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Conservative lawmakers rail against Burgum's political spending: 'It's very much like a mafia boss'

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, a former tech mogul, recently gave $935,000 to the Dakota Leadership PAC. The committee is targeting eight legislative districts with political ads, including Districts 8, 15, 19, 25, 28, 33, 35 and 39, its chairman confirmed.

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North Dakota Rep. Jeff Magrum, R-Hazelton, criticizes Gov. Doug Burgum on Thursday, May 26, 2022, for his political donations while Rep. Jeff Hoverson, at right, looks on at a press conference about 20 feet from the governor's office.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service
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BISMARCK — In a dramatic staging of political frustration, four North Dakota lawmakers stood 20 feet from the governor's office and castigated its current occupant over campaign donations at a press conference on Thursday, May 26.

In front of a crowd of about 100 people, Republican Reps. Rick Becker, Jeff Magrum, Sebastian Ertelt and Jeff Hoverson accused Gov. Doug Burgum of rupturing the separation of powers between government branches by attempting to influence legislative races with his high-dollar political contributions.

Burgum said in a statement that being governor "doesn’t mean giving up your ability to support the candidates you believe will do the best job for your state and country."

Forum News Service reported last week that Burgum, a former tech mogul, recently gave $935,000 to the Dakota Leadership PAC. In 2020, the Republican governor bankrolled the committee's extensive political advertising campaigns with more than $3.2 million of his personal fortune.

The group's advertising blitzes have targeted legislative seats sought by several incumbent Republican lawmakers, including powerful House Appropriations Chairman Jeff Delzer, R-Underwood. Dakota Leadership PAC has paid for mailers in support of the GOP opponents of Magrum and Ertelt, who are both running for state Senate.

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Though Dakota Leadership PAC does not legally have to report exactly how or where it spends money, Chairman Levi Bachmeier confirmed to Forum News Service that the committee is targeting eight legislative districts with political ads: Districts 8, 15, 19, 25, 28, 33, 35 and 39.

None of the Dakota Leadership ads reviewed by Forum News Service this year have overtly portrayed Republican candidates in a negative light.

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Gov. Doug Burgum at the State of the State address on Feb. 16, 2022, at the Fargo Theatre.
Chris Flynn / The Forum

Burgum, who declined Forum News Service's request for an interview, said Dakota Leadership PAC is "promoting healthy competition in Republican primaries."

The Becker-led group of lawmakers alleged Thursday that Burgum's political donations amount to a violation of a bribery-related section of the state constitution, though Magrum told Forum News Service prior to the press conference that they have no plan to sue Burgum.

Becker said Burgum frequently tries to persuade lawmakers to vote a certain way during legislative session, and the governor's willingness to spend seven-figure sums on ads that target those running for reelection looms as an "implied threat to every legislator."

"It's very much like a mafia boss who's got a hit man," Becker said. "The mafia boss doesn't need to go out and make verbal threats anymore. He's got the hit man standing behind him smiling."

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Rep. Rick Becker, then a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, speaks to delegates at the North Dakota Republican state convention on Saturday, April 2, 2022.
Kyle Martin / The Forum

When Magrum sponsored an unsuccessful bill last year to bar North Dakota governors from making political contributions in legislative races, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Silrum testified that the legislation would be unconstitutional because political donations are considered protected free speech.

Bachmeier echoed that sentiment, saying it's "very clear" the governor's First Amendment rights allow him to make political donations.

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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