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Mike Jacobs: Burgum uses his bully pulpit

Three things were known about North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum before he delivered his State of the State speech last week: He's wicked smart, he talks a lot and he cries easily. These tendencies were on display during the speech.

At 59 minutes it likely set a record for the longest State of the State address in North Dakota history, even subtracting the minute or two spent rebooting a teleprompter.

You might argue about whether there were tears or not, but the speech was emotional. Burgum paused half a dozen times to regain control.

All of this was unexceptional for Burgum. In fact, a satirical website called Flicker Tail Times offered readers a bingo card to keep track of such Burgumisms. The Times — posted by "Teddy Meadowlark"—is the cleverest "fake news" source in the state. Check it out at flickertailtimes.com.

Ignore the suggestion that the state should trade Grand Forks for Frisco, Texas, in order to bring more athletic champions to the state. That would be a net loss for North Dakota, since UND has won more Division One championships and produced more professional athletes than NDSU, despite Saturday's splendid Bison victory.

The governor has strong personal and family ties to NDSU, but his performance at the Legislature suggests he'd reject that kind of deal. His speech showed us something else about Burgum: He doesn't back down.

When he delivered his budget proposals last month, lawmakers gave him a frosty reception, even refusing to accept bill drafts of his proposals. Although the budget speech was shorter, it was larded with "new speak," including quite a few references to team members and frequent expressions of gratitude. There was only one emotional episode and only two applause lines. Last week Burgum gave back as much as he got — with pomp and style. It was an optimistic speech.

"Today the state of the state is that we stand at the cusp of a new era," he declared, then spent nearly an hour telling legislators how they could help him grasp the moment.

In some ways, the speech was combative, and one gesture was a kind of rebuke. Burgum announced he would display flags of the state's five tribal nations outside his office — at the executive branch end of the capitol's Memorial Hall. Last session lawmakers defeated a bill to display the flags, and decided not to hear the "State of the Relationship" speech that had become a fixture of the opening days of each session.

Burgum made outreach to Indian governments a priority of his first months in office, and in this year's speech, Myra Pearson of the Spirit Lake Nation, praised Burgum's recognition of tribal sovereignty and his interest in native issues. In a traditional ceremony following her speech, Pearson wrapped the governor and First Lady Kathryn Helgaas Burgum in quilts.

"The tax on these gifts is paid," she quipped — a reference to state and tribal effort to clarify what may be taxed in Indian Country, who must pay the tax and what entity should collect it.

Burgum vigorously defended other programs, including his high-profile "Main Street Initiative," intended to spur local communities to couple their own resources with state and federal programs. So far, 61 towns and cities have participated and a Main Street conference in October drew more than 650 people — statistics meant to deflect criticism that the program's impact has been more cosmetic that real.

Other signature programs got similar treatment, including a plan to replace the state Board of Higher Education with three separate boards. The single board, approved as a constitutional amendment in the 1938 election, is "woefully ill-matched" to today's complex higher education system, Burgum said.

As he has in each of his major speeches, Burgum called attention to his wife's work in addiction recovery. Of course, there was talk about money, $14.3 billion in spending for the upcoming two-year period. The governor urged lawmakers to use interest on oil tax money in the state's Legacy Fund to build a presidential library at the entrance to Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

At times in his speech, the governor seemed to be channeling TR himself. Burgum turned the opening ceremony into a "Bully Pulpit."

"If we see ourselves and our state as too small, too distant and too cold, we will fall short of our potential," he said. "Being a North Dakotan is a choice. It is a powerful and compelling choice."

Burgum faced a skeptical audience, one divided along partisan lines but also along ideological lines within his own Republican Party, not only in the Legislature but among elected state officials protective of their own prerogatives. He responded with a flourish, leaving the chamber to the strains of The Union Forever — a call to muster troops used in the Civil War.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.