Suddenly, North Dakota’s political landscape has changed in weird and unexpected ways. English has a word for this, transmogrify, which Dictionary.com defines as “to change in appearance or form, especially strangely or grotesquely.” Merriam-Webster offers this definition, also online: “to change or alter greatly and often with grotesque or humorous effect.”
For the moment we can be sure the changes are strange, and they do not arise from one source only. Whether their effect will be humorous? That we’ll have to wait to see.
The latest development comes from Donald Trump, the nation’s disrupter in chief. On Sunday he unexpectedly tweeted an endorsement in the North Dakota treasurer’s race. This likely reflects the influence of Sen. Kevin Cramer, also a disrupter, and it appears to be aimed at Gov. Doug Burgum, still another disrupter. Burgum and Cramer bypassed the usual nomination process, Cramer for the U.S. House in 2012, and Burgum for governor in 2016. Each has picked a different candidate in the treasurer’s race, a minor office that’s faced extinction in the Legislature and on the ballot. In 2016, the Democratic candidate ran on a platform to eliminate the office, and one of this year’s Republican contenders voted in favor of making the office appointive.
Trump’s endorsement might be coincidental, but it comes just after Burgum choked up about wearing masks during the Covid-19 pandemic. Essentially, he said that masks aren’t a partisan issue and – fighting back tears – people should show empathy. His remarks drew the attention of Ohio's Mike DeWine, also a Republican governor, in his case, and the Washington Post printed a story on Sunday quoting the two of them. Trump’s tweet came later that day.
As we all know, Trump is notoriously unmasked.
State treasurer is not an office of special prominence in North Dakota, although it broke into the headlines by failing to notice that some money wasn’t going into constitutional trust funds for water projects and, most significantly, for public schools. The oversight was part of the budget crisis in the 2015 session, which was brought on largely by a drop in crude oil prices, but exacerbated because some money that should have come from the schools’ trust fund wasn’t available. The shortfall was made up from the general fund, a move that had a baleful effect through much of the state budget, but especially on higher education. It’s safe to say that the oversight was the most significant thing that’s happened in the treasurer’s office in 131 years of statehood.
Nor has the office been a stepping stone. Only two state treasurers have held other offices. One, Berta Baker, served four years as treasurer, then served as state auditor for more than 20 years. Otto Krueger spent only a year in the office before becoming insurance commissioner. Later he served in the U.S. House.
Despite this history, the office has become the marque contest in this year’s primary election. Burgum has invested heavily, and so has Cramer, although his more important contribution may be the president’s unexpected endorsement of Dan Johnston, whom Cramer backs. Johnston, who lives near Valley City, has served a single term in the state House of Representatives, where he has been a reliable member of the so-called “Bastiat Caucus.” Burgum’s candidate is state Rep. Thomas Beadle of Fargo. He’s the one who voted to eliminate the office.
Here’s another coincidence. Beadle’s mother, the daughter of Earl Strinden, longtime Republican leader in the state House of Representative, is married to Tony Grindberg, a former state senator who is now a vice president of State School of Science – yes, the Grindberg who was the subject of criticism by State Auditor Josh Galleon, a Bastiat ally. Grindberg sponsored legislation to eliminate the treasurer’s office. Kelly Schmidt, the incumbent state treasurer, has endorsed Johnston, some suggest to spite Grindberg and Beadle for their attack on the “constitutional position” of state treasurer.
Burgum’s disruption of the political process extends beyond his route to the governorship, most dramatically in his use of his personal fortune to back candidates he likes. So far, he’s put $875,000 into the Dakota Leadership fund, formed to further his political agenda. This money is being used in several legislative races, preeminently the campaign against Jeff Delzer, chair of the state House Appropriations Committee, in District 8 north of Bismarck, as well as to help Beadle’s campaign for treasurer. Cramer’s interest in Johnston’s campaign is more obscure though hardly any less political. His politics reflect his Bastiat leanings. He’s one of Trump’s pet senators, and the president has done him significant favors. This endorsement is one, whether Cramer engineered it or not. The border wall contract secured by a Dickinson company is another. Appearances on Cramer’s behalf in the Senate campaign in 2018 are yet another.
All of this is unprecedented in North Dakota politics. What’s familiar is the clash of titans. Two exemplars of self-regard now face one another on the political landscape, one the governor, the other a U.S. senator. Governors challenging sitting senators is a familiar pattern in the state’s politics.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.