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Plain Talk With Rob Port

Plain Talk is a podcast hosted by blogger and columnist Rob Port focusing on political news and current events in North Dakota. Host Rob Port writes, North Dakota’s most popular and influential political blog, and is a columnist for the Forum News Service published in papers including the Fargo Forum, Grand Forks Herald, Jamestown Sun, Minot Daily News, and the Dickinson Press.

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Latest Episodes
288: School choice and North Dakota's teacher retention problem
Wed Jan 26 12:25:00 EST 2022
A new survey from North Dakota United, the state's combined public worker and teacher union, finds strong evidence that teachers are feeling burned out.

Why? A lot of the same reasons many of us are feeling burned out. It's politics and the pandemic and shifting attitudes about compensation levels.

On this episode of Plain Talk, co-host Chad Oban and I interview Nick Archuletta, the president of North Dakota United, about the survey's findings.

And, as Fargo looks to become home to a new private school affiliated with ideologically conservative Hillsdale College, we talk about the push for school choice policy.

Should North Dakota taxpayers get to use taxpayer dollars to send their kids to a non-public school? Or even homeschool them? Archuletta joins Chad and I in that discussion as well.

(Full disclosure: Oban's day job is at North Dakota United.)

287: Rep. Armstrong talks Biden's first year, Russia's aggression in Ukraine, and China
Mon Jan 24 11:51:42 EST 2022
I'll admit, I wanted to use this interview to push Congressman Kelly Armstrong, a fellow baseball nut, to pass legislation to end Major League Baseball's ongoing lockout.

But I controlled myself. After all, what kind of conservative would I be if I was pushing for that sort of federal intervention? Principle must trump emotion.

What Armstrong and I did talk about was President Joe Biden's first year in office. As you might expect, this Republican congressman isn't impressed. He's also not impressed with Biden's leadership with Russia. Armstrong told me he hopes Biden is successful in handling the crisis in Ukraine, but he's afraid we're in for another debacle like the one Biden presided over in Afghanistan.

We also talked about why it's important for America to counter the influence of countries like China and Russia, even when it's not always economically important to do so.

286: Rick Becker's medical license and a Supreme Court candidate
Wed Jan 19 17:57:56 EST 2022
Why are so many judicial races in North Dakota uncompetitive? And not uncompetitive because the winning candidates dominate, but because they're usually running unopposed?

Part of the problem is the pay Justice Daniel Crothers said on this episode of Plain Talk. He's served on the North Dakota Supreme Court since he was appointed in 2005. He ran for election to the unexpired four-year term he was appointed to fill, and for re-election to a new term in 2012, and now he's running for another decade-long term on the 2022 ballot.

With history as our guide, he probably won't have an opponent. Since 1990 there have been just five competitive Supreme Court races on the statewide ballot.

Crothers says that lawyers make a lot of money but judges, comparatively, do not. North Dakota already has a relatively small legal community, and finding people in that community who want to abandon their private practice, and it's pay, to become a judge.

Crothers also talked about the on-going efforts to get court records online, what it's like to campaign for an office like judge, and the process behind how the state Supreme Court works.

Also on this episode, co-host Chad Oban and I talk about the calls to pull the medical license of state Rep. Rick Becker. Becker works as a plastic surgeon outside of his political career, and some of his fellow doctors find his comments about COVID-19 and treatments for it to be unethical. They're calling for him to either stop these statements or face discipline.

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285: Grand Forks mayor on wading into the transgender debate
Mon Jan 17 12:27:59 EST 2022
"I've largely stayed out of that stuff," says Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski, speaking about national hot-button issues. He says he's tried to focus on local issues like public safety and infrastructure.

But when the University of North Dakota announced they were pursuing a new policy that could punish people for using the wrong pronouns, and would allow access to even sensitive campus facilities like locker rooms based on the gender a given student or university employee identifies with, Bochenski felt he had to speak out.

"I felt like there was a lack of transparency" in the way the rule was being developed, Bochenski said on this episode of Plain Talk.

"Compelling speech and forcing ideology on our students, our children and our community is abhorrent," he wrote in a Facebook post touting a letter from the North Dakota Catholic Conference objecting to the policy.

How have people responded to his public statements? "It's been mean on both sides," he said.

Also on this episode, Jim Hobart, a pollster with Public Opinion Strategies, talks about a new survey of North Dakotans showing strong support for coal mining, coal-fired power, and carbon capture. Hobart says that despite the often divisive national debate about energy and carbon capture, North Dakotans show strong consensus support for coal and carbon capture projects, even across partisan lines.

Read the polling memo here:

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284: Can Fargo be better under new leadership?
Fri Jan 14 12:49:47 EST 2022
"We have opportunities that are being missed," says Shannon Roers Jones.

Roes Jones is currently a state representative, having been elected to the House from District 26 in 2016. She was just re-elected to that seat by a small but comfortable margin in 2020, and now she'd like to be mayor of Fargo.

On this episode of Plain Talk, she talks about why she'd be better for that job than incumbent Tim Mahoney, what the biggest challenges facing Fargo are, what it's like to campaign in Fargo's relatively new approval voting process, and what she'll do with her legislative seat if she wins this election.

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283: Rep. Pollert says goodbye to legislative leadership, Rep. Howe says hello (maybe) to a Sec. of State run
Wed Jan 12 12:40:32 EST 2022
After more than two decades in the North Dakota legislature, having served in some consequential ways, as an influential appropriator and eventually leader the majority Republican caucus, Rep. Chet Pollert is calling it a career.

On this episode of Plain Talk, he talked about that decision, as well as what changed during his tenure in office, and what challenges North Dakota might face in the future.

"There was a decorum," Pollert said of politics when he first got started in the legislature. "There was a process...and we seem to have gotten away from that a little more."

He said modern politics have become more personal, and more divisive. "I want us to be able to fight like cats and dogs but also be able to respect one another," he said.

He has some personal experience with how personal state politics has gotten. Under Pollert's leadership last year, the state House took the extraordinary step of expelling a member for the first time in state history. Luke Simons, at the time a Representative from a Dickinson-area district, was voted out of his seat after being accused by multiple women, including two fellow Republican lawmakers, in a landslide vote that included a 2-1 majority among his fellow Republicans.

"I felt it had to be done," Pollert said of the vote, though he added that it was "a very unpleasant time" during which both he and his wife received ugly phone calls and messages from Simons supporters.

Pollert said his proudest accomplishment as a lawmaker was showing his children the importance of public service. As for what challenges face North Dakota's leaders going forward? Protecting baseload energy production, and the reliability of the power grid, are at the top of his list as well as managing the Legacy Fund so that it can be a resource for funding the state's needs as oil activity, and thus oil revenues, decline in future decades.

Rep. Michael Howe, a Republican from West Fargo, also joined the show to talk about his interest in running for Secretary of State. The incumbent, Al Jaeger, has held that office since 1992. "I was in kindergarten then," Howe said. Now that Jaeger has announced he's retiring, Howe said it's time for some new leadership.

He'd like the office to get better at handling business filings, which has been a recurring theme of Secretary of State campaigns for years now. He also spoke about how he'd rebuild trust in elections, at a time when many Americans have lost it.

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282: A deeply unsexy conversation that could result in some very sexy political reform
Mon Jan 10 11:51:32 EST 2022
I make a living writing and talking about politics, and I divide the topics I cover up into two categories.

First, there's the sexy stuff. The hot-button stuff. Topics that immediately stir up interest from the audience. It's the stuff we spend most of our time talking about. How big should the government be, and how much should it cost us? Stuff like that.

Then there's the unsexy stuff. Like blockchain.

What is blockchain? North Dakota Chief Information Officer Shawn Riley knows. He's an advocate for it. He tried to explain it to this humble political wonk on this episode of Plain Talk, and what he said makes a lot of sense.

Blockchain is a way of recording transactions in a way that's simultaneously secure and transparent. He believes it could be used in everything from recording title histories for property to tracking mineral rights and, yes, even voting.

Nerd stuff, I know, but the impact could be very sexy in terms of that thing we all care about, which is how much government is costing us.

Riley estimates that North Dakota has something like $1.2 billion in what he calls "tech debt," which is to say investments in dated technology that needs to be upgraded. There's no holding back the rapid advance of technology, but Riley argues that if we implement blockchain for the information our government is built around - all the little transactions and data the state records and keeps - upgrading that technology could be a lot cheaper in the future.

281: Who would want to run for public office right now?
Fri Jan 07 12:19:42 EST 2022
We all know how divided we are as a country. Politics has always been an ugly business, but it's perhaps uglier right now than any time in recent memory.

Given that, who would want to run for public office, and expose themselves to the brutal acrimony of an increasingly uncivil process?

On this episode of Plain Talk, I spoke with two candidates for the North Dakota legislature about that very topic.

Mike Motschenbacher is running for the state House in District 47 in the Bismarck area. Mason Wede is running for the state Senate in District 29. They're both Republicans, and they both say that, as bad as things are, it's a job somebody has to do.

Our state, and our communities, has challenges. There are budgets that must be written. And if principled grownups aren't willing to do those jobs, who will?

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280: Jan. 6 riot anniversary, and how businesses can find/keep employees
Wed Jan 05 13:27:54 EST 2022
Between the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic malaise, America's employers have been in a crunch. Not only are their costs rising due to supply line snaggles, but many of them are having trouble finding and keeping workers.

Jonathan Holth is one a North Dakota employer. He is a co-founder of the Toasted Frog restaurant in downtown Grand Forks, and has since opened additional locations in Bismarck and Fargo. He's also the co-owner of the Urban Stampede Coffee Bar in Grand Forks. On this episode of Plain Talk, he discusses what his business has been doing to keep workers on the job, which includes getting creative with leave time and other benefits.

Among the creativity is an accepting approach to employees struggling with addiction. Holth himself is nearly 14 years sober, and was appointed by Governor Doug Burgum to serve on the advisory council for North Dakota's Office of Recovery Reinvented.

Also on this episode, co-host Chad Oban and I talk about the upcoming anniversary of the January 6 riot in Washington D.C. and the growing mainstream acceptance of political extremism in America.

279: How worried should you be about education testing decline?
Mon Jan 03 11:45:08 EST 2022
One thing I think about, as our kids return to school from a long holiday break, is how hard it can be to get them back into the education groove.

That challenge is perhaps on the minds of parents more so now than before, given the way COVID-19 has turned our lives upside down.

In October Kirsten Baesler, the Superintendent of North Dakota's public school system, released data from testing showing significant pandemic-era declines among the state's students in proficiency levels for English and mathematics.

How worried should that make you?

Perhaps not as worried as you think you should be says Dr. Dann Conn.

Conn is a professor of teacher education and kinesiology at Minot State University. He's also the co-author of a book, Unraveling the Assessment Industrial Complex, which calls into question the purpose and efficacies of the very testing regime being used to measure educational declines.

"Kids are resilient," Conn said on this episode of Plain Talk. "They'll bounce back."

He argues that parents, educators, and policymakers ought to be more focused on what we might call real-world outcomes than testing scores.

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