BISMARCK — Before Doug Burgum upended the Republican Party establishment and won the race for North Dakota governor in 2016, conservative radio talker Scott Hennen remembered suggesting the Fargo businessman be clear on his stance on abortion.
The issue proved to be a line of attack for his Republican primary opponent, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who accused Burgum of flip-flopping. As a candidate, Burgum resisted “labels” but called every abortion a “tragedy” and this year signed two bills supported by anti-abortion groups.
“This is where I think I can fairly say this would be a piece of counsel that I hope was worthwhile for him … to say, ‘Doug, this in the DNA of people. This is in the fiber of their being,’” Hennen said.
Hennen and others in Burgum’s orbit say the governor, who’s expected to run for a second term in 2020, has shown a relentless curiosity and worked to keep his finger on North Dakota’s pulse during his first venture into public office. A voracious note-taker, Burgum has been known to dig into policy minutiae and seek information from its source.
“Sometimes it’s hard to get on his schedule, but then once you do, he might go over the amount of time allotted” because he asks a lot of questions, Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford said. “He’s constantly learning.”
House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, said Democrats are in the process of recruiting a candidate to take on Burgum after former U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said she wouldn't run for governor. Still, Boschee said Burgum has displayed "open-mindedness" during his conversations with members of the opposing party, even if they disagreed.
"I saw it as a partnership," he said, later adding: "I think he gets more gruff from his own party than he does from us."
Before this year's session, Republicans who control the Legislature said Burgum could do more to reach out to lawmakers who are asked to carry out his policy proposals. The two sides have been at odds at times, dating back to Burgum's swipes at the "good ol' boy network" in Bismarck during his 2016 campaign.
But Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, recently said the governor has "come a long way." In August, Burgum brought Republican leadership to Canada to tour petrochemical facilities as part of an effort to bring the industry to North Dakota, Wardner noted.
"When he first came in, I don't know if he would have done that," he said. "He does understand ... you have to run your ideas through the Legislature because they're the ones who make policy."
Mike Allmendinger, president of Kilbourne Group, the company Burgum founded that’s focused on redeveloping downtown Fargo, said the governor’s positions aren’t inflexible if he’s provided with new information.
“He always has a reason for his decisions or his beliefs,” he said. “But he is very open to people’s feedback.”
Hennen said Burgum has tried to pick his brain to get a sense of what North Dakotans are talking about, which hasn’t been the case with other politicians he’s interviewed over the years. Where other political leaders may consider it a “root canal” to take calls from the public during his radio show, Burgum welcomes it, Hennen said.
In his own office, Burgum relies on a handful of policy advisers and other staff to keep him apprised of things happening in the state. But his policy director, Levi Bachmeier, is heading out the door for a new job with West Fargo Public Schools, and he’ll have a new “chief operating officer” next year when outgoing Border States Electric CEO Tammy Miller joins his office.
Burgum and his retiring COO, Jodi Uecker, have known each other since their days at Great Plains Software and later Microsoft. Michael Olsen, who worked in communications at both companies, said Uecker has long been a trusted voice at Burgum’s side.
“I think when you work together that long, you just get a rhythm of knowing the other person, knowing what needs to happen,” he said. “They’re just in tune with each other. It’s almost an organic thing.”
Burgum said Uecker has had a "tremendous impact" in implementing reforms during the first few years of his administration. He said the trust he's placed in her is "probably unmatched," but he expects a "seamless transition" to Miller, who is getting up to speed before she officially takes over the role in April.
Still, Burgum doesn't limit his counsel to Capitol insiders, he and those around him said.
Burgum said "listening sessions" he held soon after taking office with tribal officials and local residents affected by the massive Dakota Access Pipeline protests helped his new administration "get a handle on what was going on" and ultimately lead to a resolution.
"I really feel like every day I've got an opportunity to learn from everybody that I come in contact with," he said.
Sanford echoed that sentiment and said Burgum's efforts to gather information extend beyond any small circle of confidants.
“When we’re out with constituents, he’s the last one to leave,” Sanford said, later adding that the former entrepreneur has a “large network of past contacts” from his business career. “There’s not one or two or (a) small group of them that are providing a lot of feedback. It’s just more staying balanced with what’s happening in the world and the economy.”
Former Gov. Ed Schafer, who endorsed Burgum during the bruising Republican primary in 2016, said he visits with Burgum every two or three months to “kick around general policy and direction of the state.” But he said he generally avoids giving the governor advice.
Schafer described his role as a “sounding board” for Burgum. He said “it’s nice to have someone who knows” what it’s like to be the state’s chief executive.
“When you’re in that office, you get very isolated. Very few people know what you’re going through and what the pressures are of the day,” Schafer said.