grew in the job and became a pretty good protector of the public’s interest in all the land the state owns. We have a lot of land and minerals in the Bakken, in environmentally fragile Bad Lands areas, and he’s become more sensitive to looking out for that land. I hope Jodi Smith continues that path.

Footnote: Carlson likely needed a lot of help from Hoeven and Cramer to convince the Trump administration to give him the job. At last year’s Republican state convention, Carlson’s name was on the Republican National Convention delegate slate for Ted Cruz for President (although he later denied he ever supported Cruz, after the state convention, just before the cock crowed). You’d think someone in the Trump circle kept those kinds of lists for referring to later. But Hoeven and Cramer have curried favor with Trump with their votes on health care and tax reform, and can generally get what they want from him.