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MATTERS AT HAND: N.D. Democrats look back as 2012 campaign begins

It's hard to be a pessimist in springtime. North Dakota Democrats pretty much proved that over the weekend. Their state convention in Grand Forks was full of brave talk. In fact, Democrats did well, finding credible, qualified candidates for ever...

It's hard to be a pessimist in springtime.

North Dakota Democrats pretty much proved that over the weekend. Their state convention in Grand Forks was full of brave talk.

In fact, Democrats did well, finding credible, qualified candidates for every available statewide office.

Their U.S. Senate candidate shows well in the polls, and could win. Even the House candidate has a chance, convention-goers exulted, if only the Republicans nominate the right -- that is, the beatable -- candidate.

Still, the most striking feature of the convention was its backward glance.


The keynote speaker was Bill Clinton, who left the White House 12 years ago. True, he enjoys support and gratitude in Grand Forks because of his administration's quick action after the Flood of 1997. But that was 15 years ago, the last time Clinton was in Grand Forks.

The party's U.S. Senate candidate, Heidi Heitkamp, made her last ballot appearance in the year 2000, the last of Clinton's White House years. She had been attorney general and sought the governor's office, losing to John Hoeven, who is now in the U.S. Senate.

Heitkamp's been politically active since then, especially as the mastermind and spokesperson for an initiated measure that directed millions of dollars and thousands of minutes of television time to a campaign against tobacco use.

There was an hourlong tribute to Kent Conrad, who is retiring after 26 years in the U.S. Senate. Conrad himself delivered a feisty speech, but the video tribute seemed almost a eulogy.

There were also accolades for Byron Dorgan, who retired from the Senate two years ago, and Earl Pomeroy, who lost his bid to be re-elected to the U.S. House in 2010.

Neither of them lives or works in North Dakota.

The backward glance may be most obvious in Ryan Taylor's campaign for governor.

Taylor self-consciously mimics Art Link. Link was governor from 1973 to 1981 -- more than 30 years ago. He died in 2010.


Link's wife, Grace, gave Taylor's nominating speech.

In his own acceptance, Taylor stressed issues associated with Link, especially measured development of natural resources.

Even more, Taylor emphasized his identity as a rancher and a westerner.

Cowboy hats were on sale at the convention -- in blue, like the blue that denotes Democratic states on maps reporting presidential election results.

Taylor is never without his hat -- probably a good thing, since every day is a bad hair day in Taylor's life.

As a personal trademark, the hat works. As a political brand, however, it doesn't work as well.

Still, the western image has long been powerful in state politics. Candidates of both parties have used it, and Link identified with it wholeheartedly.

Link's ranch was about 20 miles from the state's western border, a short ride on horseback from Montana. Taylor's spread is south of Towner, in the north central part of the state, closer to Canada than Montana, but still "cow country."


The problem is that only a part of North Dakota is legitimately western -- a small and sparsely inhabited part. The image evokes an agrarian utopia, which never existed, and an agrarian past that plenty of North Dakotans wish to move away from.

It doesn't reflect reality in North Dakota.

The frontier disappeared in North Dakota less than a decade ago -- but it is definitely gone. Oil has displaced ranching as the principal economic activity in much of the western part of the state, and it has certainly replaced agriculture as the major employer.

Oil development has brought a passel of problems, of course, and Democrats did a good job of blaming the other party. In casting blame, though, Democrats seem unable to avoid nostalgia -- for the quiet, simple, unhurried, agricultural past.

That past is gone.

And North Dakota politics have moved beyond it.

That was obvious as long ago as 1980, when Link lost his re-election campaign to Republican Allen Olson, who emphasized diversifying the state's economy. Olson's governorship was shipwrecked, but the themes it sounded have dominated North Dakota politics for more than 30 years. They were repeated in 2000, when Heitkamp was defeated in the state's last competitive gubernatorial election.

Republicans have held the governorship for 20 years now, since Ed Shafer's election in 1992. Their success in 2012 -- likely though not guaranteed -- would mean the longest period of uninterrupted one-party control of the office in state history.

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