One Governor Too Many

In the next couple of weeks, former Governor George Sinner, my former boss, is going to release his memoir, a month or so later than originally planned because of an apparent printing error in the first run. I’m eager to see it. In it, he’s going to tell his version of what happened in the first few days of 1985, when he and outgoing Governor Allen Olson both laid claim to the governorship for a period of a few days. I remember those days, because I was still the executive director of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party, and I was a bit involved in Sinner’s transition from Candidate-For-Governor to Governor-Elect to Governor.

As the end of Olson”s term approached (at that time, the new Governor usually took office the same day as the North Dakota Legislature convened, the first Tuesday after January 3–in 1985, that would have been January 8 ) Olson had been lackadaisical about filling a couple of North Dakota Supreme Court vacancies, planning to fill them in his last week in office. Democrats were watching and waiting for those appointments to happen, and when they hadn’t happened by December 31, they saw an opportunity to seize them, giving Sinner the opportunity to appoint a couple people more in tune with his political philosophy than with Olson’s–although, truth be told, there wasn’t much difference between their philosophies, other than the “D” or “R” behind their names. As it turned out, the major difference between them was their governing abilities. So instead of waiting until January 8, Sinner called in one of the remaining Justices and took the oath of office early on Tuesday, January 1, and then notified Olson later that morning that he, Sinner, was now governor and Olson was not. Olson took issue with that, seeing those Supreme Court appointments slip into Democrat hands, and so, for a few days, we had two governors. Sinner moved in to the Governor’s residence (Olson, you’ll recall, had chosen to live in his own Bismarck residence rather than moving across town to the official Governor’s residence, and so it was available for use) and began to “govern” from there while Olson kept his office in the Capitol and refused to let Sinner move in. At the time, there was no real office in the Governor’s residence, so Sinner called his first press conference seated in a recliner behind a little tea cart on wheels set up in front of him for the microphones.

Not present at that first press conference, but witnessing it on television, was one of my favorite editors at the time, a fellow from Fargo named Jerome Lamb. Jerome worked for the Fargo Public Library, but in his spare time, he wrote and edited a journal called “the small voice.” Jerome was a wonderful writer, and had he lived longer he surely would have had a popular blog, but at the time he mailed his little journal to a few hundred friends–his mailing list was small enough that he hand-addressed each issue to each subscriber, saying that kept him more closely in touch with his readers and made it more personal for him–like he was writing to each one individually.

Well, there were hundreds, perhaps thousands of stories written about North Dakota having two governors in those first few days of 1985. It was a big national and international story. But the best of them came a couple weeks after the Supreme Court eventually decided Sinner was Governor, in Jerome’s journal. Just as Jerome took great joy from hand-addressing his issues of “the small voice,” I’m going to take great joy in typing his report on the incidents of early January 1985 into my computer, because it is surely one of the best things ever written about North Dakota.


By Jerome Lamb (1930-2005)

Once upon a time there were two popes, one in Avignon and the other in Rome. Since this was obviously one pope more than anybody needed, and since the papal perks–palaces, armies, heavy jewelry, fancy duds–were substantial enough to rule out the likelihood of either pope saying something gracious like “Oh, alright, if that’s the way you’re going to be about it, you can have the old triple tiara, and I hope you choke on it!”, difficulties arose. Harsh words were exchanged, wars fought, villages sacked, countrysides pillaged, and witches and heretics aplenty were burned at stakes. In the end the Chambers of Commerce of the two cities worked out some sort of deal; Rome got the pope and Avignon got the discriminating tourist. Nobody knows who, if anyone, won; certainly not the witches and heretics.

We are pleased to report that North Dakota emerged from its reign of two governors with much less carnage, which may demonstrate once again that politics is often a much less bloody business than religion. What happened here was that George “Bud” Sinner, the newly elected governor, decided to take office on New Year’s Day, but Allen “Al” Olson, the newly de-elected governor, determined not to leave office until five or six days later. Thus, for a time, the citizens were not quite sure who was in and who was out. GovSinner was in the Governor’s Mansion (sic) holding press conferences while seated behind a tea cart, and GovOlson was in the capitol building, dispatching gubernatorial bulletins to gleeful newspersons. The issue at stake was who would get to fill two vacancies on the five person Supreme Court, which august body was, according to the inscrutable wisdom of the Law, called upon to decide, by the end of the week, who was governor and when. Two of the three remaining justices, evidently perplexed by the baffling circumvolution of having the Supreme Court decide who the governor was so that the governor could could decide who the Supreme Court was going to be, entered conflict of interest pleas and excused themselves to go ice fishing or something. That necessitated bringing in less august judges from the outlying area, making the Court less supreme than usual, but no less decisive; it determined that George “Bud” Sinner had indeed been Governor since New Year’s Day, and that was that.

Attorney General Nicholas “Nick” Spaeth, a well-scrubbed young man who, at 34, appears to be not only newly elected but also sort of new all over, proclaimed the affair to be a constitutional crisis. While we’re not really into constitutionality we are keenly attuned to crises; we’re not sure what the A.G. saw looming on the horizon, but we saw the possibility of a soft light dawning which could alter the whole structure of government. Would it not, we wondered, be likely that the electorate, noticing that the state functions much the same with two governors as it does with one–the roads get plowed, the schools open on time, the cold weather comes and goes–might conclude that it could function just as well with no governors? And then who would light the official State Christmas Tree? Earl Strinden?

Fortunately, that crisis appears also to have been nipped in, you should excuse the term, the bud, and things are back to normal; Governor Sinner is in his office governing,the Legislature is down the hall legislating, and newsfolk are in front of their keyboards and screens, filing news stories. Oh, well, it was swell while it lasted, and it left us with one memorable picture; the Chief Executive of the State of North Dakota seated at a tea cart, solemnly announcing that he was the governor. That impressed us with particular force because a while earlier, browsing through a business magazine, we had stumbled across one of those articles with a title like “Power Furnishings For The Executive Suite.” You know, the sort of piece that makes much ado about the significance of the swordfish mounted on the waiting room wall, of the small but sturdy oak tree growing in the corner where you expected to see a potted palm, of the long sleek  desk situated at the far end of the long sleek room. Yet here, right before the cameras that have become our very eyes, we had the leader of all six hundred and eighty thousand of us, the Commander-in-Chief of the National Guard, at the snap of whose fingers tanks would sweep across the border into South Dakota–well, if not tanks bulldozers and road graders anyway, and all sorts of two and a half ton green trucks; at the stroke of whose pen mighty universities and state schools of forestry would wither away from loss of funds; there he was, sitting behind the tea cart, one foot on either side of a large wooden wheel, smack dab in the middle of a possible constitutional crisis. No state seals in the background, no flanking flags, no broad shouldered, somber looking bystanders; just the tea cart and the microphones and the governor. Warmed the heart, it did,which is always nice in January, and made us kind of content to be home in North Dakota.

Wasn’t that wonderful? Jerome continued to write his journal almost up until the time he died about six years ago. I saved a few of my favorites, including the one I excerpted from above. Jerome’s son, John, got some of his dad’s talent, and continues to write for the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead today.

Here’s a footnote to this story: In the middle of this “crisis,” Democratic-NPL Party leaders began getting a little nervous about public perception, fearing that this was not a good way for their newly-elected Governor to start out a term, and they asked me, in the absence, of course, of time to do any polling, to sniff around and see what folks were saying about this situation. I had, over my years working in politics, when I needed a little “focus group” to see how folks felt abut things, taken to stopping in at a little bar in Moffit, southeast of Bismarck, about 4:30 or 5:00 in the afternoon and listening to what the locals who frequented the place had to say.  So I decided to make a Moffit run–I think the bar was called The Bucket, but I’m not sure–and see what the locals thought about having two governors. I settled on a bar stool and ordered a beer about 5:15. There were a few old timers and a few younger farmers scattered up and down the bar, and at 5:30, just before the national news came on, KFYR-TV’s news anchor appeared on the TV screen to give us the highlights of what was coming up  on the six o’clock news, saying something like “North Dakota still has two governors . . .” I leaned to my left and asked the guy down the bar from me, who had no idea who I was, what he thought of that situation. He replied, in a loud voice, “I’d like to get in my pickup right now and drive up to the Capitol and throw a rope around that Olson and drag him out of there.” And everyone within earshot nodded in assent, and a short conversation  ensued, with literally everyone in the bar agreeing. And I just kept my mouth shut, finished my beer, drove back to Bismarck and reported in that things were just fine.