FARGO--Doug Burgum, whose varied career has included business consultant, software executive and downtown developer, is making his first foray into statewide politics as a candidate for governor.
"I know I have the ability to change the trajectory of this state," Burgum said in Fargo Thursday as he kicked off his bid for the Republican nomination for North Dakota governor.
The announcement ended months of speculation and lands Burgum in an intraparty fight with Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, with the winner of the June primary likely to end up the state's next governor in heavily Republican-leaning North Dakota.
"Last summer, there was a position that began to catch my eye," Burgum wryly said of the governor's post, referring to Gov. Jack Dalrymple's announcement in August that he won't seek re-election.
Burgum said he would seek the Republican endorsement at the GOP state convention April 1-3 in Fargo, but if he doesn't win it, he will still seek the party's nomination in the primary election. He said he doesn't believe he'll win the convention endorsement.
"People should just know that," he said.
Stenehjem, who was first elected attorney general in 2000, is well-known to voters throughout the state. He was re-elected in 2014 with 74 percent of the vote and before becoming attorney general served 24 years in the North Dakota Legislature representing a district in Grand Forks.
Stenehjem said he welcomes Burgum to the race and looks forward to a competitive convention and campaign but criticized his opponent's plan to push forward to the primary if not endorsed.
"I am disappointed that he said he will come to the convention and ask for the support of the delegates but then ignore their wishes and run in the primary anyway," he said.
Stenehjem said he also disagrees with Burgum that the state needs to change its trajectory, noting the financial news and opinion website 24/7 Wall St. recently named North Dakota as the nation's best-run state for the fourth consecutive year.
"Most North Dakotans believe that North Dakota is on the right track," Stenehjem added. "What we need to do is not change our trajectory but build on our success."
Burgum, noting he's been a past convention delegate and an honorary campaign committee chairman for Dalrymple and Republican U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, said he believes one thing wrong with the party nationally is that it is "not reaching people that should be Republican voters."
"I respect the Republican Party, I respect the convention system, but at the core, I also respect the intelligence and the people of North Dakota, and I want to take the message that we're delivering to everybody in North Dakota, and that's why I'm going on to the primary, as well," he told about 50 people at GOP headquarters in Bismarck, where his event was moved because of a lockdown at Bismarck State College.
State GOP chairman Kelly Armstrong of Dickinson said the party will welcome Burgum's candidacy with open arms and "hope we can change his mind about abiding by the convention decision. ... The party will support our endorsed candidate after convention."
Becker said he hopes Burgum's entrance into the race will force Stenehjem to engage in discussions over issues such as lower state revenues, the need to rein in government spending and higher education.
Becker said he won't run in the primary if he loses the GOP endorsement, but he also won't judge Burgum for doing so.
"I can say that I think I understand the strategy, and Doug's a smart guy," he said.
Burgum's campaign kicked off at The Stage at Island Park, where he talked about technology as well as his vision to revitalize downtown Fargo. The unorthodox political speech, long on personal biography including his pioneer great-grandparents, was delivered from a darkened stage with the help of an on-screen presentation, in a style more typical for a tech entrepreneur than a candidate for statewide office in North Dakota.
"I don't want to be a politician," he said, saying he instead wants to be an "elected leader."
Dressed in blue jeans and a business casual shirt--he famously shuns business suit and tie--Burgum touted the promise technology provides North Dakota, and his entrepreneurial savvy, staking them out as the center of his campaign.
"I've got a set of skills that are uniquely relevant to this point in time," he said.
Burgum, 59, was a longtime CEO of Great Plains Software and shepherded its acquisition by Microsoft for $1.1 billion in 2001.
Burgum said his unconventional campaign offers a "tough message" to attract voters, but said he is accustomed to overcoming long odds.
"I spent my whole life doing stuff people told me I shouldn't do," he said.
With the end of the oil boom, and the prospect that petroleum prices will remain low for a long time, it will be necessary to cut the state's budget and remold state government to make it more efficient, Burgum said.
"We're in a position where we're going to have to learn to live with low oil prices," he said, adding that low energy prices provide opportunities for a manufacturing revival.
State government must become leaner and smarter through tools provided by technology and more efficient processes, Burgum said.
"It's not about having a balanced budget," he told reporters. "It's about having a smart budget and it's about doing more with less," which, he added, is already "the model" at technology firms he has led.
"That's the job I feel like I've been doing all these years," he said.
Burgum said vast improvements in the state's broadband Internet network should be a vital focus in North Dakota, an issue that will affect all of its key industries, including agriculture, energy, health care and education.
"We haven't built out the infrastructure we need to," he said, comparing the current state of Internet access in the state to living in a place without roads.
"The magic of software is going to transform the world," he added. "This change is unstoppable and it's coming."
While Republicans now have three declared candidates for governor, no Democrat in North Dakota has officially announced a bid, though Democratic former state agriculture commissioner Sarah Vogel has been exploring a possible run.
A native of Arthur in Cass County, Burgum graduated from NDSU and Stanford University, where he earned a master's degree in business administration.
His business career began with consulting firm McKinsey & Company in Chicago, where he gained national experience. Burgum returned to North Dakota in 1983 to join Great Plains Software, then a startup in the pioneering days of personal computing.
After staying on as an executive at Microsoft until 2007, Burgum turned his attention to other business opportunities, including Kilbourne Group, a firm he founded that has been active in buying and refurbishing historic downtown Fargo buildings. In 2008, he co-founded Arthur Ventures, an investment fund with headquarters here.
As a business leader, Burgum has been an outspoken advocate of ending North Dakota's ban on gay marriage, which he said was alienating talent.
Although well known in and around Fargo, Burgum will have to introduce himself to statewide voters, especially in the west, where he is not as well known. He does, however, own a ranch in the Badlands of southwestern North Dakota.
In speaking to reporters, Burgum acknowledged the need to become known with voters, and said that's why his announcement speech delved so much into his personal story--pointing out along the way that he is a lifelong Republican, and that he consulted with recent GOP governors, including Dalrymple, Ed Schafer and John Hoeven, who in 2009 made Burgum a recipient of the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award, North Dakota's highest honor.