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Notes from North Dakota’s political conventions

Last Word | April 18th, 2024

By Jim Fuglie

I couldn’t make it to Fargo for the two state political conventions last weekend. It takes an old guy a lot longer to get over a cold than it used to. So I watched from afar and read about them, and wrote down my impressions, first on Saturday and then on Sunday. Here they are.

Saturday: Convention Notes . . . So Far

I’ll start this off by talking a bit about Tammy Miller, “Tall Tale Tammy” as Kelly Armstrong calls her. I think I get an assist on that one, Kelly. I wrote about her tall tales first on The Prairie Blog.

Lieutenant Governor Tammy wants to move up into the Governor’s office. But history is not on her side. Over the years, North Dakota’s Lieutenant Governors haven’t fared well when they tried to make that move. Many have tried, but few were chosen.

Actually, as best I can tell, only two of North Dakota’s thirty-some Lieutenant Governors have succeeded. A number of them, including such luminous names as Walter Welford, Ole Olson and Walter Maddock, acceded to the Governor’s office when their bosses either died in office or were removed for some malfeasance, becoming Governor without being elected.

But Lt. Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who became Governor when John Hoeven was elected to the U.S Senate in 2010, was elected on his own in 2012, serving one term. You have to go way back into the 1890’s to find the other one, a fellow named Roger Allin, who was elected Lieutenant Governor in 1890, and was elected Governor in 1892 (Governors served two-year terms back then), but served only two years after being denied his party’s nomination in 1894.

Tammy might well have received the same fate as Allin if she had tried to be nominated at her party’s convention, so she just skipped the convention and is running in the primary. It’s a weird scenario. As far as I can tell, no sitting elected official in North Dakota has ever told their party to just “Go f**k yourselves, I’ll see you at the primary,” before. “I don’t need your stinking party’s endorsement.”

Except the only reason she’s Lieutenant Governor is because the Republican Party elected Doug Burgum, who appointed her. Oh, it says in the paper she was going to go to the convention’s fundraising Governor’s Dinner last night and then “spend the weekend campaigning in Oakes and Steele.”

Wow. While every Republican of note in North Dakota is at their party’s convention in Fargo, Tammy’s talking at the Steele, North Dakota AMVETS breakfast. (Note: AMVETS members are kind of old, so their “breakfast” doesn’t start until 11:30.)

Unlike the Republicans, who scheduled a 7 a.m. prayer breakfast featuring Carson Wentz, who made big news by signing a contract to play for the Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs. No word on the terms of his contract yet, but it has to be in the millions. After a big show in Kansas City, he scrambled back to Fargo for this morning’s event.

But I digress. Tammy did get the jump on her opponent, Kelly Armstrong, in naming a running mate. Tammy announced her pick as her Lieutenant Governor running mate Friday, an unknown bureaucrat in the Burgum administration by the name of Josh Teigen.

Now, Josh’s an unknown, but there have been Teigens involved in North Dakota politics before. A lawyer named Obert Teigen was a North Dakota Supreme Court Justice for about 15 years back in the 1960s and 70s.

And then there was Torfin. The infamous Torfin Teigen, a house painter from Fargo, perhaps North Dakota’s best-ever political gadfly. Torfin spent much of his time in his midlife to late life trying to get his name on ballots. His best stunt came in 1974. That summer, Justice Obert Teigen abruptly resigned from the Court. I don’t know why. Governor Art Link appointed a Democrat, J. Philip Johnson, to the seat, but it was just temporary, because Johnson then had to run in the next election, that fall, to fill out the remainder of Obert Teigen’s ten-year term, which would have lasted until 1980.

Well, old Torfin thought, maybe they need another Teigen on the Supreme Court. Maybe they won’t notice the first names are different. Now Torfin had attended a year of law school in Minnesota back in the 1950s, but just a year, and never got a law degree. You have to be a lawyer to be on the North Dakota Supreme Court. But old Torfin told Secretary of State Ben Meier, when he handed in his papers to be on the ballot, that he was a lawyer. With a straight face.

Well, somebody, I think it was the State Bar Association, did a little checking (it didn’t take much) and got Ben to take Torfin’s name off the ballot. It made for some fun news stories at the time. (Johnson lost the election, by the way, to a real lawyer named Paul Sand.)

Forum columnist Jim Shaw once ran another funny story in his column about Torfin. Shaw wrote, “It reminded me of when I was a reporter for WDAY-TV in the 1980s and 1990s, and Torfin Teigen submitted petitions signed by ‘Senator Quentin Burdick,’ and ‘Mrs. Quentin Burdick.’ When I asked Teigen if the Burdicks really signed that petition, he said, ‘No. They weren’t home, but they would have signed it if they were home.’ At least Teigen was honest about the invalid signatures.”

He did actually get on the ballot once or twice, the latest, I think in 1980, when he ran for Congress. That was the year of Byron Dorgan’s first election to Congress. Democrat Dorgan got 166,437 votes to defeat Republican James Smykowski, who got 124,707 votes. Torfin got 928 votes. Exactly 0.3 per cent of the vote, by golly.

But again, I digress. I don’t know if Josh is a grandson or nephew or even related to Torfin, but I hope someone asks him some day.

Another funny little note of irony I read in the paper this week is that North Dakota State Auditor Josh Gallion received the endorsement for re-election from Donald J. Trump. Well, I guess Trump does know something about auditors. And he seems to be learning more every day.

So the parties will finish up their business today. Republicans will send a slate of mostly incumbents out on the campaign trail, full of piss and vinegar after a rambunctious convention, and a few endorsed Democratic-NPL candidates will stumble out of Fargo looking for some hope. I don’t think they’ll find much, although there’s one glimmering possibility.

They’re endorsing a credible candidate for Governor today, Merrill Piepkorn. His near-fatal flaw is that he’s a Democrat in North Dakota. But if Tall Tale Tammy should happen to buy her way through the primary with the riches she and her boss Burgum have in the bank, and defeat Kelly Armstrong, Merrill could stand a chance of being elected. Because she’ll surely self-destruct by November, despite her money.

Oh, and speaking of Kelly, I asked him in a text last night (Friday) if he’d found a running mate yet. He wrote back “Yessir. And we’ve managed to keep it a secret until tomorrow.” The young fellow has a sense of humor. I’ll be eager to hear who it is. I expect she’s from the Red River Valley.

Sunday: And Then The Conventions Were Over

Humorist Will Rogers once said “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.” North Dakota Republicans left Fargo mumbling something like that Sunday morning, changing the last word, after the fiasco that was their purported state convention. Democrats, meanwhile, trickled out of town knowing they had at least three credible candidates at the top of their ticket as they prepare for the November 2024 election.

At the top, Trygve Hammer, an Iraq war veteran, helicopter pilot, former science teacher and blue collar working man’s idol — with perhaps the best ballot name ever in North Dakota — for Congress. Katrina Christiansen, engineer and college professor with one credible U.S. Senate race under her belt already, is seeking that office again. And State Senator Merrill Piepkorn, a singing cowboy and broadcaster from Fargo, who prefers sport coats and bolo ties to three-piece suits, and who grew up out west in Stanley, in the heart of the oil patch, and knows something about Fargo file clerks and Mountrail County farmers and roughnecks, for Governor.

Those three head up the Democrats’ ticket in November. God only knows who will be at the top of the Republican ticket. Oh, Kevin Cramer will be there, seeking re-election to the U.S. Senate. But squabbles all over the floor of the Republican convention Saturday left the place looking like a wrecking ball had hit it. A couple of twelve-year veterans in office, Julie Fedorchak and Kirsten Baesler, were rejected by the convention in favor of offerings from the crazy wing of the party, including Jim Bartlett, a man who led the state’s Home School Association and wants to put the Ten Commandments back in the classroom getting the party’s support to head up our Department of Public Instruction.

Read that again. Public Instruction.

And poor Julie Fedorchak, youngest daughter of former North Dakota Highway Commissioner Duane Liffrig, who, after holding elective office for a dozen years, threw her hands in the air and wandered off the convention floor after a tasteless show by the craziest of the crazies hanging out in Fargo Saturday, Rick Becker, kept her from getting the party’s endorsement to run for Congress. Instead, the nod went to someone no one has ever heard of before last week, a fellow named Alex Balazs, who describes himself as a retired veteran and retired farmer. Now there’s a bad ballot name.

For a while it looked like Becker, the wavy-haired, 1950s-matinee idol-looking boob doctor and ever-present gadfly, was going to be the prettiest candidate in the Primary Election in June (although Fedorchak’s no slouch), but then rumors started circulating that former Miss America Cara Mund may be re-appearing on the political scene, also seeking the Republican nod for Congress in the June Primary. Boy, is that race going to be fun to watch. Three pretty candidates and Alex Balazs.

Way more fun than the Republican race for Governor in June. Kelly Armstrong and Tammy Miller are beating the sh*t out of each other already on TV and online (check her Twitter site, TammyforND) and I expect newspaper ads to surface any day now. Armstrong has even given Miller her own website, and you can watch his ad at The race has already gotten so silly, with almost two months to go until Election Day, that they’re arguing about who endorsed Donald Trump first. This is the first time in my political memory candidates from the same party have gone so negative against each other, out of fear the eventual winner could suffer enough damage to end up losing in the General Election.

But there’s a long time between June and November, and voters have short memories, and the Democrats haven’t been putting up much of a fight lately. Piepkorn, though, is a pretty darn good candidate, and the damage done in the primary tussle could help him.

One other weird thing I noticed at the end of the convention is that some of the resolutions proposed at the Republican convention, to be included in the party’s platform, were so contentious that they were voted on by secret paper ballot, which were to be counted after the convention and the results announced sometime later. Hmmm. Paper ballots. Ring a bell? Sound familiar?

There really weren’t any other particular highlights at the Democrats’ convention, that I could tell. But North Dakota’s Democratic-NPL Party is at its lowest ebb ever, and probably won’t be much of a factor the rest of the year. Once again they left their state convention without filling a full slate of candidates for statewide office, and from what I’m hearing from around the state, they’ll likely leave about half the Legislative seats uncontested again this year. That’s sad, because one party government is a bad thing, and results in crazies like Becker and Bartlett and yes, Trump, to get elected. And when they get elected, they will be in charge. Frankly, that scares the sh*t out of me.

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