Port: This is why North Dakota's Legislature has become a battleground in the culture wars

"Sadly, we're getting the government we deserve."

PHOTO: November 7 election rally in Bismarck
Minot resident Mark Todd holds a sign at a rally in support of President Donald Trump in Bismarck on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020.
Kyle Martin / Forum News Service

MINOT, N.D. — In these first weeks of North Dakota's legislative session, we've been inundated with one news story after another detailing a slew of bills concerned with ripped-from-the-headlines culture war topics.

From trans issues to election audits , it seems clear that many of our lawmakers are more concerned with the priorities of Facebook comment sections, and Fox News prime-time talking heads than what's impacting their constituencies.

These folks are nothing if not topical. We've even got bills about gas stoves , the latest front in the culture wars.

Many critics of this flurry of Kulturkampf blame it on out-of-touch politicians, but that's not precisely accurate. Many of these lawmakers are responding to signals from the electoral process.

They're very much in touch. At least with those who are participating.


An illustrative anecdote for what I'm talking about is the Republican primary in District 33 from last year.

That jurisdiction covers the heart of North Dakota's coal country and, until last year, was represented in the state Senate by Sen. Jessica Bell.

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"How many times do you think we have to be punched in the face before we get up and represent ourselves?" Jerry Waswick of the Gwinner Fire District asked lawmakers.

Bell was a diligent and hard-working lawmaker, scrupulously conservative, with a track record of real-world impact. Bell was among the state officials who led the charge to save Coal Creek Station, the closure of which would have been economically devastating to her district.

But she wasn't a culture warrior.

Bell was defeated last year by a man named Keith Boehm, who made the culture war central to his campaign. He beat Bell at the NDGOP's local district convention and then on the June primary ballot, and his primary talking point against her is that she voted to sustain Gov. Doug Burgum's veto of a transgender sports bill .

Now Boehm is in the Senate, and looking at the list of bills he's sponsoring, he's giving the culture warriors what they want.

As I write this, Boehm is the primary sponsor on only two bills. One is about stolen election nonsense , and the other seems predicated on the idea that our state's schools and public libraries are letting kids watch pornography .

The voters of District 33 — or, at least, those who participated in the NDGOP's district convention and the June primary —replaced a serious-minded lawmaker with a deep and nuanced understanding of issues such as energy and agriculture, which are central to her district's well-being, with a Tucker Carlson fanboy.


I do not believe that people like Boehm, and the people who put him in office, are representative of anything approaching a majority of North Dakotans. But most North Dakotans don't participate in the process that chooses these candidates.

Less than 19% of eligible voters statewide participated in the June primary vote that chose Boehm as the Republican candidate. When he appeared on the general election ballot in November, he was unopposed.

If you scrutinize many of the names associated with the culture war bills in Bismarck this session, you'll find similar stories. They're populist firebrands elected by a contingent of cranky zealots through a process only a tiny fraction of North Dakota's electorate participates in.

Sadly, we're getting the government we deserve.

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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