On March 8, the Grand Forks branch of the Democratic-NPL dipped a toe into the local mayoral race, with a short, innocuous tweet backing candidate Robin David.
"@RobinForMayor is ready to be a helluva mayor for #iloveGFK," the message read, with a link to a Herald story about David's campaign.
It’s not the kind of thing that typically happens in Grand Forks, or in North Dakota, where local offices officially are nonpartisan positions. But the message hinted at a political world that exists behind the face of the mayoral campaign — a story told frequently by mailed pamphlets and yard signs, but rarely in terms of donors and partisan preferences.
David, a newcomer to politics, along with challenger Brandon Bochenski and incumbent Mayor Mike Brown all are on the June 9 Grand Forks mayoral ballot. They are joined in the race by write-in candidate Art Bakken, who flirted with a mayoral run for weeks and, due to the pandemic, was ultimately unable to secure enough signatures to get on the official ballot.
As the candidates tout their strengths, others — both publicly and behind the scenes — are lending support. Local parties are closely watching the outcome of the race, as are the city’s political observers and business class. So, too, are some of Grand Forks’ senior-most power brokers, past and present.
“The party doesn't formally endorse people for nonpartisan races,” said Phyllis Johnson, the chairwoman of the Greater Grand Forks Democratic-NPL. “But I think most of the Democrats that I know would be supportive of Robin, because I think she has fresh ideas and because she really tries hard to reach out and listen to everybody.”
The campaign has been littered with small indications like these, all of which imply a bigger world of political and financial interest that’s closely watching the outcome of the June 9 election — and campaign finance filings bear out this dynamic, too. David enjoys thousands of dollars’ worth of support from physicians, UND professors, and Dem-NPL figures, plus a host of small donors. Bochenski’s campaign is bolstered by a prominent, but smaller, group of landlords, developers, and business leaders.
There are other items, too. David, who is running a campaign based on inclusivity and community input, scored an endorsement from Kylie Oversen, the state Democratic party chairwoman who no longer lives in Grand Forks. Bochenski has a campaign treasurer with close ties to the local GOP, and the Grand Forks United Republican Committee sent Bochenski a letter of support in late April. He’s a Republican, but said those politics shouldn’t filter into the citywide election.
“I don’t think interjecting politics into city government is necessary,” Bochenski said.
Brown, who’s been the city’s administrative head for nearly 20 years, does not have such obvious political ties, though his close ally, City Council President Dana Sande, has been active within the GOP. But Brown also endorsed the failed 2018 campaign of Democratic senator Heidi Heitkamp. From a partisan standpoint, he is a cipher — something he is proud to tout in interviews.
"I see myself as independent, because that's how you sign up,” he said. “I think the goal was to keep partisan politics out of the local community, because we see how dysfunctional national partisan politics can be."
He’s also happy to point out the ties that his chief rivals, Bochenski and David, appear to have with partisan politics.
"It's not a criticism, because God bless them, they’ve got support. But it's unfortunate — it's an independent race. That's why it says on the form. If you sign up independent, that's what you should be. Otherwise you're misleading (people),” Brown said. "(It means) you'll get pushed and shoved when you don't need to. As you see nationally, when one party says yes, the other party says no. That just doesn't work on the local level."
Brown is paying for his bid to be re-elected entirely out of his own pocket — he joked about his campaign finances being the same as his credit card statement — which means that, unlike David and Bochenski, he has no explicit financial backers. But he has close relationships with area leaders, and several of them — former UND administrators, a downtown developer, and current or former Economic Development Corporation leaders — have written paid letters of support on his behalf.
Among those who have written their support for Brown: Dennis Elbert, former dean of the UND business school; Craig Tweten, a downtown developer; Chuck Kupchella, former UND president; John Oncken, a business owner who serves on the board of the Economic Development Corporation board; Karl Bollingberg, who serves on the EDC board and on the city’s economic recovery task force; and Steve Burian, a business owner and former EDC chairman.
And Bakken, a business owner who’s working on a write-in campaign, said he’s got no political apparatus helping his campaign.
“I feel that if I have a bunch of people that are supporting me for this or that reason and they’re in some kind of business, then sooner or later they’re going to ask me for something,” Bakken said. “I like to be out there and be independent and not owe anybody anything.”
Bakken is a Republican, but he said his campaign wouldn’t fit under that banner.
There are caveats, though. Not all partisans agree on the candidates. And David argues that, despite any left-of-center hubbub about her campaign, she’s running her own race on her own terms. She stresses that nobody asked her to run for office, and expressed surprise when told about the local party’s message of support.
"(My campaign) was not designed to appeal to supporters of any political party, but it was designed to energize and mobilize people, and this broad, grassroots mobilization — it was really critical to how I would run a campaign. My background is really in organizing and energizing people,” she said.
But even if the candidates do not see themselves as partisan, the ties each campaign helps map out the behind-the-scenes campaign being waged by Grand Forks' political class. It’s a story that rarely is told in public. As former Herald Publisher Mike Jacobs points out, one would be hard-pressed to get parties to admit their interest in the race.
Jacobs retired from full-time work at the Herald in 2014 after a long journalism career that included coverage of politics in the state before he became an editor and, later, publisher. He still writes a weekly column for the Herald, often discussing politics.
"(Political parties) ought to be interested, because local offices, whether it's City Council or County Commission or school boards or water districts, those are places where people learn leadership skills, learn the ins and outs of making things happen," he said. "It's good training for legislators and other office-holders. It would be smart for political parties to be interested."
That’s not to mention the ability to influence local policy. And that partisan interest has echoed through North Dakota politics for years — as recently as 2019, a bill that would have forced local candidates to declare party loyalty failed in the Legislature. It appeared squarely aimed at local left-leaning candidates, who would almost certainly have a harder time winning office in deep-red North Dakota if they carried a “D” after their name.
The Grand Forks’ mayoral race is also happening at a crossroads in the city's history. More than 20 years removed from the Flood of 1997, the city is well beyond recovery — but its retail sector is foundering, weighed down by the advent of online sales and a decline in Canadian tourism, and much of the rest of its economy is suffering due to the coronavirus pandemic. The election stands to have an impact on the community's future, much of which will depend on how City Hall navigates the economic crisis.
In fact, the future is so uncertain that UND economist David Flynn found some irony in the idea of mapping out the backers of the local mayoral candidates. So much volatility is facing the future mayor that there’s not much that can be promised at City Hall.
“There's too many pieces in motion, too many differences that are going on — and likely, too, for the foreseeable future,” he said.
That has hardly stopped candidates from trying. And now, with little more than a week until votes are tallied, Jacobs sums up the race as a straightforward — if unique — set of choices, likely from the three candidates on the ballot.
"We've got these rapids ahead of us, and it looks like we've got maybe three chutes through the rapids,” Jacobs said. “Which candidate is going to be able to get us through?"