Candidates vying for Senate and House seats in District 42 mostly fall along party lines concerning the future of the state's energy sector, with GOP candidates saying it is necessary to support growth and efficiency and their Democratic-NPL counterparts advocating for diversifying energy production.
“Oil has brought so much revenue to our state, and we have been heavily relying on it,” said Zachary Tomczik, a Democrat-NPL House candidate seeking one of the district’s two seats in the House of Representatives. “One of the problems we also have to acknowledge is that we are so reliant upon it.”
Tomczik called for expanded use of renewable energy, including wind power, solar power and carbon-capture technologies.
Democrat Adam Fortwengler said that at some point fossil fuels will become obsolete, and North Dakota will need to rely on other states for energy support.
“We should become the leader of sustainable energy,” Fortwengler said. “All of our colleges and universities do amazing things in petroleum engineering and the UAS sector. Let's harness a lot of that ingenuity and that knowledge and that expertise, and lead the world and renewable energy.”
Their comments came during a District 42 forum sponsored by the Grand Forks-East Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce and broadcast live via the internet. All six candidates running for office in the district – which encompasses the area around UND in Grand Forks – participated in the event, including incumbent Republican Sen. Curt Kreun and his Democratic challenger, Melissa Gjellstad; incumbent Republican Rep. Emily O'Brien; Republican Rep. Claire Cory, who was chosen last year to fill a vacated seat in the district; and Democratic House challengers Tomczik and Fortwengler.
Voters in the district will chose one of the Senate candidates and two of the House candidates.
Tomczik holds bachelor’s degrees in psychology and honors from UND, and is a first-year law student there. Fortwengler is a longtime resident of Grand Forks, and is program coordinator for Global Friends Coalition, where he advises new Americans on integrating into the community. He holds bachelor’s degrees in political science and social work from UND.
Cory is a senior at UND studying political science and public administration. She was selected to fill the seat when incumbent Republican Jake Blum moved to the Twin Cities. O’Brien is a UND graduate who serves on the Bismarck-based Center for Technology and Business Advisory Board. She is a past president of the Dakota Venture Group, and has helped start organizations like One Million Cups in Grand Forks.
Gjellstad is a Norwegian professor at UND. She holds a bachelor's degree in biology and chemistry from Concordia College, and a master’s and Ph.D. in Scandinavian languages and literature from the University of Washington. Kreun is a retired businessman who has long been a figure in local politics. He was first elected to the House in 2010 and then the Senate in 2016. He sits on various local boards in Grand Forks, including the Housing Authority, Public Arts Commission, Alerus Center Commission and the board for the Chamber of Commerce.
Concerning energy, Cory said oil resources need to be protected from groups that seek to ban fracking. She called into question the efficiency of some sources of renewable energy.
“We cannot only rely on renewable energy solutions, especially when it's negative 40 (degrees), and there's no wind and there's no sun out in the middle of the night,” she said.
O’Brien said it’s necessary to pursue energy industry efficiency, “even in our own District 42, continuing to support the (Energy and Environment Research Center), and their efforts.”
Like the Democrats running for District 42's House seats, Gjellstad also advocated for expanded use of renewable energy, but said workforce issues come into play.
“I also think about how we recruit and retain folks who work in these research positions and to get them to stay in North Dakota, to ensure they see careers ahead of them that make them want to be in the state,” she said.
Kreun said the state has an abundance of energy options, including renewables, and also potentially nuclear power, something he called “one of the cleanest energies.” He said the state needs to work to become an exporter of energy, if it can meet infrastructure needs.
“The biggest problem that we have is our transmission lines,” Kreun said. “We aren't able to transmit all of these different types of power outside our state, at least not very far.”
With agriculture, both Fortwengler and Gjellstad said corporate farming has no place in North Dakota, to which Cory replied the state is legally mandated to protect family farms. Tomczik noted the impact of adverse weather on farmers in the region, and said the suicide rate for producers has increased. Farmers, he said, need to be supported in any way they need help, and he pointed to NDSU Research and Extension as an entity suited for that task.
Gjellstad and Kreun found common ground concerning the future of technology in agriculture. Kreun said the UAS sector, which Grand Forks has long been pursuing, can be leveraged to help farmers monitor and manage crops, making it possible to get more production out of a smaller piece of land. Driverless tractors, Kreun said, referring to a recent demonstration in the state of a self-driving truck, will be a way to help producers facing labor problems. But Gjellstad said precision agriculture technologies need to be available and affordable to ensure farmers can operate more efficiently. Investing in more research, she said, is the key to driving forward those efficiencies.
Kreun said his legislative priorities include jobs, education and tax relief, which he said is a “guiding light” Republicans have followed in the Legislature. Kreun said he would work to use earnings from the state's Legacy Fund to pay for infrastructure projects. He also said he will work to continue to reduce income taxes, which he said have dropped by 48% since 2008, and expanding medicare and medicaid programs.
“Don't tell us that we didn't fight for what we needed, in our particular funding mechanism,” Kreun said.
Gjellstad said she would work to expand access to health care, and also make sure education is equitable for all students. Another priority is safe and updated infrastructure, which she said is necessary to allow people to travel and recreate across the state. Tied into the education issue is internet connectivity, which she said allows students to participate in education during the pandemic and supports “our teachers working hard to deliver that education.”
Tomczik said his priorities revolve around getting the community through the pandemic and making it stronger when it emerges. Education, health care and infrastructure also are priorities, he said, and that includes projects like the Columbia Road overpass, which presents problems considering its location near the hospital. Moving the economy forward is the key to addressing these issues, including health care, which he said candidates may not agree on.
“Basically we all agree that we want it to be affordable and accessible,” Tomczik said.
O’Brien said it's tough to narrow down her priorities, but said UAS research and university funding are among them. She also said she will work to expound behavioral health and opioid treatment. She said she is looking at UND’s needs and what the community will look like as it struggles to return to normal in the pandemic, and she is looking at how to address support for students and teachers. She said she is proud of a scholarship program she worked on in the last legislative session that focused on student retention.
“Having that skilled workforce, students, and retaining them here is another top priority," she said. "And how do we have an environment that (keeps) people here, and we keep our state growing?”
Fortwengler said that 20% of the county’s residents live in poverty, and that 40% can’t afford a $400 emergency. He said he would work to address those issues while working to give local control to areas that wish to raise the minimum wage. He said he would prioritize people over government, which includes expanding paid family leave, and affordable medical care.
“We have to figure out how to extend affordable health care to all North Dakotans,” he said. “Health care is a human right. You should not have to ration your medicine to keep the lights on and keep the heat on.”
Cory said her priorities mirror the Republican platform of jobs, education and tax relief. A lifelong resident of the district, Cory said she understands the issues most important to people living there. She said she would work to relieve the tax burden on business and property owners. Education funding, she said, needs to be enhanced, both at the university and K-12 levels.
“Being a student, I can see firsthand how much funding UND needs,” she said.