Mike Jacobs: Another run at the North Dakota treasurer’s race

Mike Jacobs is a Grand Forks Herald columnist.

Returning to the treasurer’s race again, and for the last time. The primary election is June 9. That’s Tuesday next week, six days away.

This is a low-status, light-workload position that could be filled by a device, especially one loaded with good accounting software and tracing functions. But that’s not what North Dakotans want. Efforts to close the office have failed repeatedly. We just like electing people.

Right now, the job pays $107,885 a year. That will go up to $110,582 in June. Both figures are probably less than the cost of the current campaign. Money’s not all that’s at stake. Political influence and personal integrity are on the line, as well, and not just for the candidates. All this for a contest between two legislators whom most people probably had never heard of previously, except for those of us who follow politics closely, and maybe some of the voters back in their districts.

Of course, that may not matter now. Many of the votes have already been cast, since the primary is being conducted entirely by mail. Ballots must be postmarked by on or before June 8, Monday. That means the decision will have been made before Primary Election Day. The count won’t be announced until after the usual evening closing time for polls, and that is after the Tuesday morning deadline for this column. Thus, my final word on the treasurer’s campaign.

The action is in the Republican primary; the winner’s name will appear as the Republican candidate on the November general election ballot. The loser is not allowed to run as an independent, although he could file for a different office, a seat in the Legislature, perhaps one he already holds. Even-numbered districts are up this year. Candidate Dan Johnston represents District 24, the Valley City area, though his address is Kathryn. Thomas Beadle represents District 27, essentially the southwest part of Fargo.


The campaign has been unusual, peculiar even. Last week’s news was President Donald Trump’s endorsement of Dan Johnston, a move apparently engineered by U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer, who has contributed to Johnston’s campaign financially, as well. Gov. Doug Burgum is a big contributor to the Beadle campaign.

Burgum has spent freely. I’ve received five slick mailings in full color, four paid for by Burgum’s Dakota Leadership committee. These are not cheap. Trust me; I spent 50 years in the printing business.

By contrast, the only mailing I’ve gotten from Johnson’s campaign is smaller. His material pictures him with his wife and with Treasurer Kelly Schmidt, who’s endorsed him. There’s no picture of Beadle with his wife on his literature, though one mailing notes that he “lives in Fargo with his wife and high school sweetheart, Shana, and their dog, Eisenhower.” There’s no picture of Eisenhower either, but there is a picture of Beadle in blaze orange, carrying a gun. All of them have Burgum’s endorsement of Beadle, and three have pictures of Burgum and of Trump, at least one apparently “photo-shopped” to make it appear as if Beadle had spent time with the president at a grain storage facility.

The word “conservative” appears on each candidate’s literature, and Johnston supporters have made a point of stressing his propensity to vote “No.” He is a trusted member of the Bastiat Caucus, which represents the government-is-almost-always-your-enemy wing of the Republican Party. Beadle’s record in the legislature is more moderate. He might be more welcome in the Democratic caucus than among the Bastiats. His colleague in the House from District 27 is Ruth Buffalo, one of the most liberal and most activist members of the House.

In television ads, Beadle has claimed to be a “political outsider,” just like Burgum and Trump. This approaches “whopper” status; he is the grandson of Earl Strinden, longtime Republican leader in the state House of Representatives. Burgum’s not really an outsider either. His family has been part of the state’s business and political establishment pretty much since statehood. That’s 130 years.

I’ve watched both candidates in the Legislature. Beadle is smart, earnest and engaging. Johnston is more ideological and less inclined to consider nuance. He’s been guilty of a number of gaffes, including potentially offensive social media postings that he hasn’t disavowed. He’s become a protege of Treasurer Schmidt, whose office overlooked an important transfer of state funds. Beadle’s not likely to commit either of those lapses.

Burgum may face the biggest risk in this remarkable scramble. His big investment could backfire; Trump’s endorsement may carry considerable weight, especially given the posturing that Beadle has undertaken, trying to appear closer to Trump’s positions than his own record bears out. Burgum has placed heavy bets on legislative races, too, notably in District 8, where he’s trying to oust the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. The outcome of these and the treasurer’s race thus have implications for his effectiveness as governor and his attractiveness as a candidate for any other office.

If Burgum’s investment pays off, the damage falls elsewhere – fortifying the power of money – $1.85 million as of Monday evening – and upsetting the balance of power in state government, potentially enhancing the governor’s influence, Burgum’s apparent aim, or fracturing the Republican Party.


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

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