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Mike Jacobs: North Dakota political season opens officially

It’s shaping up to be an interesting year politically.

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North Dakota’s political season is officially open. No, it’s not because Drew Wrigley has announced he’s running for attorney general, the marquee statewide office on this year’s ballot.

Rather, the season opened officially on Monday, Jan. 3. That’s the first day candidates can file paperwork with the secretary of state, who administers North Dakota election laws.

The first day of filing is rather like the opening gun of a relay race involving a long track and several hurdles. The next of these hurdles will be district conventions to endorse candidates. Those will take place in late March or early April, ahead of the deadline to qualify for the primary ballot, which is 4 p.m. on April 11. That’s 64 days before the primary on June 14.

It’s shaping up to be an interesting year politically. U.S. Sen. John Hoeven is up for reelection in 2022. Rep. Kelly Armstrong is a shoo-in.

So far, the attorney general’s job has drawn the most attention, because Wayne Stenehjem is leaving the job after 20 years in office, the longest service record of any attorney general in the state’s history. Wrigley wasted no time in staking a claim to the office.

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He served two stretches as U.S. attorney in the last Republican presidential administrations, and between them, he served as lieutenant governor of the state.

He’s a strong candidate, to be sure — convivial, even jovial, despite his no-nonsense approach to law enforcement. His announcement at newspaper editorial board meetings stressed accessibility and the importance of open records. These are positions that Stenehjem took in his own tenure, and of course the open records vows fall sweetly on editorial ears.

Wrigley was initially appointed lieutenant governor; later he was elected on a ticket with Gov. Jack Dalrymple. The federal judgeships are filled by appointment. So, despite his resume, he has never won an election on his own.

The secretary of state’s job is open, too. Al Jaeger has been in office since 1998, longer than Stenehjem but not as long as one of his predecessors, Ben Meier, who held the office for 33 years. Together, Jaeger and Meier have held the office for almost half of the state’s history.

Jaeger was an early victim of factional infighting in the Republican Party. In 2018, the state convention endorsed a different candidate who stepped down after some questionable conduct was exposed. Jaeger re-entered the race as an independent and won the office.

The agriculture commissioner’s job will be on the ballot. Doug Goehring has held the office since 2008. It’s an important office, though it doesn’t get a lot of attention. The ag commissioner is a member of the state Industrial Commission, which oversees the state-owned Bank of North Dakota and North Dakota Mill and Elevator and regulates the state’s oil and gas industry.

We haven’t run out of offices to be filled quite yet. There will be two openings on the Public Service Commission after Commissioner Brian Kroshus was appointed tax commissioner last month. He’ll serve the year that’s left of Ryan Rauschenberger’s term. Rauschenberger resigned for health reasons. Kroshus himself was appointed to the PSC and won election in 2018 and 2020. He has said he will run for the tax position this year.

The second PSC spot is held by Julie Fedorchak, who was appointed in 2012 and elected to a six-year term in 2016.

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There’s also a Supreme Court seat on the ballot, but that’s a nonpartisan office. Justice Daniel Crothers’ term expires this year.

That’s a lot of potential races to keep track of, especially in an off-year.

But wait! We’ve saved the best for last.

The 2022 ballot will have more than the usual number of legislative seats at stake – a total of 99 of the 141 seats. This is a consequence of the required reapportionment after the 2020 census. The stakes are unusually high.

The year’s legislative season – the regular session last winter and the special session in November – exposed fissures in the Republican Party, which holds large majorities in both the state House and Senate. District organizational meetings last March were heated, prompted some walk-outs and produced censures of some legislators and even one recall attempt, which apparently has fizzled.

Much of the energy behind the in-fighting arises from the so-called “Bastiat Caucus,” a group of 20 or so legislators, mostly House members, who are well to the right of mainstream Republicans, especially on individual rights, education issues and often, though not always, on spending. Yet another faction are the social issues conservatives, many but not all of whom share libertarian views with the Bastiats.

As the saying goes, it is a “yeasty brew” and all of us political onlookers are going to enjoy the show.

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

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