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​Back to the Future with North Dakota Democrats

Last Word | May 6th, 2016

“Democratic-NPL lawmakers called on Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple this morning to call a special legislative session to address…budget cuts to human services and property taxes. [They]said the budget cuts should be amended legislatively to fully preserve property tax cuts made to residents as well as programs used by North Dakota families that could be negatively impacted. The…proposal would move approximately $40.6 million from the Strategic Investment and Improvements Fund to the general fund to address more than $38.8 million in cuts to the North Dakota Department of Human Services and nearly $1.8 million in cuts to the North Dakota University System office.” - Bismarck Tribune, 3/29/16

“Democratic-NPL Party candidate for state treasurer Sen. Tim Mathern [D-Fargo], said Tuesday he’s entered the race with one primary objective: to work to eliminate the office and move its functions to other state agencies.” - Bismarck Tribune, 4/13/16

“Dems discuss gains in diversity: Ballot includes tribal, LGBT, female hopefuls.”

- Nick Smith, Bismarck Tribune, 4/14/16

“Then let us pray that come it may; As come it will for a’ that;

That sense and worth, o’er a’ the earth; May bear the gree [have the prize] and a’ that;

For a’ that, an’ a’ that; It’s coming yet for a’ that;

That man to man to man, the world o’er; Shall brothers be for a’ that.” - Robert Burns, 1795

Democrats In Bismarck? Yes. Really! At their State Convention held in Bismarck, Thursday, March 31-Sunday, April 3, the Democratic/NPL Party of North Dakota signaled that they were ready to assume a larger presence inside the State Capitol come November, rather than just a short appearance at the Civic Center downtown.

Led by young women like Party Chair Kylie Oversen, and young men like Executive Director Robert Haider, the “new look” Democratic/NPL bears favorable comparison to the tired and worn “Chamber of Commerce” government of three past Republican Governors: Jack Dalrymple[2010-present], John Hoeven [2000-2010] and Ed Schafer [1992-2000]; and a Republican legislature under the aegis of House Majority Leader, Al Carlson [R-Fargo], which has served their own egos and the bottom line of foreign corporations far better than the interests of North Dakotans.

As an independent, progressive Democrat, and delegate [District 34, Mandan] to State Conventions since 2004, I have had a very minor role, but tangibly partisan stake, in the fate of Democrats in North Dakota, since making my home here in 2003.

Some of my Democrat friends from my former home in Cook County, Illinois, enjoy kidding me about the small blue bubble I inhabit in a Red State like North Dakota, but the times may be a changin’. The implosion of the Republican Party at the national level could have a ripple effect here. Also, continued cluelessness of Republican State leadership in the face of cynical and rapacious fossil fuel industry practices tempts North Dakota voters to turn once again to a political party which encourages effective government, as well as to their homegrown traditions of the Nonpartisan League [NPL], a time proven successful instrument for government of, by and for the people.

Veteran Democratic/NPL legislators like House Minority Leader, Kenton Onstad [District 4, Parshall] and Senator Tim Mathern [District 11, Fargo], have cited Republican short sightedness for years, as have former Democratic/NPL Chairs Mark Schneider [2009-2011], Greg Hodur [2011-2013], and Bob Valeu [2013-2015]. What I find most admirable about these gentlemen, however, has been their willingness and ability to recruit young women and men from around North Dakota to the highest levels of the Party and into the legislature. These men, and veteran women legislators like Senators Carolyn Nelson [District 21, Fargo] and Connie Triplett [District 18, Grand Forks], and Representatives Lois Delmore [District 43, Grand Forks] and Kathy Hogan [District 21, Fargo] have provided a gender and generational mixture to seamlessly combine experience with energy for the Democratic/NPL in the 21st Century.

More good news! Though little noticed beyond our borders in 2014, the successful first time election of five Democratic/NPL women to the North Dakota Legislature was unique to the tier of Red States running from the Canadian border through Texas. To the State Senate: Erin Oban [District 35, Bismarck]. To the State House: Kris Wallman [District 11, Fargo]; Mary Schneider [District 21, Fargo]; Alisa Mitskog [District 25, Wahpeton], and Pam Anderson [District 41, Fargo].

In a demonstration of her insight into the once and future Democratic/NPL, Chairman Oversen invited Professor Michael Lansing of Augsburg College in the Twin Cities (Insurgent Democracy: The Nonpartisan League in North American Politics, Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 2015) to speak to the Convention at a special panel session Saturday afternoon, as well as to a well attended luncheon beforehand. Professor Lansing reminded us that, rather than a spasm of populist rage that inevitably burned itself out, the story of the Nonpartisan League teaches us that popular movements can and have created lasting change, empowered citizens and restrained corporate influence.

For corroboration of Michael Lansing’s words, one need look no further than the Bank of North Dakota, the only State owned, public interest bank in the nation. Senator Elizabeth Warren [D-Massachusetts] would love to have publicly owned corporations in Massachusetts like North Dakota’s own Bank in Bismarck, and Grain Mill and Elevator in Grand Forks. A publicly owned bank in New York State nowadays would likely cause more heart attacks on Wall Street than the crashes of 1929 and 2008. And so forth.

The Republican Party in North Dakota was never really happy with a public interest bank, but the NPL was able to initiate and sustain its program in the nineteen teens by dominating Republican Party primaries for forty years. With the NPL no longer welcome there in the 1950’s, insurgents moved it to the Democratic Party of the New Deal.

Since NPL institutions have greatly benefitted Republican voters for 100 years, the Party relies on forgetfulness to erase memories of its bitter opposition. Nowadays, however, with the governing body of the Bank (the Industrial Commission of the Governor, Attorney General and Agriculture Commissioner), dominated by Republicans, they lean toward the private interest of profit making per se, rather than the public interest. Student loan practices are a case in point. Many student loans of earlier years were negotiated through the Bank of North Dakota with rates as high as 7%. It would be a simple matter for the Bank of North Dakota to bundle these loans with lower rates available in the private sector to give these former students a break. But that means a lowering of State revenues and, perhaps, necessitate (gasp!) a need for raising revenues [ie. taxes] from another source, say from higher income brackets. This is not the sort of thing private sector boosters and Republican Party stalwarts wish to discuss.

“Boosterism,” the bread and butter of Chamber of Commerce rhetoric, is a fine thing for civic pride and local identity, but it is no substitute for responsible government, and never has been. The rich top soil of the Red River, the oil underneath western North Dakota, and the jobs they provide, depend as much upon the roads, bridges, water and sewer projects that local, state, and federal governments provide, as they do for their development by entrepreneurs.

Democrats have never objected to job creation anymore than Republicans, and they are unafraid, as Senator Mathern shows us, to trim back unnecessary bureaucracy. Such cost cutting measures by Democrats could provide property tax relief, of course. But they could also provide a “shock absorber” fund for retraining or retirement of hard working men and women of the fossil fuel industries in this State, who are affected by energy policies dictated by climate change and bankruptcies of coal companies.

Unlike the GOP, the Democratic/NPL of North Dakota is not oblivious to human and environmental costs that another “too much mistake” has made in the oil patch, like the highest spike in crime in the U.S. [by percentage]. A case in point took place Sunday morning, April 17, at a church in Bismarck. Upon conclusion of the service, worshipers were told to stay in their seats due to police concerns with gunshots nearby. The church in question is next door to the Republican Party headquarters across from the Capitol, and a stone’s throw (or stray bullet’s trajectory) from the Governor’s Mansion.

In addition to sky rocking crime rates, human trafficking of shocking proportions, and the introduction of serious drug related and gang activity, there has been incalculable damage to air, land and water quality on the Bakken. There has been destruction of whole communities as well, physically and morally. The list is long, and growing.

Democrats in general nowadays, and the North Dakota Democratic/NPL in particular, understand that government is not supposed to be an extension of business interests, large or small. It takes time to make the right decisions in the public interest. Thus patience and planning are virtues in governmental, as well as in private behavior.

Patience is NOT a virtue in much of the private sector, nor should it be. “I need it yesterday” is a perfectly acceptable business practice. But it is a terrible way to govern in matters where public health, safety and quality infrastructure are concerned. Mail delivery might be an exception, but, from my own experience, the U.S.P.S. more than holds its own with UPS and the others

What is so remarkable about the young leadership I have encountered among the Democratic/NPL is that they understand this basic wisdom about the differences between private and public sector demands. Where haste might be called for, and where it truly “makes waste.” The ability of these young men and women to master the immediacies of modern communication and, yet, be patient with age old verities of the political process, is impressive. They don’t just talk to people of all ages, walks of life and lifestyles,… They listen.

Businesses, small or large, which serve only themselves, and not the public interest, forfeit any claim to respectability. Political parties, like the current Republican Party in North Dakota, which serve the private interests at the expense of the public interest, forfeit any claim to legitimate power. But it is up to voters to hold them accountable.

The good news for North Dakotans is that, should they be ready for a change from a Republican government dedicated to a servile catering to private interests, they will find a young, diverse, and representative Democratic/NPL ready, willing and able to pay genuine attention to public interest concerns of safety, health, infrastructure and access to affordable education. 

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