Mike Jacobs: Line forms for first woman governor

Mike Jacobs is a Grand Forks Herald columnist.

Cara Mund has a problem. North Dakota’s Miss America wants to be the state’s first female governor, but a line is forming in front of her.

Mund, Miss America 2018, can’t cut the line, because she is five years short of the minimum age to be governor. The state constitution says a governor must be 30 years old. Mund is 25, so her first chance wouldn’t come until 2024.

The most prominent woman in the line is Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, who has a collection of firsts in state politics: first woman elected state attorney general; first woman nominated for governor nominated by a major party (though Lydia Langer ran in 1934, filling in for her husband, Wild Bill Langer); the state’s first elected woman member of the U.S. Senate. Between campaigns, she sharpened a political tactic, petitioning to put a popular notion – tobacco control – on the ballot. Others have picked up on petitioning, and it’s likely to be a big factor in the 2020 election cycle.

Heitkamp herself appears poised to run. She has money and organization left over from her unsuccessful campaign for re-election to the Senate. A victory would fulfill her own ambition to be the state’s first woman governor. She’s also expressed some interest in another feminine first office, UND president.

She isn’t the only woman interested in bragging rights for being the state’s first female governor. Several Republicans are likely looking at the opportunity.


The most obviously interested is Shannon Roers-Jones, a state representative. She’s aligned with the current Gov. Doug Burgum, both as a Fargoan and as the original legislative sponsor of his signature idea, a presidential library and museum honoring Theodore Roosevelt. Roers-Jones’ bill failed, but the idea itself succeeded – though it faces a challenge on the ballot. It’s one of a number of legislative actions that may be referred. She comes from a political family; her father is a state senator.

Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak is another potential Republican in the line. She has a long record of political activism, some of it apparently in the blood. Her father was highway commissioner and her brother ran for U.S. Senate. Her husband is state coordinator for Americans for Prosperity, the Koch Brothers’ political action committee. She worked for Gov. Ed Schafer, who helped build the Republican Party’s bench in the state, and was appointed to fill a vacancy on the PSC, won the seat in the next election and was elected to a full term ending in 2022. She’s been mentioned for other offices, notably for the U.S. Senate in 2018, but she demurred when Rep. Kevin Cramer decided to join the race. Fedorchak took his PSC seat when he was elected to Congress in 2012.

A third potential candidate in the line is State Sen. Nicole Poolman of Bismarck, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee who is considered a rising star. She, too, is politically connected. She ran for lieutenant governor in 2016, on a ticket with Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem. Burgum won the primary. Her husband, former Insurance Commissioner Jim Poolman, has been vice chair of the state Republican Party.

A couple of women officeholders might be possible gubernatorial candidates, as well: Kirsten Baesler, the superintendent of public instruction (a no-party office in law but not in practice) and Kelly Schmidt, the state treasurer.

Of course, the gubernatorial field depends on Gov. Burgum’s own ambition. He’s said he is leaning toward a re-election campaign. The state’s political climate is unsettled, however, and no one’s success is assured.

One factor is a nascent conservative movement that’s challenged some of Burgum’s policies. Rep. Rick Becker of Fargo is the founder and motive force behind the movement, organized as the “Bastiat Caucus” in the state House. He’s a potential candidate. In 2016, he sought the party’s gubernatorial endorsement, losing to Stenehjem.

Another development is a strong reaction to a legislative move to curb the power of the state auditor, Josh Gallion. His term expires in 2020 and he must face re-election – or potentially seek another office, perhaps the governorship. Bastiats opposed the move and it’s been referred. Gallion’s most recent audit criticized the Highway Patrol for inadequate attention to school bus safety, suggesting political ambition. It aims squarely at voting parents. Baesler pushed back against the findings on a strongly worded statement, perhaps hinting at her own ambitions.

Mund herself has political chops. She interned for U.S. Sen John Hoeven (a former governor) who all but endorsed her ambitions. Mund had a significant personal victory last week when Gretchen Carlson, who had been president of the Miss America organization, resigned. Mund had been critical of Carlson, and Carlson arranged a snub at last year’s pageant, when Mund surrendered her crown. Mund was vindicated last week, and her sense of triumph seemed apparent in her statement to KFYR. “I wish Ms. Carlson the best in her new endeavors and fully support her decision to step down.”


But that doesn’t move her to the head of the lengthening line of women wanting to be first to occupy the governor’s chair.

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

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