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MATTERS AT HAND: Hoeven shows political skill

Every time I spend time with North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven, I come away more impressed. This was emphasized again Friday, when Hoeven made the rounds in Ralph Engelstad Arena. I tagged along with Hoeven as he made his way from suite to suite, sha...

Every time I spend time with North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven, I come away more impressed.

This was emphasized again Friday, when Hoeven made the rounds in Ralph Engelstad Arena.

I tagged along with Hoeven as he made his way from suite to suite, shaking hands, kissing babies, even offering a peck on the cheek to an excited female fan or two. Each person got an introduction and about 60 seconds of the governor's time. Hoeven seemed to leave each person satisfied as he turned slowly to the next one.

Working a crowd is an important undertaking for any political figure, but not too many seem to relish it. Hoeven clearly does. This, rather than appearance or ideology, is the basis of his considerable personal appeal.

As it happens, Hoeven is among the least ideological of politicians. True, he has a philosophy of government. This is both minimalist, in that he doesn't insist on government intervention, and activist, in that he sees government as a useful agent.

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This middle-of-the-road approach leaves him approachable by both sides, and that means he can engineer compromise.

More often than not, the compromise ends up closer to the governor's position than to his opponents. This has been proven again and again, as Hoeven gains major concessions from the Legislature. Often, these have come in education issues. Teacher salaries are a good example. So is the consensus that Hoeven was able to broker about school financing, effectively defusing the issue in advance of the 2007 session.

Hoeven's impressive intellect is his strongest asset here. He has a broad view of issues, seeing them as a whole and in context.

The best example I can cite is this session's property tax debate. Hoeven has put forward a plan; as the session unfolds, he's emphasizing the importance of the issue without clinging stubbornly to his own approach.

Hoeven sometimes is criticized because he seems to stand apart from the process, and it's true he plays a low-key role. He rarely testifies at legislative committees and doesn't often summon legislators to his office.

But he applies his political skills.

Hoeven works the Great Hall of the Capitol the same way that he worked Engelstad Arena on Friday evening. One day last month, I watched the governor during the Legislature's noon recess. He appeared outside his office at one end of the Great Hall and greeted lawmakers and citizens as he moved toward the legislative chambers at the other end of the hall.

He worked the crowd again on the way back, but I doubt he talked with any one person twice. Instead, he made maximum use of his time, talking to as many people as possible.

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My appreciation of the governor has grown as I've worked with him on a project important to me, the International Peace Garden. I'm on the Peace Garden board of directors. The garden is on the Canadian border, and both nations provide funding, usually on a share-and-share-alike basis.

Hoeven included additional funding for the garden in his proposed budget, but he didn't give us everything we asked for. Instead, he argued that the state should match funding from the province of Manitoba but that the U.S. federal government has a responsibility to match Canadian federal funding.

The governor may have been at his best when representatives of the Peace Garden approached him about a developing collaboration with Minot State University-Bottineau. The idea is to share greenhouse facilities, where MSU-Bottineau students can be trained. There's an economic development aspect to the project because the students might help develop vegetable farming using greenhouses.

Our delegation wasn't as well-prepared as we should have been, and our presentation was disconnected. But Hoeven quickly grasped the idea, asked insightful questions and suggested several approaches, including federal and state programs and private partners.

Only four of us saw this performance. One was a Hoeven aide; the others represented the university and the garden.

This is work that Hoeven clearly enjoys. His background is in banking, at Minot's private First West Bank and at the state-owned Bank of North Dakota. As he made suggestions about our idea, I was struck that he might be working with someone applying for a loan and was trying to figure out whether the prospect was a good risk.

That's not a bad characteristic in a governor.

Solid intelligence, a pragmatic approach and unmatched political skills - these go a long way toward explaining why Hoeven is the nation's most popular governor.

Related Topics: MIKE JACOBS
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