Mike Jacobs: A freaky turn for North Dakota politics

It hasn't been this crazy for almost a century.

Mike Jacobs, Grand Forks Herald columnist.

For sure, it’s been a freaky year in North Dakota politics. To find its like, we’ll have to go back almost a century.

The political year pretty much runs from March, convention season, through November and beyond to the annual legislative session. Even in legislative off years that holds true. Although the pace is slower, politics never stops.

This political year was unusual from the start. In early 2020, the subsets of the Republican Party fell on each other. Renegades found candidates to challenge regulars.

One of these instances of infighting occurred in Dickinson, where moderates in the party tried to end the legislative career of a one-termer named Luke Simons. They failed and he was re-elected. Several other failures of the same kind lent a decidedly more right-wing and more activist tone to the campaign.

Challenges of a different, more surprising, kind came in District 8, a swathe of territory north and east of Bismarck and encompassing some of that city’s growth. A long-serving and powerfully important legislator was defeated at the district convention, took his campaign to the primary election, held in June, and was defeated then. The campaign itself was unusual. Gov. Doug Burgum, a Republican of course, established a fundraising arm that doled out money to candidates perceived to be his allies. These included a state treasurer candidate and the District 8 legislative race.


Voting was by mail only, an innovation prompted by the COVID epidemic, and engineered by Republicans well in advance of the full-throated attack on mail-in ballots launched by Donald Trump, the president, a Republican. In North Dakota, the innovations came off without a hitch.

COVID was a lurking presence throughout the year, and during the general election campaign, it claimed the life of one of the winners in the District 8 primary. Death came too late to amend the general election ballots, and so a dead man won.

This left a vacancy that Gov. Doug Burgum rushed to fill. The Supreme Court cut that short, ruling that the district Republican Party leadership should fill the office, as state law prescribes for openings in the Legislature. The committee picked the man that Burgum had invested heavily to beat.

The court got involved again when justices threw out an initiated measure reforming the state’s election laws, ruling that the wording didn’t strictly comport with state law, never mind the 30,000 petition signatures.

The election itself didn’t bring any surprises. Republicans won everything.

Events in the Capitol have been freakish nevertheless. Last week the House of Representatives expelled one of its members after several women, both legislators and staff, complained of sexual harassment. Until last week’s vote, no North Dakota legislator had ever been expelled. The legislator is Luke Simons, target of the regulars in his Dickinson district.

More than one political observer has noted that the expulsion came on a kind of party line vote – not Democrats versus Republicans but Republicans versus the so-called Bastiat Caucus, which included Simons and the lion’s share of those who supported him in several floor votes last week. The Bastiats are rightists who can trace their origins to the Tea Party movement of 2010. Simons’ attorney has hinted at a lawsuit, which could bring the state Supreme Court back into the political arena.

Legislative eagerness to legalize recreational marijuana is another surprise. Two different groups were working on ballot initiates to achieve the same end. COVID delayed those efforts. Legislators hope to derail them by passing their own restrictive law, making marijuana legal but hard to get and expensive, because of the tax they’ve suggested attaching.


Of course, the political year doesn’t end until the Legislature adjourns a month or six weeks from now. Plenty of issues are unresolved, including a state bonding program that Burgum suggested – and which the House sliced just about in half. The chair of the Appropriations Committee is the legislator that Burgum targeted.

To find another example of this kind of political whiplash, we have to go back to the 1930s, when North Dakota had four governors in eight months. William Langer was driven from office by a felony conviction; his lieutenant governor took over. Langer put up his wife for the office in 1934. She lost to a Democrat who didn’t meet the residency requirement and was in turn removed from office, clearing the way for a fourth governor to take over. Langer was later cleared of the charges and returned to the governor’s office after the 1936 election.

Slow down: Last week I got ahead of developments by asserting that the Legislature would experiment with an “annual” session next year. That’s one of the issues left to be decided – and that depends on whether lawmakers clear out of Bismarck without using up the 80 days the state constitution allows them in each two-year cycle.

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

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