The vote in Grand Forks’ legislative House race in District 42 — UND and nearby neighborhoods — is a hard one to predict.
Despite a few shifts in its borders, the district has changed hands over and over again in recent decades, from three Republicans in 2004 to three Democrats in 2012 to all Republicans again in 2016. Historically, it’s a political jump ball for both parties, yet one heavily influenced by political winds at the top of the ticket.
The district is home to students, a typically blue crowd, but Democratic-NPL party leaders point out that North Dakota students often hail from conservative quarters of the state. And the working-class families in the area have become a key swing vote; the district voted for President Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016 by an 11-point margin.
Here’s a look at the candidates for state House of Representatives in District 42, listed in alphabetical order:
Claire Cory, GOP (incumbent)
Claire Cory, 22, is a senior at UND, studying a double major in political science and public administration. She is unmarried with no children, and was appointed to her seat in October 2019 following the resignation of former state Rep. Jake Blum, R-Grand Forks. A member of UND’s University Senate, she works part-time at Rydell Chevrolet.
Cory said she’s focused on extending the work of her GOP colleagues — with a focus on retaining jobs and graduating students; building the workforce; and supporting local businesses and both K-12 and higher education.
“The other thing we’re going to focus on is fiscal responsibility,” Cory said. “Lower taxes when we can — and if we can’t, with the pandemic, just focusing on the fiscal responsibility part of that.”
She argued in a recent letter to the Herald that UND’s Greek fraternities and sororities are unfairly designated differently from dorm living as “congregate” housing, meaning one positive COVID case can put all members of a Greek house into quarantine. That’s in contrast to dorm living, which she said is unfairly categorized differently.
“Why should an infected student living in a dorm be sent to a hotel to quarantine, and their dorm mates have no restrictions?” she wrote in the letter, arguing that both types of housing should be categorized in the same way. In a Herald interview, she reiterated her concerns.
Cory added that she’s unsure how she would prioritize any forthcoming budget cuts, not having been through a Legislative session yet. Her appointment to the seat came after the most recent session concluded.
Adam Fortwengler, Democratic-NPL
Adam Fortwengler, 34, is a program coordinator at Global Friends Coalition. Single and without children, he holds bachelor’s degrees from UND in political science and in social work, as well as a certificate in nonprofit management from Northeastern University. He has a long-time partner, and she has an 8-year-old son. He spends extra time volunteering with Global Friends beyond his duties as a program coordinator.
Fortwengler’s platform zeroes in on healthcare and pocketbook issues for middle and lower-class North Dakotans. He supports at least a $15 per hour minimum wage, with local communities allowed to set their own rates once again. He spoke at length about his frustration with the severe, sudden burdens some North Dakotans face with unexpected five-figure medical bills, suggesting the state use what power it can to help more North Dakotans get health care coverage. And said he feels eviction proceedings — especially in the midst of a pandemic — seem like they’re often a rubber-stamp event tilted in landlords’ favor.
“The economic needs for families in Grand Forks is incredibly real,” he said. “We have thousands of people working below, really, living wage. No sick leave, no health care, no family leave. Really being taken advantage of at work with their scheduling."
Fortwengler said he’s thinking first of “regular North Dakotans” as a budget crunch looms next year.
“To me, it comes down to priorities,” he said. “Are we prioritizing North Dakotans, or are we prioritizing oil companies?”
Emily O’Brien, GOP (incumbent)
Emily O’Brien, 29, is the COO of Bioscience Association of North Dakota. She holds bachelor’s degrees in entrepreneurship and business management from UND. She and her boyfriend have an 18-month-old daughter, and he has three children of his own. O’Brien also serves on an advisory board for CTB, an entrepreneurship and business development group in Bismarck.
She said she’s well aware of many of the unexpected challenges that still lie ahead for the state, perhaps chief among them a looming budget crunch spurred by the coronavirus’ damage to the economy. Top-of-mind as budgeting season starts, she said, will be education, behavioral health services and small business outcomes. And she said she relishes the challenge — ready to take pride in finding a way forward.
“That's the entrepreneur in me,” she said. “We're going to navigate this. We're going to get stuff done."
O’Brien said she’ll remember small businesses in the midst of budgeting — she acknowledged that many have been struggling — as well as education funding at all levels.
O’Brien added that she’s particularly interested in making sure people who give testimony before the Legislature can do so by videoconferencing this session.
“(I was) talking to the majority leader last night, there's going to be a lot of changes and challenges and how we're going to navigate the session, even with social distancing,” she said.
Zachary Tomczik, Democratic-NPL
Zachary Tomczik, 23, is a second-year law student at UND with a double bachelor’s degree in psychology and an honors concentration. Single and without children, he is an Eagle Scout, and has a range of work experience: From Grand Forks Park District groundskeeping, to juvenile drug court case aide and as a detox advocate at Grand Forks’ social detox center.
One of his top priorities is making sure higher education is well-funded— reversing budget cuts and making sure the universities have the funding they need. Tomczik said that’s not the same thing as big construction projects.
“I love the new (UND) buildings. They're excellent. But at the same time, I want to make sure that the money that's being set aside for education is going toward words maintaining programs and paying our faculty and staff adequately,” he said.
Tomczik is also interested in boosting sustainable, long-lasting infrastructure — noting recent structural problems at the Columbia Road overpass — and said he’ll also work on behalf of more affordable and accessible healthcare.
Acknowledging the likely budget crunch this session, Tomczik pointed out that oil and gas companies owe large royalty sums to the state, on which late fees were recently deferred. He added that federal aid dollars will be an important part of the state’s budget-balancing arithmetic, and that small portions of the Legacy Fund could help, too — so long as withdrawals don’t damage the fund’s future.