THE ONLOOKER: Path to power leads through the tower

North Dakota Democrats will focus on the Legislature, their new chair, state Rep. Kylie Oversen of Grand Forks, told the Herald's John Hageman last week.

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs

North Dakota Democrats will focus on the Legislature, their new chair, state Rep. Kylie Oversen of Grand Forks, told the Herald's John Hageman last week.

Good luck with that.

The Legislature isn't a very good path to power in the state. Sure, legislators make the laws, but these are implemented by elected and appointed executives.

Crucially, the executives hire staff to do the job.

And so they build political power, and they win higher office.


None of the three federal officials - two senators and a member of the U.S. House - has served in the state Legislature. Neither did the two previous senators.

In fact, it's been 70 years since a senator moved directly from the Legislature, and that was by appointment, not election.

The record for House members is little better. In 50 years, two legislators have gone directly to the U.S. House. Each served a single term there.

Only one governor in the past 60 years has gone directly from the Legislature to the governorship, though three had legislative experience.

Only three of the 13 statewide elected officials currently in office served in the Legislature.

True, one of these is Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who spent 16 years in the state House of Representatives. During that time, he ran for the U.S. Senate. And lost. Dalrymple reached the governorship after serving 10 years as lieutenant governor.

He is the only Republican governor in half a century with any legislative experience. John Hoeven had none when he was elected governor. Nor did Ed Schafer. Nor Allen Olson.

All three recent Democratic governors were legislators. Bill Guy served a single term in the state House, then moved directly to the governorship. Bud Sinner served a single term in the state Senate, but that was nearly two decades before he became governor.


Art Link had long legislative experience, and he had served as speaker of the state House. But even Link didn't go directly to the governorship. He served a term in the U.S. House, then returned to the state to be governor.

That was in 1972, and there were several Democratic candidates. Undoubtedly the convention turned to Link because he had greater visibility. Had he not been congressman, he likely wouldn't have been governor.

Currently, Wayne Stenehjem is the statewide official with the most legislative experience, a total of 24 years in both the House and Senate. He's now the attorney general.

Public Service Commissioner Randy Christman served 18 years in the state Senate.

That's it for legislative service among incumbent statewide officials.

As for the federal officials, Sen. Hoeven, of course, was governor; Sen. Heidi Heitkamp was attorney general, and Rep. Kevin Cramer served on the Public Service Commission.

None of them served in the Legislature.

Link and Rick Berg are the two members of the U.S. House who went directly from the Legislature to the U.S. House. Both left to run for other offices. Link was elected governor. Berg was defeated in the race for the U.S. Senate - by Heitkamp, who had no legislative experience. Earl Pomeroy served in the North Dakota House, but his route to Congress was through his next post, which was state insurance commissioner.


In North Dakota, the path to power leads through the tower. That's the state Capitol tower.

There are likely several explanations. The Legislature is a transitory thing, drawing attention for three months every odd-numbered year.

State officials go to work every morning. They serve on boards that make decisions. They hire people. They get around the state. They make speeches. They issue press releases.

These are all advantages in political life.

Legislators don't have them. In fact, a legislative record is often a disadvantage. Every vote, regardless of its significance, can be used in a campaign.

Nor are legislators routinely called upon to comment on issues. Nor would many want to be. Legislators have other lives. It's a part-time job, after all.

This calls forth another truism about government in North Dakota:

If you're not in the tower, you're not at the table.


While it's true that the North Dakota Constitution outlines a weak executive branch, it is also true that the executive branch makes all of the day-to-day decisions and most of the far-reaching ones as well.

The governor prepares a budget that the Legislature reacts to. The Industrial Commission supervises the state-owned business, a mill and elevator and a bank, and superintends the oil and gas industry.

Importantly, the governor appoints state officials when vacancies occur in elected positions; then, these appointees are often elected - three of the current 13. This is how parties build bench strength.

Guy did this in 1969, when he appointed Byron Dorgan tax commissioner. Dorgan later went to the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate, where he served until 2010.

Dorgan never served in the state Legislature.

The Legislature offers no opportunity for building a political bench, limited opportunity for day-to-day decision making and significant challenges for visibility.

Legislative service has been a path for some successful politicians.

But the well-worn path leads through the tower.



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