When we settled in for the ride home after lunch and a talk at the Democrats’ thank you for local legislators on Saturday, Suezette said, “You gave them both barrels.”
She’s right, I suppose, but I should have kept the powder dry. It’s true that Democrats have been reduced to a small minority in the North Dakota Legislature, and not a one of them holds any statewide office. Part of it’s their own fault, but part of it is systemic and some of it can change.
One-party government is always a bad idea, and that’s one reason I’ve been interested in the Bastiat Caucus, a right-leaning group of Republican lawmakers that has more members in the state House of Representatives than the Democrats and has effectively challenged the established order at important points – often when Democrats themselves acquiesced or even advanced Republican ideas.
Democratic votes were needed, because – despite the numbers – there is no majority among Republicans. Republican legislators share a label and a general rightward tilt in their thinking and lawmaking, but little else. This can have unfortunate consequences, as this session showed – paradoxically perhaps in relation to the executive branch, where there are no Democrats at all.
This presents opportunity for Democrats.
Time is short, however; a check of the secretary of state’s election countdown shows 385 days before the 2020 general election and the political calendar is relentless. Party conventions are in early spring and the primary election in June. Perhaps most important, the deadline for filing petitions initiating constitutional amendments is July 8 at midnight.
A quick review of the ballot suggests chances for Democrats. One is the governorship; there is some buyers’ remorse about Doug Burgum, both in his own party and among Democrats who helped him win (by crossing over and voting for him in the primary and by nominating a weak candidate of their own). Burgum says he’s “leaning in” for a re-election campaign.
Two challengers seem poised. On the Republican side, there’s Rep. Rick Becker, the Bastiat Caucus leader. On the Democratic side Heidi Heitkamp has what is probably her best chance to be the state’s first woman governor. Heitkamp’s failed candidacy for re-election to the U.S. Senate left her with campaign funds, and a state-focused campaign frees her of some of the damaging issues in the 2018 Senate race. Plus, a squabble in the Republican Party could help her.
This cycle presents opportunities in other races. The treasurer’s office is one. The incumbent blamed vague language for her failure to move oil tax money into an education fund. The auditor was the target of a late, bipartisan reprimand that was discussed here last week, one that Bastiats alone resisted. The Public Service Commission chair could be vulnerable if Democrats choose to focus on an office that has broad regulatory powers – and suffered a gaffe of its own by failing to prevent the state’s biggest ever grain-trading scam. The insurance commissioner, another regulator, could be a target, too. That’s a position that Democrats held for many years. The nonpartisan post of superintendent of public instruction job will also be on the ballot.
Finding and grooming candidates is urgent if Democrats hope to gain a toehold in the capitol’s executive tower and increase their legislative numbers – essential for their own survival and for good government (at least for those citizens worried about one-party oversights such as those that came to light this year).
Democrats need an organizing tool – one that brings them face to face with voters. As it happens, Heitkamp showed one. After her loss in the 2000 gubernatorial race, she led a campaign to initiate a measure directing tobacco taxes into an anti-smoking campaign. That kept her in the public eye. Democrats’ could initiate a constitutional amendment dealing with legislation apportionment. That’s handled by the Legislature now, but a movement for independent re-districting commissions is gaining momentum nationwide. Time is short, however, because the constitution requires that the first session after the census must establish a process for reapportionment. The Legislature meets in 2021.
Democrats suffered from a structural change made in 1992, when voters approved four-year terms for House members, electing them the same year that senators from the same district are elected. This protected half of the House from any consequences of a wave election. Worse, it weakened local political organizations in both parties. Even if the term lengths remain the same, every district ought to have a legislative reelection every cycle.
These changes would level the playing field, allowing competitive elections and hampering one-party government. Neither guarantees Democratic success, but they do promise a fair fight.
Republicans might have anticipated this sort of action when they sent a proposed amendment to the 2020 ballot that would make initiating constitutional amendments much more difficult. Here’s the “statement of intent” as passed: “This measure requires an initiated constitutional measure approved by voters to be submitted to subsequent legislative assembly. Under this measure if the legislative assembly does not approve the constitutional amend measure, the measure will be placed on the ballot again and, if approved by voters, will become effective.”
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.