Let’s Hear It For The Good Guys: The EPA

Well, there probably aren’t a lot of North Dakotans who think they’d like to see a greater presence by the Environmental Protection Agency in our state right now. That’s unfortunate, because there are a lot of environmental problems here that aren’t being addressed. But fortunately, one of those who would welcome it, in the form of Special Agents from the agency’s Criminal Investigation Division, is our United States Attorney, Tim Purdon. Here’s why.

Nearly three years ago now, a company named Halek Operating, after hitting a dry hole in an oil drilling venture southwest of Dickinson, on the fringe of the North Dakota Badlands, turned around and began using the hole to illegally pump toxic saltwater back into the ground. This was no ordinary saltwater. It was flowback water produced by the fracking process, water which contains a host of fracking chemicals and is very, very salty. It is multiple times more salty than sea water, and much more toxic than oil itself, if spilled.

After inspectors from the state’s Oil and Gas Division busted the company, a fellow named Nathan Garber, who had actually done the dumping of the saltwater, was charged in state court with illegally putting more than 800,000 gallons of saltwater into the ground, threatening Dickinson’s drinking water source. Garber had done the dumping on behalf of his boss, Texan Jason Halek, who owns Halek Operating. Halek Operating was fined $1.5 million in a civil suit. Interestingly, during the dumping process, Garber thought it was such a fine way to make money—disposing of unwanted saltwater from other well-drillers’ operations—that he bought the well from Jason Halek for an undisclosed amount of money, so he could keep the profits from the illegal acts for himself. Subsequently, Halek then claimed he didn’t own the well, which is how he avoided a felony charge, and got off with only a fine, which he does not intend to pay.

In state court, the North Dakota Attorney General’s Office negotiated a guilty plea from Garber for “violation of North Dakota Industrial Commission rules,” in return for a two-year suspended sentence and a $2,500 fine. In essence, both Garber and Halek pretty much walked free, in spite of what Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who chairs the Industrial Commission said: “There will not be any exceptions or leniency when these things happen.”
Well, that was a load of manure, because Dalrymple and his fellow Industrial Commission members, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, knew they would never collect the $1.5 million from Halek They knew they were in line behind a Texas court settlement in which Halek owed investors more than $26 million, and Halek had already declared bankruptcy, which earned him the title “flim-flam man” from Texas news media.

Also, it should be noted that this was not Halek’s first run-in with state regulators. A year earlier, the Industrial Commission cited Halek for improperly cleaning up an oil spill, also near Dickinson. Halek faced more than $588,000 in potential fines, but was ordered to pay less than 10 percent of that, with the rest suspended. Well, history has indeed repeated itself. Halek has forfeited $40,000 worth of bonds against his $1,500,000 fine, and that’s it. The Industrial Commission should heed the old saying “Fool us once, shame on you. Fool us twice, shame on us.”

What the oil industry has learned from these incidents is that if they keep some pocket change handy to feed the monkey over in the Capitol building, they can pretty much break any of the rules.

But now there’s a new player involved.  The United States Government, through its North Dakota U.S. Attorney’s office, has brought new charges which will send Garber to prison for a good long while, and it’s likely that soon new federal charges will also be filed against Halek. Federal officials were shaking their heads about how Halek had even gotten a drilling permit here, given his past record. But North Dakota is the “Wild, Wild,West” these days, and nothing is a surprise here anymore.

One federal official who was watching all this, and shaking his head, was U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon, our top federal cop in North Dakota.

“This was the largest saltwater-safe drinking water case in the history of the country, in terms of a disposal well incident,” Purdon said in an interview recently. Knowing that the federal government had significantly more resources and expertise in these kinds of cases than the state could provide, Purdon called in reinforcements, in the form of investigators from the Environmental Protection Criminal Investigation Division.

“As oil and natural gas development continues, it must be done in a way that ensures drilling byproducts are disposed of safely and legally,” said Special Agent in Charge Jeffrey Martinez of EPA’s criminal enforcement program in North Dakota. “(Garber’s) disregard of environmental regulation under the (federal) Safe Drinking Water Act put human health and the environment at serious risk.”

Thus the federal charges. And at the completion of Martinez’s investigation, Garber, through his attorney, pleaded guilty this fall to 11 felonies, and faces more than 50 years in prison (as opposed to the probation and $2,500 fine he received from the state). As part of his plea deal, though, the Associated Press reported that he is likely to serve about three years in a federal prison—but that will likely hinge on his willingness to testify against the big fish, Halek.

The timing of all this is interesting. The violations occurred between December 2011 and March 2012. The state first suspected “something fishy” in early February, 2012. The well was shut down on March 5, 2012. By that time, more than 800,000 gallons of toxic saltwater and oilfield waste had been pumped into the ground. It took the state about 16 months to haul Garber into court and Halek in front of the Industrial Commission. It was the end of September, 2013, before the Halek fine was approved by the courts and Garber reached a plea agreement with the state for his fine and probation.

“That’s what the state did, and called it good,” Purdon said. “But this demanded more.”

It didn’t take Purdon long to act. Less than two months later, on November 20, 2013, a search warrant was executed at the well site by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Criminal Investigation Division. Investigators found significant evidence that there were at least five violations of the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act and a conspiracy to cover them up—charges a whole lot more serious than the state’s flimsy “violations of the rules” charges.

While it’s the Safe Drinking Water Act violations that will send Garber to federal prison, the conspiracy charge is more interesting, because a conspiracy has to involve more than one person. And that other person is Halek. All Purdon will say about that right now is that the investigation continues, but statements made in Garber’s lengthy plea agreement clearly implicate Halek as the man who told Garber to “keep on pumping” the toxic waste into the ground, even when Garber and Halek both knew what they were doing was illegal.

As for the 800,000 gallons of saltwater lying beneath the ground southwest of Dickinson, well, it is still down there, pending completion of the EPA investigation. The state’s top regulator, Lynn Helms, head of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources (DMR), has said “It takes many, many years to clean it up, if it can be done at all.” I’ll monitor that and keep you posted. A spokesperson in Helms’ office told me recently “DMR believes the well does not pose any environmental risk in its current status.” We need to hope they are right.

Purdon’s learned a lot from this. Most importantly, he’s learned that he is going to have to stay involved in oilfield work, because the state just doesn’t have the expertise to do what needs to be done out there.

“When there’s a problem, the state sends in inspectors, and in good faith, they do what they can,” Purdon said. “But what’s needed is skilled investigators, trained experts who know what to look for. We solved this case because of the skill and expertise of these investigators. We brought in the first team. The result was a conviction on 11 felony charges.”

Purdon will continue to make his case for a permanent presence of federal investigators here in North Dakota. The nearest office now is Helena Montana, eight hours away. “We need permanent Environmental Protection Agents here in North Dakota,” he says. “We need them to develop a relationship with the state, to handle cases like these.”

Purdon is not critical of the state’s efforts. They do what they can do. But they need more help. The Garber case is clear evidence of that. The Halek case, still to come, will provide more. Purdon needs the Governor’s office to use its clout to pressure the state’s Congressional Delegation—Congressman Kevin Cramer and Senators John Hoeven and Heidi Heitkamp—to send in federal help. And he needs the Delegation to listen. Heitkamp should be especially attentive and helpful—her first job out of law school was working as an attorney for the EPA, during the Carter administration. She knows how important the agency is.

I think this is the fifth or sixth time I have reported on this story. I’m going to go looking. Okay, here’s the first story–you have to scroll down a ways to find it. Here’s the second story. Scroll down past the raspberries (and notice how naive I was at the time). Here’s number three–scroll down past the bus tour and the wildlife stories. Here’s the fourth one. And number five. You don’t have to go read them all. But you can  bet Tim Purdon has.  And Purdon won’t say it, but I will. The state has been lackadaisical about enforcement of environmental laws. The oil industry pretty much runs amok here, and millions of dollars of political contributions to state officials help ensure that will continue.

This isn’t the first time Purdon has stepped in and provided federal assistance—generally welcomed, I think—to the state. He brought the Attorney General of the United States here earlier this year to talk about the drug and crime problems in the Oil Patch, and it wasn’t long before our Congressional Delegation was announcing federal financial help in those areas—a bit of an irony in the richest state in America. But if the state won’t do it . . .

Purdon was also instrumental in forcing the change in state law banning open waste pits at oil well sites, when he called attention to the problem by charging six oil companies under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act when their waste pits killed 28 ducks back in 2011. It was the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that investigated that incident, not the state Game and Fish Department. Although the charges were later dropped, the state moved quickly to ban open waste pits, to solve the problem. What they didn’t anticipate was that the waste material was going to get pumped into the ground by fellows like Garber and Halek.

And Purdon isn’t the first federal official to express concern about what’s going on in the Oil Patch. Just last month, retiring Theodore Roosevelt National Park Superintendent Valerie Naylor said in a Dakota Country magazine article the state “needs to be honest about what is happening in western North Dakota and address the environmental and social problems. The state needs to do more to protect special places that North Dakotans hold dear and that others come to North Dakota to experience. Otherwise, there will be nothing left of North Dakota after the energy boom ends. There has to be a more measured and conscious approach to development.”

Here on the prairie, it’s not popular to defend the actions of federal agencies. There’s an anti-federal culture here, and that’s unfortunate. The EPA, particularly, has been a popular whipping boy for both our state officials and our Congressional Delegation. Recently, all our state and federal elected officials have been blasting the EPA for a new proposed rule which tries to more accurately define “navigable waters.” The EPA is trying to get a handle on pollution of surface waters across the country. That’s the EPA’s job, and men and women who spend time in the outdoors should be cheering the agency on. Instead, all that comes out at public meetings are things like “It’s a clear example of federal government overreach,” from our Governor. And threats from our Attorney General to “sue the federal government” if they enact the rule. It’s time for outdoor enthusiasts to speak up, like U.S. Attorney Purdon, an enthusiastic hunter, has been doing.

This might be an example of what the new EPA Navigable Waters regulations are trying to deal with. The cattle waste from this (temporarily unused) sidehill feedlot in Morton County drains right down into the creek at the bottom of the photo, which, in wet years, eventually drains into the Heart River, and then the Missouri River. The new rule could, eventually, force the feedlot owner to take steps to prevent that. As well it should. There are an awfully lot of these sidehill feedlots in North Dakota.

I remember well the day President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act, which created the EPA, and a nation cheered. It was a New Year’s Day bill-signing, and America’s 1970 New Year’s Resolution was to care for our environment. I long for those days, when the EPA officials were seen as the good guys, not the bad guys. I fear for our state when those who are trying to protect us, at a time when we need their help more than ever, are chastised for their work. At a time when our state officials have dollar signs in their eyes, blinding their ability to see how fragile our precious North Dakota outdoors is, in the face of overwhelming development. If it takes the Environmental Protection Agency to do that, well, that’s their job—to protect the environment. If it takes U.S. Attorneys and federal investigators to get the job done, well, then, I’m for ’em.

“Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions. It has become a common cause of all the people of this country. Clean air, clean water, open spaces—these should once again be the birthright of every American. If we act now, they can be.”                                                                  –President Richard M. Nixon, January 1970 

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The Best Thanksgiving Meal Ever

When I left home on Thanksgiving Day 2001 I had a shotgun, a box of shells, a game vest, a gallon jug of water, a cooler, a propane stove with a small bottle of propane, a bottle of red wine and a wooden camping box made for me and given to me by my friend Ken Rogers. My camping box had the essentials for cooking a campfire meal—frying pan, paper plates, a coffee pot, a coffee cup, coffee, a boy scout silverware set, a carving knife, plastic cups, paper towels, aluminum foil, a spatula, matches, a big sharp fork and various other campfire cooking thingamabobs.

In the cooler I had ice, a six pack of beer (PBR, I think) a pound of bacon, some already scrambled eggs in a Ziploc bag, a half a pound of hamburger, a potato, some butter, a bottle of orange juice and some oversized Pillsbury biscuits I had made the evening before. All that was neatly tucked into the back of my Jeep alongside a tent, a sleeping bag and a self-inflating air mattress.

My plan was to hunt pheasants way out in western North Dakota, and then spend Thanksgiving night camping at Cottonwood Campground in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The forecast was for daytime temperatures in the 50s and nighttime temperatures in the 20s. Perfect late fall camping weather, if a bit nippy when I crawled out of the sleeping bag in the morning, because I wasn’t hauling firewood and it was illegal to pick it up in the park.

It was to be my first Thanksgiving all alone in some time, and I had spurned a couple of invitations from family members to join them. I didn’t feel like trying to pretend to get into a festive or even remotely thankful mood. I had been a widower for almost two months, I suffered from anxiety attacks—a common symptom of grief, I had been told—and my best hours were when I was off by myself in a place with no walls or ceiling. I was not particularly morose, just subject to fleeting bouts of sadness which I could fend off reasonably well by being somewhere I really liked to be, generally by myself. It was my third escape to the Bad Lands in the two months since Rita had died, and I knew the trip would help me continue the process of healing.

I headed west, crossing the Little Missouri River at Medora, and kept going until I came to the Camels Hump Butte exit, where I headed north into Golden Valley County. There, I drove rather aimlessly along the west edge of the Bad Lands, wheat country with long single row shelter belts. I stopped several times and walked, alongside a shelterbelt, down a shallow coulee, along the edge of a CRP field, mostly for the sheer joy of walking in shirtsleeves on a November day under a mostly-cloudless blue sky. The shotgun was loaded but went unused for much of the afternoon, until a silly rooster pheasant went scooting across a prairie road a couple hundred yards in front of me at the end of a shelterbelt. I walked to where it had entered the ditch, took the shotgun off safe, and stepped into the ditch. The pheasant erupted with a loud cackle not ten yards from me, and I shot it.

After retrieving the pheasant and putting the gun and game vest away in the back of the Jeep, I headed generally east and south on gravel roads, not exactly sure where I was but knowing that I would either run into the Bad Lands or I-94 at some point. Turns out it was the Bad Lands. I came to a T in the road on which I was heading east, and looking ahead I realized I had run right up against the beginning of the Bad Lands. I pulled off on the approach at the T, got out and crossed the fence, and walked about a hundred yards east, and found myself in one of those places where there’s a sheer drop-off right down into a Bad Lands canyon. The prairie continued a bit on my right, but ended in the magnificent ruggedness of the Bad Lands in front of me and to my left, and I realized if I sat down, I could hang my legs right down into the very western beginning—or end—of the multi-millennial work of the wind and the Little Missouri. And so I did.

Behind me, the sun was probably 15 or 20 degrees above the horizon, just low enough to begin casting long shadows across the landscape in front of me, and it was fascinating to watch them move across the Bad Lands floor, changing the shape of the landscape as the sun drooped further and further down, and west. Having cased the gun, I decided to go back to the Jeep and get a beer and relax here a while. But when I popped open the back of the Jeep, there was a pheasant lying on top of a propane stove, between a cooler and a camping box. And I immediately decided this would be an ideal spot to have Thanksgiving dinner.

It was no problem setting up for dinner. It took me two trips from the Jeep to carry the camping box, stove, pheasant, water jug and bottle of wine to the edge of the canyon. I cleaned the pheasant, dropping the entrails over the edge for a coyote or a magpie to have his own Thanksgiving dinner. I washed the bird, split it into four pieces, set the stove on the ground, lit it, scooped some butter into the frying pan, and fried the pheasant. And ate most of it, right out of the pan, dabbing a couple biscuits in the greasy juice in the pan, washing it all down with red wine. With my feet dangling down into the Bad Lands and the rest of me observing from the prairie. I finished as the sun slid behind Camel’s Hump Butte for the night. I tossed the bones and leftovers down with the entrails, wiped the frying pan mostly clean with a couple paper towels, and carted my gear back to the Jeep.

Without a doubt, that was the greatest Thanksgiving meal I’ve ever eaten. That was 13 years ago, and I’ve bored everyone in my family with that story countless times, but they still nod and listen politely each time I ask, about this time of the year, “Have I ever told you about the best Thanksgiving meal I ever ate?”

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A Canadian Shuffle: Keystone or Energy East?

“North Dakota oil producers were scheduled to feed the Keystone pipeline with 100,000 barrels of crude oil per day.”   –Jack Dalrymple, in the Republican response to the President’s weekly radio address, March 10, 2012

The Keystone XL pipeline will move 830,000 barrels of oil a day, including 100,000 from North Dakota’s Bakken region.”   –Sen. John Hoeven, press release, September 19, 2014

“We anticipate about 100,000 barrels a day of North Dakota crude will be able to be placed into the Keystone pipeline.”   –Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, U.S. Senate floor speech, November 12, 2014

Stop it! Just STOP IT! IT’S NOT TRUE!

Senator Heidi Heitkamp is the latest of our elected officials to spread misinformation—either intentionally or unintentionally—about the Keystone XL Pipeline’s potential benefits to North Dakota. Like Hoeven and Dalrymple before her, she’s either careless with the facts or doesn’t care that what she says is not true.

You’re going to get sick and tired of hearing about Keystone for the next week or so, because both Democrats and Republicans in Washington are trying to use it as an election tool for a U.S. Senate seat in Louisiana. Heitkamp has taken up the cause to help out fellow Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu, who wants to take credit for bringing 830,000 barrels of crude oil per day into Landrieu’s home state through the Keystone Pipeline. Landrieu is in a runoff election with Republican Congressman Bill Cassidy in early December. So over in the House, they’ve got their own bill to help their colleague move to the Senate. If both the House and the Senate pass the bill, I can’t see how either one of them gets the credit, but there’s a lot about Washington I can’t see these days.

Heitkamp made an impassioned seven minute floor speech this week about the importance of the Keystone, not just to America, but to her home state of North Dakota. In order to sell that support to a somewhat puzzled audience back home—Keystone does not run through North Dakota—she  tossed the now long-discredited “100,000 barrels of North Dakota crude” into her speech.

That’s disappointing, because she knows better.

I thought we had put this to rest 2½ years ago, after critics, including this blogger, called Dalrymple on his false claim in his weekly radio address to America. As I wrote then, Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer negotiated a deal back in 2010 with TransCanada, the company building the pipeline, to allow 100,000 barrels of Bakken crude oil from North Dakota and Montana to enter the pipeline at an on-ramp in Baker, Montana.

The operative words there are “from North Dakota and Montana.” For the next couple of years, both Montana and North Dakota officials ran all over their states claiming that 100,000 barrels for themselves. No one in the media really challenged them on it. Mostly because, in spite of their rantings, the pipeline wasn’t moving forward. So nobody really cared what they had to say.

Hoeven came up with another cool number—we’ll get 500 trucks a day off North Dakota roads. Except that we won’t, because the on-ramp isn’t even in North Dakota, it’s in Montana. Baker, Montana, far away from any railroad connected to the Bakken, so even if they build a pipeline from somewhere in North Dakota to Baker, the oil still has to be trucked to a pipeline, either in Baker or a connector pipeline.

Lynn Helms, in his dual role as regulator/cheerleader for the state’s oil industry, went even farther, predicting that three to six fewer people would die on North Dakota’s highways every year if the Keystone Pipeline was built. Yeah, that would be good. Kinda hard to prove, but it would be good.

So the heat’s on in Washington in this lame-duck session to send a bill to the President to build the pipeline—a bill he will probably veto. But it might not matter. The issue may or may not help elect a Senator in Louisiana, but there might not even be a pipeline, in spite of the votes in Congress, even if the President signs the bill.

Because TransCanada got tired of waiting.

So, a week or so ago, the company filed an application with Canada’s main energy regulator seeking approval for a proposed 1.1 million-barrel-a-day pipeline, called Energy East.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the proposed pipeline would transport crude from Alberta and Saskatchewan to refineries and a marine terminal in Quebec, terminating in Saint John, New Brunswick. The same oil they were planning to ship south in the Keystone.

TransCanada says by building the pipeline in Canada, and keeping the oil in Canada instead of sending it south, there will be benefits to both eastern Canadian refineries and to Alberta crude producers, who have been facing steep challenges in getting their oil to market.

The project would convert an existing natural-gas pipeline to carry crude oil and provide outlets for the oil to be placed on ships. And Prime Minister Stephen Harper quickly approved it.  Harper doesn’t like President Obama much, so he’s grinning all the way to the gas station this week.

As for TransCanada, it’s full speed ahead on the $12 billion Energy East project. They’re not waiting. So what does that mean for the $7 billion Keystone, if the U.S. Congress and the President approve it? Well, it’s hard to imagine any company building two multi-billion dollar projects like this at the same time, especially when both are designed to haul the same product to market. That sounds pretty risky.

Some are saying that Energy East is the “death knell” for Keystone. Well, maybe.

But you won’t be hearing much about the Energy East Pipeline in Washington D.C. for the next week. Because the debate over Keystone is not really about building a pipeline that may or may not carry 100,000 barrels of Bakken crude. It’s about electing a U.S. Senator from Louisiana. Go figure.

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No. Yes. No. No. No. No. No No.

Here are the two best things the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party can say about Tuesday’s election: They picked up a seat in the North Dakota State Senate, and only one of their incumbents lost.

The Senate seat was a big one: Erin Oban’s win over Senator Margaret Sitte. She was the number one target of North Dakota Democrats. Oban did it by raising enough money to win, and by running a good campaign. It’s hard to tell exactly how much money was spent on that race, because only contributions, not expenditures, must be reported in North Dakota.

Oban reported raising almost $65,000 a figure unheard of in Legislative elections in North Dakota, and a figure that might never be topped. Sitte reported just shy of $50,000, which in other years would have been about double what any other candidate raised, and which would have been enough to win.

But that doesn’t accurately reflect how much was spent on this campaign, because outside organizations and political parties both spent money independent of the candidates’ campaigns, and there’s no way to track that. Some party insiders say the total might be more than $200,000 combined. Used to be you could buy a Secretary of State’s job for that. In fact, in 2014, you could’ve. Combined, Al Jaeger and April Fairfield, who ran for that office, spent about $80,000 this year.

Democrats lost one incumbent—Rep. Ed Gruchalla from Fargo’s District 45. Ed won in 2006 and 2010, but he had a lackluster fundraising year in 2014, as did his district organization, and that, combined with what seemed to be a Republican tide at both the state and national levels, probably did him in.

Gruchalla’s loss in the House race was offset by another satisfying win for the Democrats, though, when Pam Anderson knocked off 17-year Republican House member Bette Grande in District 41 in Fargo. Grande and Sitte are the two most rabid anti-abortion voices in the Legislature. They spearheaded Measure 1, the so-called “personhood” amendment, in the last session of the Legislature. The measure lost by big numbers Tuesday, taking Sitte and Grande down with it in their districts. It lost by nearly a 2-1 margin in Sitte’s district and more than a 2-1 margin in Grande’s . Maybe it was just a bad night for Legislators whose names end in “e.”

A few other numbers of note:

  • Democrats had minimal losses partly because they had few incumbents on the ballot—4 in the Senate, 9 in the House.  Republicans, on the other hand, were defending 19 Senate seats and 39 House seats. The fact that they only lost two of 58 incumbents says something about the strength of their party.
  • Also, Democrats failed to field a candidate in 6 Senate races and 11 House races. Republicans filled their slates in all but 2 Senate races and 4 House races. It’s pretty hard to win if you don’t have a candidate running, and Democrats set a modern day record with 17 vacancies on the ballot.
  • When the Legislature convenes in January, Republicans will maintain their 2-1, veto-proof (not that they’d ever get into a veto-override situation with friendly faces at the other end of Memorial Hall) majorities: 71-23 in the House, the same as last session, and 32-15 in the Senate, one less than their 33-14 margin last session.
  • When all was said and done, all the votes counted, with a total of 72 seats in the Legislature up for grabs, only three incumbent Legislators lost their jobs. Good grief, this is beginning to look a lot like the U.S. Congress, where incumbent almost never lose.

All the other races went as expected—the Democrats lost every statewide race to Republican incumbents. The margins in the two marquee races—Congress and Ag Commissioner—surprised me. I frankly thought George Sinner and Ryan Taylor would do better. Sinner lost 56-38 per cent to incumbent Congressman Kevin Cramer, and Taylor got 43 per cent to 57 per cent for incumbent Doug Goehring. Taylor was the only Democrat on the ballot who got more than 100,000 votes. It would have taken 122,000 to win. Taylor got just 105,000.

My optimism on the Democrats’ performance was based on the ground game I saw the Democrats implementing here in Bismarck. I mentioned that on Facebook Monday and one of my Democrat friends in Minot wrote me “I hope GOTV works in Bismarck, Fargo and Grand Forks. I went to do phoning on Saturday and I was the only person there for 3 hours. There was no effort in my District (5).” I wrote back “Uh oh.” I did indeed get a GOTV call Tuesday morning, but when I went to vote I noticed there was no Democrat poll checker there, a key piece of any Get Out The Vote effort. I’ve said a thousand times if I’ve said it once, elections are won by paying attention to details.  I’ve preached that to young Democrats for 30 years. Nobody listens any more, I’m afraid.

Still, Senator-elect Oban piled up enough moderate Republican support to win in my district. No Democrat in Bismarck could ever get elected by relying on just Democrat votes. There aren’t enough Democrats.

Probably the biggest surprise Tuesday night was the huge losing margin for the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment, Measure 5, which lost 4-1, getting only 20 per cent of the votes. Measure 1, the “Personhood Amendment,” went down big too, 64-36 per cent. Those two contests were the only two to draw more than 250,000 voters. None of the candidates’ races reached that plateau. For a ballot measure to get more votes than any other line on the ballot is a huge surprise. A lot of people went to the polls and voted on just those measures, skipping all the other races.

And Measure 1, which was indeed about abortion in spite of protestations by its sponsors, proved my theory that North Dakota remains a pro-choice state, choosing personal liberty over religious dogma.

The other big surprise was the margin—75-25 per cent—by which voters announced they didn’t want to pay sales tax on real estate transfers.  Not that anyone ever proposed one. It was the only tax issue on the ballot, and my guess is voters were saying that we have enough money coming in from the oil tax to pay the bills, so don’t try to tax anything else, Legislature.

So. All the Republicans won. All the measures lost (except for one). The Board of Higher Education got a reprieve, the initiative process remains intact, the courts will decide who’s best to care for children of divorce, small town drug stores dodged a bullet and school will continue to start in the middle of the summer. There’s no theme, there’s no connection, that I can see, among all those disparate measures. North Dakotans once again showed their independence.

But we’re still faced with one-party rule, at least for the next two years. The Democrats simply can’t find a way to articulate any thoughtful message. As Will Rogers said famously “I’m not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”

I read this analysis of the election on Facebook on Monday, and I agree:

“Spineless Democrats. Why are Obama’s ratings low (not as low as Bush, but low)? Because his own party does not defend him, they do not defend their own ideas. They are going along with the media and the polls. If they would have had a backbone, pushed for their agenda, instead of listening to the polls, people would respect them more.”

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It’s Election Day; Have A Beer

It was a warm dry day, June 8, 1990. North Dakota was still in the grip of one of its most severe droughts, with little or no spring rainfall in most of the state and temperatures running well above normal. I was driving back to Bismarck from somewhere in the northeast part of the state late in the afternoon. I had taken my favorite route, Highway 19 west from Devils Lake, across Highway 3 north of Harvey to what is known as the “Anamoose Corner,” and turned south toward Anamoose, where I would pick up Highway 14 and drive through the upper reaches of the Sheyenne River Valley to I-94, just 25 miles east of Bismarck.

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and the temperature must have been in the 80s. The ten mile stretch between the Anamoose Corner and the town of Anamoose was unpaved at the time. I think the Sheridan County Commissioners were not all that interested in the traffic that road would attract if they paved it. I was driving a 1986 Isuzu Trooper with no air conditioning, so I had the windows down as I turned onto the gravel. There was no wind, and the dust I kicked up began pouring into the Trooper. My only choice was to close the windows, most of the way, leaving the driver’s side window down just a crack for some air. It got hot in there. Very hot.

I looked at my watch. I was going to arrive in Anamoose right about 5:00. Quitting time for a state employee. I knew that the beer at the Copper Penny bar was going to be very cold when I arrived in town. And it was going to taste very good. I’d made this stop before. I can’t remember for sure, but I may have timed my previous return trips from wherever I was in northeast North Dakota to arrive in Anamoose at just this time. Anyway, it was working just fine this trip. For that fifteen minute drive down that gravel stretch, all I could think of, the Sheridan County dust mixing with the sweat pouring down my cheeks, was a cold Pabst Blue Ribbon at the Copper Penny.

I pulled up in front of the Copper Penny a couple minutes after 5, jumped out of the Trooper and headed for the door. I gave it a tug and it resisted. Locked. “Shoot,” I thought to myself, “they’ve gone out of business.” Happened in small North Dakota towns a lot in those days. Well, no problem, there’s another bar across the street (the name escapes me now), so I walked across and pulled the door of that bar. Locked. WTF?

Then it dawned on me. Election Day. Primary Election Day in North Dakota. And in North Dakota, that means the bars are closed until 8 p.m., when the polls close. Friends my age will remember that “blue law” we held onto for much of our statehood. In order to make sure we were totally sober and knew what we were doing when we went in to vote, we just locked the bars until the voting was done.

So here I am, hot, sweaty, dirty, 100 miles from home and not a chance for a cold beer until I get there. Well, there’s a pop machine in front of one the businesses, so I dropped a couple quarters in, grabbed a cold Coke or Pepsi, and hit the road. Steaming all the way about how much better I’d have felt after 20 minutes and a cold one in the air conditioned Copper Penny. It’s time to get rid of this stupid law, I said to myself.

So, a day or two later, I called up my friend Dave Meiers, who at the time was head of the North Dakota Hospitality Association, and arranged a lunch meeting. Dave and I essentially worked for the same people. Dave’s association was made up of owners of restaurants, motels and bars—the hospitality businesses that I, as North Dakota Tourism Director, tried to help, by bringing tourists to spend money in their establishments. I told Dave of my experience in Anamoose and said that his industry should try to get that law changed. It was outdated and made us look silly.  He agreed. He said he’d talk to his board of directors and see if it was something they wanted to tackle.

Well, they did, and so in the next session of the North Dakota Legislature, in 1991, they found three Legislators willing to back them, and House Bill 1408, striking down the provision of state law that kept bars closed on Election Day, was introduced. It had sponsors from both political parties, and was met with pretty broad approval in the House of Representatives, and sailed through there pretty quickly. In the Senate, though, it ran into a little resistance, and stalled out.

The chairman of the Senate Industry, Business and Labor Committee was pretty supportive, and told Dave he would hold the bill in committee until there were enough votes on the floor to pass it. Dave got to work, and kept track of commitments. But as the session drew to a close, he was a vote short. We got together and he showed me his list. He had 26 votes, one short of passage in the 53-member Senate. There were a few undecided, and he needed to snag one of those to give him the last vote to pass the bill. One of those undecided was a good friend of mine, Jim Dotzenrod, a Democrat from Wyndmere in District 27. I told Dave I would have a talk with Jim.

Now, as State Tourism Director, I wasn’t really supposed to be lobbying the Legislature, but Jim was a good enough friend that he wouldn’t mind if I asked him to support the bill. Our conversation went something like this.

Me: “Jim, the vote on House Bill 1408 is this afternoon. That’s the bill that would let the bars stay open on Election Day. The hospitality industry would really appreciate it if you could vote for it.”

Jim: “How many votes do you have for it?”

Me: “We have 26. We need one more to pass it.”

Jim: “Well, I’m not real excited about it, but I don’t think it would get me in too much trouble back home. I’ll tell you what—I’ll check the board when lights come on, and if you really just need one more vote, you’ll have mine.”

Me: “Thank you Senator. See you this afternoon.”

Well, that was about 11:45 in the morning. The bill calendar had the bill coming up mid-afternoon, so about 2:30 I wandered over to the Senate Chamber to watch the vote. Sure enough, when Lt. Gov. Lloyd Omdahl said “The vote is on the final passage of House Bill 1408. The Secretary will open the key and Senators will cast their votes,” the board lit up about half red and half green. Everybody’s name had a light after it except one—Jim Dotzenrod. He was counting.

The clock ticked. Lt. Gov. Omdahl intoned “Has every Senator voted? Senator Dotzenrod?”

Just as Omdahl finished, a green light came on beside Dotzenrod’s name.

Omdahl again: “The secretary will close the key and record the votes.” Pause. Then “The vote shows 27 Senators in favor, 26 opposed. Therefore House Bill 1408 is passed and title is agreed to.”

The bill was headed for the Governor’s office. Dave and I talked to Gov. Sinner sometime during the next couple of days, and he didn’t have a problem with it. He signed it shortly thereafter. Since it was an odd-numbered year, there was no statewide election that year. The next one was in June of 1992, and I stopped off at a bar and had a beer and toasted Jim Dotzenrod, en route to an election night party. And now, whenever I pass through Anamoose and the sun is over the yardarm, I stop for a cold beer, although the Copper Penny is long gone and has been replaced by a bar whose name I don’t recall right now. And I toast Jim Dotzenrod.

So if you are having dinner tonight in a nice North Dakota restaurant and want to order a glass of wine, you can. Or if you are celebrating or commiserating at an Election Night Party, go ahead and order a beer. And remember to toast Senator Jim Dotzenrod.

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Why a Sesquicentennial Matters

Yesterday was North Dakota’s 125th birthday. Officially it is called a sesquicentennial. I am only going to try to spell that correctly once. There was a grand party at the state’s Heritage Center, which celebrated the grand opening of its new $50 million facelift. Words fail me trying to describe it. I can only say “Wow!” And thanks to those responsible.

There were a lot of people there with puffed up chests, taking a measure of credit for the new building, like Al Carlson, John Hoeven, Jack Dalrymple and Drew Wrigley. There were a few statesmenlike former Governors, including Ed Schafer, Allen Olson, who presided over the grand opening of the original heritage center nearly 35 years ago, and George Sinner, who presided over the state’s Centennial 25 years ago. Deceased former Governors Art Link and Bill Guy were represented by family members. Hoeven, now a Senator, and fellow Senator Heidi Heitkamp showed up. It was a grand party. Current (and soon to be retired) Historical Society Director Merl Paaverud, incoming Director Claudia Berg, Historical Society fundraisers Virginia Nelson, Bill Schott and Marlo Sveen and members of the State Historical Board and State Historical Society Foundation board, spent the day thanking people. There’s a lot of private money invested on this building, and they were at the front of that effort.

There was one person conspicuous by his absence—the man I think is probably most responsible for the project: State Representative Bob Martinson. Martinson shepherded the Center’s appropriation through the Legislature, as he has done on many other projects, but it would have been out of character for Bob to be there. He doesn’t take credit for stuff. He just gets stuff done. The good feeling he gets from that is his reward. He’ll probably be there today or tomorrow to have a look at what he convinced his fellow Legislators and a couple Governors  to pay for. Next time you see Bob on the street, or in the Capitol hallways, just grab his hand and say “Thanks, Bob.” He’ll know what you mean.

Meanwhile, probably a couple thousand people went through the new exhibits and listened to, and watched, the entertainment. People drove in from all over the state, and flew in from all over the country. At the end of the evening, as I was departing the building, I ran into a contingent of 7 or 8 people from my hometown of Hettinger. They were preparing for the long two-hour drive back home in the dark, but they were ecstatic about being there. There wasn’t a one of them younger than me, but they had loaded up a couple of cars and joined the fun.

And there was an incident at the end of the day which warmed my heart, and showed me why events like this matter. I wrote about it last night on Facebook, but for my Luddite friends who don’t do Facebook, I want to retell it here.

The last official event of the day was a concert by my friend Gene Veeder from Watford city, and his daughter Jesse Veeder Scofield. Gene, who plays in a cowboy band back home on Saturday nights, brought his guitar and his harmonica, mostly to accompany and harmonize with his daughter, a rising star in the field of Americana music. They played a bunch of songs Jesse wrote and has recorded. Jesse is the new Chuck Suchy of North Dakota, I have decided. Chuck, our state’s “Centennial Troubadour” in 1989, played earlier in the day, also at a key time, just before the official 125th birthday party speechifying. Chuck doesn’t have to step aside yet, but when he’s ready, Jesse is ready to fill his shoes as North Dakota’s premier singer/songwriter.

Jesse and Gene played their way through about an hour of wonderful songs written and recorded by Jesse, mostly about North Dakota (much like Suchy’s music), and then a wonderful thing happened.

To close the show, and end the day, Jesse said they were going to play a medley of familiar songs, and invited the audience to sing along. They did, quietly, to “Red River Valley” and “Down in the Valley,” and as Jesse played the first few bars of “Home on the Range,” I glanced over at the big old cowboy sitting just in front of me and to my right. We were off to the right side of the auditorium, and had to look a bit to the left to watch the show, so I could see his face pretty clearly if I looked his way. As Jesse started in with “Oh, give me a home . . .” I could see tears running down both of his cheeks. He glanced around quickly, in a bit of embarrassment, I suppose, to see if anyone noticed, then removed his glasses and rubbed both eyes. I thought, that’s exactly what is supposed to happen on a day like this. Happy 125th birthday, North Dakota.

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Important Words From An Important Person

The departing Superintendent of Theodore Roosevelt National Park says the state “needs to be honest about what is happening in western North Dakota and address the environmental and social problems” that have been created by the state’s oil boom.

Valerie Naylor, superintendent of the park for almost a dozen years, will retire from her National Park Service career on October 31. As she leaves, she cautions her fellow North Dakotans: “We must better manage the oil boom if we are to sustain western North Dakota for the future.”

“We must preserve our extraordinary places,” Naylor said as she prepared to retire to farmland she owns in the Black Hills of South Dakota. “Talking about it is not enough. We must VALUE our resources. Wildlife cannot live without habitat. Neither can humans. We have to preserve some habitat for both wildlife and humans if we are to sustain our way of life in North Dakota. The boom will end someday. What will be left?”

Naylor is not walking far away from the park she grew to love, and fiercely protected, during her watch here. “I will continue to work to preserve the resources of North Dakota, but in different ways. I don’t intend to disappear. There is much to be done to preserve Theodore Roosevelt National Park and I will never quit fighting for this place.”

“Fighting” has been the right word to describe Naylor’s work here. She might have felt like she was playing “Whack-A-Mole” as she watched various oil development threats pop up around the borders of the park’s three units. For the last few years, almost as soon as she negotiated a well position with an oil company in one spot, another one would pop up somewhere else. A lot of that can be blamed on lax oversight of the industry by the state.

“The state needs to truly value the national parks and other public lands,” she says. “It should not have to be a fight to preserve one of the 59 National Parks in the country, or a critical historic site like Fort Union Trading Post or Knife River Indian Villages. You can’t say that you ‘love Theodore Roosevelt National Park’ and then make decisions that degrade the area. We should not have to make a case to preserve wildlife habitat and recreational values on our public lands, such as the Little Missouri National Grassland. Those lands need special protections and regulations. They are public lands and need to be managed for the public.”

She’s had some success protecting the Park’s integrity by negotiating with oil companies. She staved off a threat to put an oil well at the gate of the Elkhorn Ranch, Theodore Roosevelt’s home when he lived and ranched here in the 1880s, getting the company to move the well site almost two miles away, and going after the oil by drilling horizontally. She convinced another company to move a well back a bit from a ridge overlooking the Elkhorn and turning the pump sideways so it was less of a distraction. And another company scratched plans for a saltwater disposal site near the border of the North Unit of the Park after some pretty intense public scrutiny and a face-to-face meeting between Naylor and company representatives .

But as the industry marches inexorably south into the Badlands from its epicenter north of Lake Sakakawea, more and more threats to the park will arise. Already, as night falls over Buck Hill, the South Unit’s highest point, lights and flares from more than two dozen wells and drilling sites dot the horizon, some less than a mile from the park’s border. That saddens the superintendent.

“The terrain and the wildlife here are just amazing,” she says. “There is no other place like it. Assets include incredible wildlife habitat, dark night skies, natural sounds, interesting terrain that changes with every rainstorm, and the Little Missouri River

A Park visitor gets an up-close tour of the Little Missouri River from Superintendent Valerie Naylor

that pulls it all together. Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy is very strong here. It is a strong natural park with historic undertones. You can’t beat it! The park’s greatest needs are protection from rampant energy development all around its boundaries, and rehabilitation of the historic Peaceful Valley Ranch in the South Unit.”

Rampant energy development. That’s the concern she leaves behind for her successor, who will be chosen in the next few months. “I’ve had a much harder time recruiting quality applicants for positions and ‘selling’ the area to them,” she says. “I used to tell them that there was no better place to live. I used to tell them that despite hard winters, the state was beautiful, there was amazing wildlife, hunting and fishing were exceptional, there was no traffic and no crime, the cost of living was low, and everything was clean. You can’t say that now for the western half of the state. It is much harder to ‘sell’ North Dakota to people. That makes me sad.”

She’ll also share how her job has changed since she’s been here. “I feel like I have had three different jobs. The first few years were focused on trying to acquire the Eberts Ranch to add to the Elkhorn Ranch Unit. That land eventually was purchased by the US Forest Service, which provides some protection for it, but not enough. The next few years were all about elk. Our successful elk management plan and elk reduction took a long time. But everything worked. The last few years, I have focused on oil development around the park, trying to keep the park’s integrity in the midst of a big energy boom.”

Indeed, many Dakotans got an unexpected opportunity to shoot an elk as part of the Park’s program to reduce a population that was in danger of eating itself out of house and home. She considers the successful elk reduction program as one of her biggest accomplishments here, along with raising national and international awareness about the Elkhorn Ranch. “The Elkhorn was considered a ‘site’ before, but it now is discussed as a full unit of the park, just like the South and North Units. There is much more awareness, concern, and visitation at the Elkhorn Ranch than there was in the past. Response to the oil boom is also one of my accomplishments, but it is ongoing and never perfect. There is so much activity going on.”

She lists four highlights during her time here:

  • Hosting two secretaries of Interior – Dirk Kempthorne and Sally Jewell
  • Receiving the Stephen Mather award from the National Parks Conservation Association
  • Getting to know so many people around North Dakota
  • Living and working in this magnificent park

The Mather award is the highest honor a superintendent can receive, and it was awarded because of her efforts to protect the Park from energy development, showing that the concern for the Park is a national issue, not just a local one.

Naylor grew up in Oregon and received her undergraduate degree there, but her North Dakota roots go deep. Her great grandparents immigrated to North Dakota in the late 1800s, settling near Minnewaukan, and her grandmother was raised here and spent much of her life in the Carrington area. Her mother attended NDSU before moving to Oregon. She first visited the Badlands in 1973 on a family vacation, and returned to UND to get her graduate degree in biology before joining the National Park Service. Her first NPS assignment was at the park she is now leaving as Superintendent, where she worked as a seasonal ranger and did her field work for her master’s degree.

“North Dakota and Theodore Roosevelt National Park are important places to me,” she says. “While the oil boom provides some benefits to the average person in North Dakota, it is also greatly changing the mood, tone, scenery, and general feel of western North Dakota. For those of us who are tied to the land in some way, it is very hard to watch this major transformation. I’m sure most of my North Dakota friends feel the same way. Many who have moved away say they will never be back. That is hard to stomach.”

While the state has changed, she says, “If we do our jobs right, a national park should not change very much over time. This is not true of most other entities, which are always trying to make improvements or launch new attractions. Facilities may improve and infrastructure should be maintained, but the general park experience should be the same over decades or longer. We cannot improve on nature’s handiwork. I worked here in the early 1980s when there was an oil boom going on. The park was concerned about it then, but that was minor compared to the current impacts and threats. The park itself has not changed much, but the environment around it has changed dramatically.”

And that’s her biggest fear for the park, the Badlands, and the state. She offers these words of caution to the state’s leaders:

“The state needs to do more to protect special places that North Dakotans hold dear and that others come to North Dakota to experience. Otherwise, there will be nothing left of North Dakota after the energy boom ends. There has to be a more measured and conscious approach to development. The state really holds the cards on this one. The Federal agencies, land owners, and private citizens really do not have the power. Only the state can make this happen.”

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2014 Election Analysis–Part 2

Like I said yesterday:

All the Republicans are going to win.

All the ballot measures are going to lose.

The election of statewide constitutional officeholders in North Dakota is a pretty ho-hum affair this year. All the Republicans will keep their jobs. Somebody named Ryan will win. That would be appointed Tax Commissioner Ryan Rauschenberger, whose party has gathered around him to protect his dirty little secrets, albeit with some strong words, I am sure, from the governor and his chief of staff. The office of Tax Commissioner has a recent history of Commissioners being appointed to the job and then elected in their own right. Four of the last seven Tax Commissioners—Byron Dorgan, Heidi Heitkamp, Corey Fong and Rauschenberger—were appointed to the job before being elected. The big difference between the first three and the fourth is that they didn’t go partying all day on a workday with a new-found friend. And get busted for it. Only Kent Conrad, Bob Hanson and Rick Clayburgh got there of their own volition, winning the office by election, but Hanson had previously been appointed State Treasurer to start his political career. Conrad and Heitkamp, like Rauschenberger, had been the Commissioner’s chief lieutenant. The similarity ends there. But look for Rauschenberger to uphold the tradition of appointees getting elected. He’s a Republican in a Republican state. Good enough this year. In spite of his indiscretions.

The other Ryan, not so lucky, I’m afraid. Democrats started the year with great hopes for one of the nicest men in their party–maybe a bit too nice to be  a good politician—Ryan Taylor, to become the state’s next Agriculture Commissioner, but I don’t think it is going to happen. Only lately has Taylor jumped on the back of the current handsome bachelor (although I heard he’s gotten engaged again) Commissioner, Doug Goehring, over his scandalous behavior toward female employees in his office. From what I hear, Goehring’s the star graduate of the Leo Reinbold School of Sexist Behavior. Too little, too late, I think, on Taylor’s part. News of Goehring’s abusive behavior toward female staff, including having one of them walk on his back in a hotel room, has been out there since early spring. Only lately did Taylor tiptoe into the issue on a TV spot (although the lateness of that spot probably was due to budgeting his limited resources). If anyone ever had a way to get women voters interested in the Agriculture Commissioner’s race, Taylor had one. Sadly, I’m afraid Taylor’s future political career is continuing in his role as a McHenry County Commissioner.

Big Oil played a role in this race, providing most of the money Goehring needs to remain a solid oil vote on the Industrial Commission. The newspapers report close to a million dollars being spent on this race, with Goehring’s oil money far ahead of Taylor’s individual contributions. The fact that Taylor has been able to raise nearly $400,000, and that Goehring is approaching half a million, including $100,000 dumped into the race by the state Republican Party in the last 10 days of the campaign, shows not only that the race might be pretty close right now, but also how important it is. Taylor’s late fundraising surge—almost $120,000 in the 30 days leading up to the election—gives lie to earlier published polls showing him substantially behind. Much of the funding has come from ActBlue, a Democrat clearing house for individual contributors.

The other thing that just pisses me off is that Goehring is another of those Republicans benefiting from “legal” corporate campaign contributions. A big chunk of Goehring’s money comes from the so-called Republican Ag Commissioners Committee, a Super-PAC type of organization in Washington DC that accepts corporate gifts and then distributes them to people like Goehring after washing them through their non-profit status. Corporate gifts are illegal in North Dakota, but the national Ag Commissioners’ Committee website says clearly “Individuals, corporations, PACs and foundations contribute to the RACC. Contribution amounts are unlimited . . .”

The other big beneficiary of those funds this year is our own Attorney General, Wayne Stenehjem who took $150,000 from a similar group, the Republican State Leadership Committee PAC, last December—a sum that turned out to be nearly two-thirds of all the money he raised for this campaign. A pretty easy way to finance a campaign. Stenehjem argues that despite the fact those PACs take corporate funds, which are illegal to use in North Dakota elections, they only send the non-corporate money on to North Dakota. Uh huh. That’s real believable. I’m picturing those folks in Washington, sitting at a long table, sorting out the checks, putting the corporate checks in one pile and the non-corporate checks in another, then endorsing the back of those non-corporate checks “Pay to _____________ (insert North Dakota Republican candidate’s name here) and putting them in a UPS package and overnighting them to the State Capitol in Bismarck, North Dakota. Or something like that. At least that way we could track them. I have to wonder how many other candidates in other states which prohibit corporate contributions are claiming those same non-corporate funds. Wonder if there’s ever an audit of those kinds of PACs. Stenehjem, by the way, is once again going to get three-fourths of the vote.

Taylor, meanwhile, must be showing well in internal polls, because his late fundraising surge makes no sense otherwise. Candidates trailing by substantial margins aren’t generally showered with the kind of money Taylor has picked up as of late. This one, and the contest for our lone Congressional seat, are the two races which could benefit from a concerted get-out-the-vote effort from their party headquarters. We’ll see if the party is up to it. If there is going to be a surprise winner in this election, Taylor could be the one. Put a capital “S” on Surprise though.

Down the ballot, I don’t see much to get excited about, other than the fact the Democrats have come up with some bright young fresh faces to groom for the future. I told one of the Democratic-NPL Public Service Commission candidates (and a few Legislative candidates as well) that there were only two issues in North Dakota this year: Safe Railroads and Safe Pipelines. Fiery train wrecks and leaky pipelines have people from Alexander to Abercrombie (and also Seattle to New York) quaking in their boots this year. Those issues could have made some North Dakota Republicans vulnerable if they had been exploited, but I haven’t seen that happen. A good part of that, I suppose, is the Democratic-NPL Party’s candidates’ inability to raise a lot of money to get on TV with their message. It’s hard to raise money when your party is at a low ebb and you’re running against well-funded, and pretty well-known, incumbents.

In Legislative races, I expect the Republicans’ two-thirds majorities in both houses will remain intact. In spite of the fact Democrats have recruited some pretty good candidates this year (including some former legislators like Tracy Potter in Bismarck, Lisa Wolf in Minot, Charles Linderman in Carrington, Tork Kilichowski in District 19, Ben Vig in District 23 and Jonell Bakke in Grand Forks), they left 16 races with no candidates at all. That has to be a modern-day record, and not one to be proud of. Still, there could be some surprises this year for the Democrats, like popular Richland County Commissioner Perry Miller in Wahpeton, running for the Senate, and baby doctor Joe Adducci (who has delivered half the residents of Williston) in District 1, and the team of former West Fargo City Commissioner Brenda Warren and Jaci Stofferahn, daughter of former Representative Scott Stofferahn, in District 13 in West Fargo for the House. Still, this is the sixth year of a Democratic President’s term, and that signals a big win for the Republicans, generally. Eight years ago, in the sixth year of George Bush’s term, North Dakota Democrats picked up about a dozen Legislative seats. But don’t expect Republicans here to do that this year, because the Democrats ain’t defending very many seats—there’s little room for gain any more on the GOP side. District 35 in Bismarck is among the most watched, with the truly unlikeable Republican Senator Margaret Sitte and charming Erin Oban spending more than a hundred grand between them, sums unheard of in North Dakota for a legislative race. Much of Sitte’s money has been provided by national anti-choice organizations. Much of Oban’s has been provided by people who don’t like those organizations. Potter could be one of the few Democrats to unseat a Republican House member, Karen Karls, here, as well. He’s by far the best campaigner of the Democrats’ legislative candidates. Don’t be surprised if the team from District 35 in the House next year is Potter and Bob Martinson. Potter, who won a Senate trace in 2006, is the only Democrat elected from Bismarck in this century. He and Oban could add to that this year.

Which brings us to that other statewide race worth mentioning, the race for the U.S. House of Representatives. George B. Sinner, the Democratic-NPL candidate, has made no secret of the fact he’d like to follow in the footsteps of his father, George A. Sinner, as Governor of North Dakota. His race for Congress this year is a tune-up for that. He’s in a no-lose situation here. He might win, and go off to Washington. But he’s running against a shrewd politician named Cramer, a man whose only lifelong ambition has been to be a United States Congressman, and despite a couple missteps, Cramer seems likely to continue in that role.

But for Sinner, even if he loses, he wins. Because he’s running a great name identification campaign, he’s building a great fundraising list, and he’s acquitted himself well with the voters. I’d be surprised if he gets fewer than 45 per cent of the voters to support him, so he has a good base of support for the Governor’s race in two years. And even if he wins, I wouldn’t be surprised if he pulls out after just one term, a la Art Link in 1970, to come home and run for Governor. Unless Senator Heidi Heitkamp decides to do that. Don’t think for a minute SHE’s not getting some encouragement to come back home and rebuild the Democratic-NPL Party by claiming the Governor’s office.

But Sinner could do that, whether he wins this year or not, just like his dad did in 1984. In 1980, the Reagan landslide year, Republicans won big, and when 1981 started, there were just two Democrats in the entire Capitol tower—Tax Commissioner Kent Conrad and Public Service Commissioner Bruce Hagen (and they were both elected on the no-party ballot). Four years later, Sinner defeated incumbent Allen Olson to start the turnaround for the Democrats, and by 1988, Democrats held every office in the Capitol except State Auditor and two of the Public Service Commission seats, as well as a majority in the North Dakota Senate. And Democrats held all three Congressional seats. And in between there, they briefly also held a majority in the State House of Representatives.

Politics in North Dakota is cyclical. Parties, led by good candidates and strong organizations (something the Democrats have been sadly lacking the past few elections), can reverse their fortunes, and the state’s voters are open to new leadership when it looks like the current leaders are failing. Sometimes those current leaders are indeed failing. But sometimes good campaigns by challengers can convince voters they are failing when they may or not be. Democrats need to decide it is time to do that—to produce good candidates and provide them a strong organization. In 2016, either Heitkamp or Sinner could start that process.

A naïve young reporter asked me recently, given the current makeup of state government, with Republicans holding every office in the Capitol, why I had chosen to stay in North Dakota rather than move to a state where my liberal politics were more welcome. Other than the fact that that would be the worst reason to abandon my home state, I answered that politics is cyclical here, and the Democrats will rule again someday. For example, I pointed out that while the current all-Republican North Dakota Industrial Commission, which regulates oil and gas development in North Dakota, is letting Big Oil run amok in our state, that will change too, one day.

In the era of the modern-day two party system in North Dakota, beginning in 1960, Democrats held the governor’s office more than half the time, for 28 of those 54 years (and between 1960 and 1992 Democrats had a Governor for 28 out of 32 years), and Democrats had a majority on the Industrial Commission for 22 years. Even without a majority of the Industrial Commission, a Governor has a Bully Pulpit, because he or she gets to appoint all the regulators. That makes the Democrats’ choice of a Governor candidate in 2016 all the more critical. Even if the Republican candidate is Jack Dalrymple. The elder Sinner (and the candidate he defeated, Allen Olson) proved that incumbent Governors can be beaten.

As an aside, there’s already speculation about who will be the Republican candidate. Dalrymple will be 68 years old if he runs for re-election. Some of my Republican friends say it is time for new, younger blood. That, they say, is why he appointed Drew Wrigley, who turns 50 next year, as his Lieutenant Governor. Many expect him to step aside for Wrigley.

But Wrigley has to get past Wayne Stenehjem, who’ll be 63 in 2016.  Whether Stenehjem really wants to leave his comfortable relaxing office across the hall remains to be seen, but if it looks like there’s going to be an intra-party battle, Dalrymple might just decide to stick around for four more years to keep the blood from flowing on the floor. And if he does, it will test Wrigley’s patience. He’s an ambitious man and could make a whole lot more money as a lobbyist or lawyer than he can attending funerals and ribbon cuttings on behalf of the Governor. Don’t be surprised, if Dalrymple seeks re-election, that he runs with a different Lieutenant Governor candidate.

But that’s a ways away. Next week isn’t. I’ll check back in after the election and either eat my words or figure out how we’re going to do as a state in the next few years with no change in either our Constitution or our elected officials. No change at all, except maybe our kids will start school a little later.

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2014 Election Analysis–Part 1

All the Republicans are going to win.

All the ballot measures are going to lose.

If I were a betting man, and I could find someone to take the bet, that would be the one I’d make.

Okay, not all the Republicans in the country, or even the state. Just the ones running for statewide office in North Dakota. And most of the Republicans running for the  North Dakota Legislature. Maybe one or two ballot measures might squeak through. But most of them will, and should, lose.

Just another ho-hum election. In spite of millions of dollars being spent on this campaign, not much will change in North Dakota as a result of the voting this year. The Constitution and the Constitutional Office-Holders and the Legislature will look pretty much the same next Wednesday as they do today, a week before the election.

Supporters of various causes and interests are going to take five whacks at changing the North Dakota Constitution next Tuesday, My guess is that all of them will fail. North Dakotans love their Constitution, and don’t tolerate much change in it.

Measure 1 is the right-to-life crowd’s nebulous language about, well, the right to life. It boils down, mostly, to anti-abortion versus pro-choice personal—very personal, the pro-choice people say—feelings on a woman’s right to have an abortion. I’ve always believed that North Dakota is a pro-choice state, willing to forego religious dictates about abortion in favor of keeping the government’s nose out of our personal lives. Nobody really wants an abortion, or wants their wife, mother, sister or daughter to have one, but I think most North Dakotans want that choice left up to an individual woman, not to the government. We’ll see next Tuesday.

Measure 2 is just downright goofy. It is on the ballot as a result of a resolution introduced by 11 Republican Senate and House members, kind of on behalf of the North Dakota real estate industry. It says that we can’t levy a tax on the sales of property. Thing is, we don’t, do that, we never have, and we never will. It’s a solution looking for a problem. If it fails, we won’t see a rush to introduce a bill to tax real estate transfers. That’s the same thing that will happen if it passes. Friend of mine asked me this week where this idea even came from. A few people sitting around having coffee, looking for a feel-good way to say we don’t want to increase taxes? Probably. Well, now we’re going to vote on it, and you have to vote “Yes” to stop any such tax from happening. We’ll see if voters can figure that out. Or if they even care enough to vote on it.

Measure 3 is a bad solution to a problem that does exist. We have a dysfunctional State Board of Higher Education. House Majority Leader Al Carlson has built a career criticizing higher education officials in North Dakota. So he wrote this measure which proposes to abolish the state board in favor of a dysfunctional three member Commission of Higher Education. Our state board is bad, but not THAT bad—not bad enough to convince people this is a good idea. Better we replace the guy who appoints the Board of Higher Education members, as soon as possible.

Measure 4 basically guts our state’s initiated measure laws, and North Dakotans hold those rights sacred. It’s a power grab by the Legislature. And even though most North Dakotans are going to vote to re-elect their current Legislators, my guess is that this will lose by the biggest margin of the constitutional amendments. Go figure.

Then there’s the fifth constitutional measure, Measure 5. Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks. The most “feel-good” ballot measure title ever in North Dakota. Who could possibly be against clean water, wildlife and parks? Well, my guess is more than half of the North Dakotans who will vote in this election, that’s who. I’ve written about this before. Lies and the lying liars who tell them, to quote United States Senator Al Franken, D-Minnesota, will take this one down, along with the sad campaign run by the measure’s supporters. Just last week, in a big postcard in my mail box, and this morning, in another letter to the editor, the Chamber of Commerce and Big Oil are saying that $4 billion will go to out of state conservation groups to buy land in competition with young farmers, and taking money away from roads and schools and police protection. Lies, all of them.

Big Oil is spending a million dollars to try to defeat this measure. I’m still a little puzzled why they are doing that. As far as I can tell, the oil industry has no dog in this fight. Nothing that might happen if this measure passes will affect them. What it boils down to, I guess, is they are just being good friends to their buddies down at the Chamber of Commerce. The money really means nothing to them—it’s pocket change for that industry. As for the Chamber of Commerce, they just don’t like “green” people. In their minds, environmentalists, conservationists, have always just been anti-business, so the Chamber is against whatever they are for. Never mind that hunters, fishermen, hikers, bikers, boaters and campers spend most of their discretionary money at Chamber members’ businesses. Sheesh.

But as I said before, the proponents of this measure, the hunting and conservation groups, have just rolled over in the face of that attack. They keep running sunshine and roses commercials, telling us how wonderful this measure is (and they are right about that) without fighting back against the pervasive dark forces hammering the shit out of them day after day. Let me put it in a way those guys can understand.

Suppose you are out in Montana hunting deer. You’ve spent a ton of money on your new Suburban, bought a new rifle, loaded up with expensive ammunition, hired the best outfitter in the state to lead you through the hunt, and are thoroughly enjoying a fine day fall day in the Rocky Mountains. You get separated from your guide for a while, come around a bend in the trail and are confronted by a grizzly bear. He comes roaring toward you, intent on making you supper. Now, you have two choices. As he comes running toward you on the trail, you can say “Wow, I’ve always wanted to see a grizzly bear up close. This is really cool. What a great guide I have, he’s taken me right up to a grizzly bear, face to face.” So you just sit down against a tree, marvel at the size of that bear, and let him rip you to shreds.

Or, you can raise your rifle and start pumping lead into that critter, and when you run out of ammo you grab your knife and start slashing, fighting back with every ounce of your will, because you came there to get an eight-point muley, not get eaten by a grizzly bear.

Well, Measure 5 proponents chose the first one. They decided not to fight back. Which is why, I think, in addition to the disgusting campaign run by that big grizzly named Harold Hamm, they are going to lose. They had every opportunity to spend their three or four million dollars fighting back against the lies of Big Oil and the Chamber. Frankly, it wouldn’t have taken much.

“Why does Big Oil oppose conservation in North Dakota?”

“Why is Big Oil spending a million dollars to keep you from having the best parks in America?”

“Big oil companies from out of state are spending a million dollars so they can continue to pollute your water and destroy your wildlife habitat.”

“Let’s send a message to the big out-of-state oil companies: You can’t buy an election in North Dakota.”

“North Dakotans want clean water, healthy wildlife and good parks. Why are the big out-of-state oil companies against North Dakotans?”

“Let’s tell the big out-of-state oil companies to keep their noses out of North Dakota politics. Vote Yes on Measure 5.”

Or something like that.

I ran into an old hunting buddy of mine the other day. We first hunted together in the late 1950’s, with our dads. He’s as conservation-minded as anyone I know. I might have expected him to be a supporter of this measure. And he probably would have been one. Except for one thing: “It doesn’t belong in the Constitution.” He’s one of the many thousands, I fear, who will vote against it because it puts too much detail into the Constitution. Everything else being equal, that is the fatal flaw in this measure. A statutory measure to increase the funding in the existing Outdoor Heritage Fund and allow for perpetual conservation easements to keep farmland as farmland, and habitat as habitat, probably could have passed, in spite of the dirty campaign against it. My old hunting buddy could have voted for that. He’s for the deer, and the pheasants, and the ducks that could be saved by a massive state CRP program. Me too.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope I have to eat these words. But I am afraid I’m right. Darn. No, Damn!

Measure 6 will lose because it is sponsored by a bunch of goofballs with a personal agenda. Measure 7, which will bring $4 prescription medicine to North Dakota (yeah, right), will lose because North Dakotans still have old-fashioned sentimental for value their hometown businesses.

Measure 8 just might pass. I’ve seen polls, going back to my Tourism Director days, that say most North Dakotans would prefer that school start after Labor Day. “In my day, we started school the day after Labor Day—it was a tradition—and ended school the Friday before Memorial Day—another tradition—and we turned out all right, didn’t we? Kids get too many silly little breaks from school during the school year these days. We got out for Teacher’s Convention, two weeks at Christmas, and Good Friday. Worked for us.”

Tomorrow: A look at some of the head-to-head races on the ballot.

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Dis-ing Measure 5

Three words describe my feelings about the campaign the opponents of Measure 5 (the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Constitutional Amendment) have run this year: Disingenuous, Dishonest and Disgusting.

“Disingenuous,” because they buffaloed the poorly-led farm organizations into opposing a measure from which the members of those organizations would have been the major beneficiaries. Some Farmers Union members I have talked to are furious with their leadership. Here’s why. If the measure passes, it’s going to put about $125-150 million dollars a year into the hands of the North Dakota Industrial Commission to spend on conservation. There’s only one way I can think of to spend that much money in a year: Pay farmers to take marginal land out of production and create wildlife habitat. The Industrial Commission, which gets to have the final say in how the money is spent, is likely going to tell the Game and Fish Department and the state Agriculture Department to develop a form of state-funded CRP. CRP was the tremendously popular program started by the federal government in the mid-1980s, which paid farmers, at that time, around 35-40 dollars an acre to plant cover crops on marginal land to get some cropland out of production, to ease surpluses of crops like wheat, to raise prices paid to farmers, to inject money into the farm sector. It saved a lot of marginal farms.

But the side benefit was that it created wildlife habitat which led to record numbers of deer, ducks and pheasants in the states which had a lot of CRP.  Everybody won.  But now CRP is fading away, the result of cuts in U.S. farm program funding and higher crop, mostly corn, prices the last few years. But as corn prices fade, CRP is again looking attractive, and if the state had its own program, paying farmers, say, $100 an acre to take a million acres out of production and put it into grass, that would be a direct injection of $100 million a year into the farm sector. And a huge boost to the North Dakota economy. Plus, it would revive flagging populations of deer, ducks and pheasants, which is the goal of those sponsoring the measure. Once again, everybody wins.

The Farmers Union, generally the most pro-conservation of the farm groups, made a major mistake siding with the Chamber of Commerce and the North Dakota Petroleum Council. It’s hard to imagine they really did believe those groups, who planted a seed that the money was going to be used to buy land, in competition with new and existing farmers. The Farmers Union has been the staunchest defender of the state’s anti-corporation farming law, and they know that that law would prevent that from happening. I have to believe their opposition is more about putting all the detail that is contained in Measure 5 into the State Constitution. More about that in a minute.

I called the campaign led by the Chamber and the Petroleum Council “Dishonest” because that’s exactly what it is.  Early on, they just made up some things that were completely untrue and began hammering away at them in press releases and letters to the editor. The two biggest lies: All the money in this measure is going to go to out-of-state conservation organizations, and they are going to spend it buying land, which will drive up the price of farmland. They were Big Lies, and the theory behind Big Lies is that you just keep telling them over and over and eventually people will believe they are true.

A series of masterfully crafted letters to the editor written by then-Odney Advertising PR guy Rick Collin, spooned out to willing members of the groups to sign and send to the state’s newspapers, created the New Truth that the money was going to out of state conservation groups to buy land away from beginning farmers. The letters slacked off with the sudden mysterious departure of Collin from the agency in late summer. (Some said he didn’t want to be associated with the Republican ad and PR firm as he competed for the job of State Historical Society Director. I don’t know. I asked him but did not get an answer. Anyway, I’m a blogger—my job is to speculate, not investigate.) But Chamber PR flack Jon Godfread took up the slack, and the campaign is closing around those two lies, and proponents of Measure 5 are doing a poor job of rebutting that pair of powerful arguments.

The whole thing is “Disgusting,” because the campaign by the oil industry and the Chamber has taken politics down to the lowest level North Dakota has ever seen. Disgusting because the groups continue to perpetrate those lies and no one in the media challenges them. The Chamber flack Godfread repeatedly says the money is going to out of state conservation groups, when he knows it is not, because the measure clearly says that the money will be spent by the Industrial Commission members, and they are surely not just going to hand it over with no restrictions to anybody. Here’s his latest, the first sentence of a letter printed in the Forum Oct. 9 and signed by somebody else:

“North Dakotans will be writing a blank check to nonprofit organizations that are more concerned about ducks than people if they pass Measure 5.”

            WE know that this is not true, but not everyone does, and a lot of people only know what they read in letters to the editor. And some of them actually vote. I fault the editors of the daily newspapers almost as much as the Chamber folks for this, for allowing these obviously false letters to be printed. If I were an editor again, I would either tell the person who signed the letter (who knows who actually wrote it?) that I wouldn’t print something that is obviously not true, or else I would print it with a disclaimer at the end of the letter that said “I received this letter, which is full of lies. I only printed it to show my readers what sleazebags the people campaigning against this measure are. I don’t care how you vote on this, but don’t believe anything you read in this letter.”

And then Godfread says, in the same letter, the measure will use a pile of money that would be pulled away from other resource needs in North Dakota, like education, roads and other infrastructure, property tax relief” which is also not true. And then there’s his favorite line, which he gets others from the farm groups to say, that the money in the conservation fund is going to be used to buy land, when he knows that our corporation farming laws forbid that.

Truly a disgusting campaign by what has become a truly disgusting organization.

But when no one refutes those arguments, they become true in the minds of otherwise uninformed voters. And no one is refuting them.

Which is why I believe my feeling about the sponsors of the measure can be summed up in one word: Disappointing. The leaders of these sponsoring organizations are good-hearted men with little political savvy, and it shows. It showed first in their drafting of the measure, putting way too much detail into the Constitution for North Dakotans to stomach. So much detail that opponents have been able to use that successfully to detract from the importance of the measure to North Dakota. Editors of the Forum, who sometimes get it right on initiated measures, used that, and only that, to tell their readers to vote against it. Not that the Forum has a lot of credibility these days. They could have saved a lot of ink on their editorial pages this year by just printing one editorial that says “We endorse all Republicans.”

Disappointing in that the sponsors have failed to call the opponents’ dishonesty into question, choosing instead to run a series of mushy, feel-good TV and radio spots while opponents tear the measure apart with untrue claims. Claims that work.

The measure’s sponsors started this campaign with 70 per cent of North Dakotans agreeing in principle that conservation was good and saying they would support some kind of vaguely worded measure to set aside money from the oil tax for conservation purposes. According to a new poll by the Forum, the opponents have whittled away at those numbers with their negative campaign, and now less than half of presumably voting North Dakotans approve it. Anyone who’s been around politics as long as I have knows that you have to respond to negative attacks, to refute them if they are dishonest, and that in the end, if the voters hear both sides, truth generally prevails.  Sponsors certainly have enough money to do that, according to campaign finance reports disclosed last week. If they don’t do it soon, I fear they will have lost their one big chance to really do something for conservation in North Dakota.

More than a year ago, I was invited to supper at a local restaurant with wildlife and conservation leaders and Legislators who had expressed an interest in this issue to discuss plans for this measure. I was told they were planning this constitutional amendment, the one we are voting on now. I warned against it, advising that the people of North Dakota like conservation, but don’t like changing their constitution. I suggested a statutory change that simply added money to the existing Outdoor Heritage Fund and removed the state’s prohibition on perpetual easements, so that land purchases would not be needed and the argument by any opponents that the money was going to be used to buy land would be moot. Or, I suggested, they could write a broader statutory change which might include much of the language in this proposed measure, but amending the state law containing the Outdoor Heritage Fund rather than adding to the Constitution.

If they insisted on a constitutional change, I thought something like a short sentence that said “Five per cent of oil extraction tax revenues will be allocated to a conservation fund,” and then let the Legislature work out the details. Trying to add more than two-thousand words to the constitution, as this does, just doesn’t make any sense to me. (You can read the measure by going here.)

Still, I hope I am wrong, and I think there’s still a chance it could pass by the narrowest of margins if the sponsors of the measure put a little more backbone and a lot less mush into their closing campaign. The Chamber and the oil industry are playing hardball. I haven’t yet figured out what raised their ire about this, causing them to attack it with such vitriol. That’s a subject for another day, I guess. Sponsors have to play the same kind of hardball. Just the fact that their cause is just, doesn’t translate into a winning campaign. Ask a thousand losing candidates. There’s a reason candidates and committees run negative campaigns: They work.

Here’s a tip to the measure’s sponsors. The big winner if this measure passes is wildlife, because of all the money that will go into making habitat. Beneficiaries of that are farmers who will get payments to take land out of production (can you say $64,000 clear profit on a section of land growing grass and trees—every year?),  and hunters, who already know the benefits of CRP to wildlife.  It’s probably going to take about 115,000 votes to pass this measure November 4, given the historically low voter turnout in years when there is no presidential election. Let’s just say there are about 80,000 hunters in North Dakota. And let’s just say there are about 35,000 farmers. Hmmm.

A bunch of good-hearted men and women and their organizations are willing to put up a couple of million dollars and thousands of hours of hard work to give the people and the critters of North Dakota the biggest gift they have ever received. They’ve almost won. I really hope they don’t blow it now. But I’m pretty worried.

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