Grand Forks mayoral candidate Robin David apologizes for family’s boost to conspiracy theory
Grand Forks mayoral candidate Robin David has issued an apology to fellow candidate Brandon Bochenski for her husband’s role in sharing an emailed smear about her rival.
That email, which the Herald has reviewed, is part of a series of conspiracy-minded emails that have circulated in Grand Forks in recent weeks. They baselessly attempt to link Bochenski, a current developer and mayoral candidate — and former hockey star — to a corrupt financial past. Bochenski, who grew up in Minnesota, played hockey at UND before a professional athletic career in the NHL, and later in an international league for a team based in Kazakhstan.
The emails — of which there are an unknown number of versions — claim Bochenski’s foreign salary came from a hockey league entangled in corruption, and imply that any money he has used to fund his campaign must be similarly tainted. What, precisely, that means for Bochenski’s campaign isn’t explicitly stated in the emails seen by the Herald. Bochenski counters that he came by his money honestly, regardless of the state of Kazakh politics.
The mayor’s race is entering its final stages, with voting already taking place by mail ahead of a June 9 deadline — the original, pre-coronavirus Election Day. David and Bochenski are running against incumbent mayor Mike Brown and write-in candidate Art Bakken.
“I did talk to Robin today, and she did apologize. … We’re just trying to move forward,” Bochenski said Monday. “I think it’s a stressful time for everybody, and I think things do happen when you’re under stress, I suppose.”
The Herald has seen two versions of those emails, which are written slightly differently, though with the same general arguments. One version was sent to news outlets across North Dakota from an anonymous email account named after a Bob Dylan song. The email, attributed to "Johanna Dylan," came from an address that apparently does not accept replies.
The other lists Brian Schill, Robin David’s husband, as the sender of an email that appeared to have been forwarded yet again by another member of the Schill family. David said Brian Schill is not the original author.
It is not clear from the email the Herald reviewed precisely how many people Brian Schill sent the email to, though he said it was fewer than 20. He apologized for his role in spreading the item, which he said he thought would remain private.
"It's a long email, as you've probably seen. I certainly would not vouch for all of it,” Schill said, noting that he was mostly interested in a portion that questions Bochenski’s conflicts of interest and business ties.
In a Monday interview, David confirmed that she had spoken with Bochenski about it.
“I just wanted to make sure that Brandon understood, too, that this is not coming from the campaign. … He hasn’t known me for a long time, but my character and my approach is always one of building and nurturing relationships,” David said. “I know it will be perceived as connected to the campaign even though it wasn’t, even though this was outside of any kind of knowledge and consent on my part — but I still wanted to reach out to him.”
A lynchpin of the theory is that Bochenski has spent extraordinary sums on his campaign. But as of May 1, city elections documents only show about $13,000 in expenditures and more than $3,000 in itemized donations — far lower than a “six-figure campaign” that the theory posits.
Some parts of the emails are not entirely baseless — like, for example, when they raise questions of how Bochenski will navigate ties to his real estate and development business if he wins office. Bochenski has said he is not sure if he will divest from those businesses, even though a portion of his economic platform is tied to real estate and property valuation policies.
But the conspiracy theories of Bochenski’s Kazakh ties, while of no apparent merit, are an illustration of an issue larger than the mayor’s race. Conspiracy theories — whether about local politics, the origins of the coronavirus or even about the “deep state” — are an increasingly everyday part of national political conversation. And while conspiracy theories have been part of the national fabric for generations, they’ve never been quite so rife or so widely believed.
“The primary cause is the breakdown to barriers in communication,” UND political scientist Bo Wood said in a Herald interview on Monday. The rise of social media and enormous shifts in telecommunications have put everyday residents at the front of political conversations, easily able to share whatever they please with their neighbors. The same goes for bad actors.
“It'll cost them whatever they’re paying monthly for their internet bills,” Wood said. “That would have been inconceivable a generation ago."