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Our view: With Gov. Doug Burgum, don’t hate the player, hate the game

When a bill surfaced in 2021 to ban North Dakota governors from making political contributions in legislative races, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Silrum testified that the legislation would be unconstitutional because political donations are considered protected free speech.

Herald pull quote, 6/7/22
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There’s an old saying: Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

Remember that as the brouhaha continues over Gov. Doug Burgum’s involvement in efforts to oust certain lawmakers from the Legislature. It came to a new head last week when a group of Republican lawmakers held an event to criticize the governor for giving donations – big, substantial donations – to the Dakota Leadership PAC, which has advertised against some candidates for the Legislature and backed others.

Those opposed by Dakota Leadership include Rep. Jeff Delzer, a Republican from Underwood who is chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. Other legislative districts are targeted, according to a recent report by Forum News Service.

Although Burgum declined a Forum News Service request for an interview, he said the political action committee is “promoting healthy competition in Republican primaries.”

If that statement wasn’t made with tongue planted firmly in cheek and with a knowing wink, we would be surprised.

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This isn’t a new controversy. It started during the elections of 2020, when Burgum put forth more than $3.2 million of his own money to pay for advertising against certain candidates, including Delzer. Now, he’s given more than $900,000 of his own money to the PAC.

Last week, Reps. Rick Becker, Jeff Mgrum, Sebastian Ertelt and Jeff Hoverson – all of whom are Republicans, like Burgum – accused the governor of inappropriately tinkering with separation of powers between government’s branches. Becker likened the situation to “a mafia boss who’s got a hit man.”

“The mafia boss doesn’t need to go out and make verbal threats anymore,” Becker said, according to the FNS report. “He’s got the hit man standing behind him smiling.”

So is Burgum inappropriately meddling in the legislative branch of North Dakota’s state government?

Well, Burgum certainly is meddling.

But is it inappropriate? And, most important, is it illegal?

The former is debatable, but it appears the latter is not.

When a bill surfaced in 2021 to ban North Dakota governors from making political contributions in legislative races, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Silrum testified that the legislation would be unconstitutional because political donations are considered protected free speech. Levi Bachmeier, chairman of the Dakota Leadership PAC, at the time said it's "very clear" the governor's First Amendment rights allow him to make political donations.

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And Burgum, in a statement that was included in last week’s FNS report, said that being governor "doesn’t mean giving up your ability to support the candidates you believe will do the best job for your state and country."

North Dakota’s governor is a wealthy man, having made a fortune in software and venture capital. He’s got the kind of money to fully exercise his First Amendment rights.

Is Burgum meddling? Yes.

Is it inappropriate? Perhaps.

Does it make us squeamish? A little.

Is it illegal? Apparently not.

But until someone can prove the governor is doing something that crosses a constitutional line or some law, it appears he’s simply playing politics as allowed in North Dakota.

And, as they say: Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

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