Port: There hasn't been a female chair of a standing committee in North Dakota's House in a decade

"I wasn't aware of that," House Majority Leader Mike Lefor, who is in charge of committee assignments, told me when I asked him about it. "I should have been."

North Dakota Capitol
Steam rising from the North Dakota Capitol and chimneys of nearly every building and home are sure giveaways of the sub-zero temperatures.
File photo

MINOT, N.D. — During this year's U.S. House campaign, allegedly "independent" candidate Cara Mund, the former Miss America who was, over complaints from some of the party's activists and leaders , the de facto candidate of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL, argued that she might have started her political in the North Dakota Republican Party, except that she didn't feel women are very welcome there.

It may have been a more believable claim had Mund tried, at some point, to be a Republican candidate. At no point did she even try to participate in the party's candidate selection process.

How would the Republicans even know that someone like Mund would want to be their candidate if she doesn't bother to tell them? Anyway, her claims of the party's bias against women were rebutted by a long list of female leaders in the Republican Party who questioned the sincerity of her accusations.

Rightly, I think. Looking back, Mund's machinations seem more a ham-handed attempt at campaign trail triangulation than meaningful criticism. It didn't work. She lost in the sort of Election Day landslide that North Dakota's Democrats have become accustomed to.

But, if we're being honest, there is a place where North Dakota's Republican political majorities seem to have a blind spot when it comes to women, and it's the state House of Representatives.


Our lawmakers just finished their organizational session. The committees have been formed, and leaders are chosen. There are 11 standing committees in each chamber of the Legislature, and in the Senate three of those committees will be chaired by women during this biennium.

  • Sen. Judy Lee — Human Services
  • Sen. Diane Larsen — Judiciary
  • Sen. Kristin Roers — State and Local Government

I can't list the female chairs of standing committees in the House, because there aren't any.

"Kevin O'Leary had a point when he compared North Dakota's economic policies to Minnesota's, but in making it he made our state seem small and petty."
"A Sanford employee on a committee chaired by a Sanford-funded politician moved to reconsider a bill so that another Sanford-funded politician could make an amendment a Sanford lobbyist asked for."
"Even if Trump is convicted in the criminal justice system, it's not going to matter in the political system until Trump's supporters care about the honesty and integrity of their candidate."
"The way things are trending, the tax policy that emerges from this Legislature may tilt more toward failed property tax buydowns than income tax relief."
"But I suspect that won't stop many self-styled 'conservatives' in this era of Republican politics, dominated by reactionary supporters of Donald Trump, from accusing him of liberalism."

Based on my review of legislative records, there hasn't been a woman chairing a standing committee in North Dakota's House of Representatives in a decade. The last was former state Rep. Nancy Johnson, who chaired the Political Subdivisions committee back in 2013, and was the only woman to chair a standing committee that session.

Why is this happening?

One challenge is that there are just a lot more men in the Legislature in the first place. Of the 147 members of this current Legislature, 32 are women, a gender ratio that mirrors the makeup of the last Legislature. Of the currently serving women, 23 are Republicans, and nine are Democrats.

That's not quite 23%, and below the 2022 national ratio of 31%, as calculated by researchers at Rutgers . Legislative leaders can't appoint women to lead committees if they aren't serving in the Legislature. And the available female talent pool is even smaller when you consider that Democratic women aren't going to be picked for leadership spots by a Republican majority leader.

Still, even given those caveats, there's a disparity between the House and Senate chambers. In the last decade, the Senate has had at least one female committee chair in every legislative session, and usually as many as three, while there haven't been any in the House.

"I wasn't aware of that," House Majority Leader Mike Lefor, who is in charge of committee assignments, told me when I asked him about that. "I should have been."


One additional challenge Leader Lefore pointed out, in addition to the small number of Republican women serving, is that about half of them are new. By his count, he has 18 women in his caucus, and nine are in their first or second sessions.

"What I did was, as I took trips around the state, and looked at who would be interested in the different topic matters," Lefor said, by way of explaining his process to me. "I did move Rep. Emily O'Brien, who was under strong consideration to be [Industry, Business, and Labor Committee] chair, and Rep. Brandy Pyle, who was under strong consideration to be [Political Subdivisions Comittee] chair, I moved them to appropriations. Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, I kept her on Judiciary, because she's an attorney and a skilled one."

PHOTO: Rep. Emily O'Brien
North Dakota Rep. Emily O'Brien, R-Grand Forks, details the case for expelling Dickinson Republican Rep. Luke Simons, who she has accused of sexual harassment.
(Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service)

"Some of those women were under consideration for chairmanships, but I felt I could utilize their expertise in a way that's better for the caucus overall," he continued. "There are many women who are more than capable of being a chair or vice chair, but many of them expressed an interest in a specific policy area."

Is the balance between male and female committee leadership something he should think more about in the future?

"Probably," Lefor said. "I think probably, because I wasn't trying to slight anyone. I think that's something I need to be more mindful of in the future."

That makes sense. Not only are female perspectives in the Legislature important, but Republicans suffer from the perception, fair or not, of not being sufficiently welcoming of women. Some of it, such as Mund's accusations, is just the rote aspersions inherent to campaign trail politics.

But some of it has roots, too. Remember that the last state the state House of Representatives met, they had to vote to expel one of their own thanks to a years-long pattern of harassment toward female lawmakers, including Pyle and O'Brien, as well as legislative staff and even reporters.

A roughly 2-1 majority of the Republican caucus, joined by every Democrat in the chamber, voted to expel Luke Simons, and that was the right decision, but that the vote had to be taken at all didn't reflect well on the Republican House caucus.


Nor does this disparity in committee leadership.

I don't believe anyone in the Republican leadership in Bismarck — and certainly not Majority Leader Lefor — is actively discriminating against women. But I do think there's been a blind spot, and it's in need of correction.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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