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Port: Who will Burgum appoint to be the next AG? Most say Drew Wrigley

As the state mourns Wayne Stenehjem, the consensus in political circles seems to be that former lieutenant governor and former U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley will be appointed to replace him.

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North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum delivers the State of the State address at the Chester Fritz Auditorium in Grand Forks in January 2020.
Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald
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MINOT, N.D. — North Dakota's long-time Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem passed away last week.

The state's political world is still reeling from the loss. Stenehjem was a beloved and respected figure, not because he was some wishy-washy out to make everybody happy, but because even when you found yourself disagreeing with the man, you couldn't quibble with his integrity.

He'll be missed.

Alas, life goes on, and North Dakota's constitution requires that Gov. Doug Burgum appoint a replacement even though the Attorney General's Office was already going to be on this year's November ballot. And even if Burgum didn't have that mandate, it would be a mistake to let such a consequential office sit empty for so long.

An appointment is going to be made, and I would expect the announcement to come quickly after Stenehjem's funeral ceremonies this week.

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I'm just not seeing a constituency of North Dakota voters that Mund could appeal to that's large enough to lead her to victory. But, again, that's assuming that she's running to win, and not as a way to keep her celebrity alive post-Miss America.

Who will Burgum appoint?

Before we get to names (spoiler alert: there aren't many) there are two routes the governor could take.

One would be to appoint a placeholder. Someone who isn't interested in campaigning for the office. I'm certain there are qualified people who fit that description, probably people already working in the attorney general's office today, who could be appointed.

The other route, and the one the Burgum is most likely to take, I think, is to choose a candidate who wants the office long-term and put them in now. This gives that candidate the advantage of incumbency, albeit through an appointment and not an election, but it also runs the risk of alienating other candidates who might have sought the office.

As things stand, there's only one announced candidate in the race. Drew Wrigley, a Republican, a former lieutenant governor, and a former U.S. attorney, announced his candidacy last year shortly after Stenehjem announced he wouldn't be seeking another term.

Judge Wade Webb, who serves on a district court in Fargo, has told me in December that he's considering a campaign for the office as a Republican, though he'd have to give up his seat on the bench to do so. So far, he hasn't made an official announcement.

There are no announced Democratic candidates for the office either, and it's not as early in the process as you might think. The state conventions where the parties will give their endorsements are just two months away, and the local party conventions are already being held around the state.

Before Stenehjem's tragic passing, it seemed like Wrigley wouldn't face much competition, and that still looks to be the case.

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Drew Wrigley
Drew Rigley, former Lt. Governor and U.S. Attorney for North Dakota, has announced a campaign for attorney general.
File Photo

This brings us back to Burgum. Would he appoint Wrigley? That's a real possibility. "He'll almost certainly appoint him," one friend of Stenehjem and long-time political observer told me, echoing the sentiment of just about every one of the dozens of elected leaders and political observers I spoke to. But Burgum hasn't exactly been predictable when it comes to these decisions.

Few in political circles would say they saw him appointing former Public Service Commissioner Brian Kroshus to be tax commissioner after Ryan Rauschenberger stepped down. Apparently, Burgum likes the way Kroshus thinks when it comes to sharing tax revenues with the state's Native American tribes, and that consideration wasn't on anyone's radar.

Wrigley has told me he's not commenting on anything related to his campaign for the office until after Stenehjem has been honored, saying he doesn't want to distract from that process.

The only other name I've heard as a potential appointee, other than Wrigley, is Michelle Kommer, who served as the director of the Department of Commerce during Burgum's first term.

Since leaving that position she started a business providing human resources and insurance solutions .

But she told me she's not interested in the job.

"I'm very flattered by the suggestion that I might be a qualified candidate for that position, but I completed my four years of public service and my commitment is to my family and my new business," she said. "I know the governor will make the right choice."

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 rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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