GRAND FORKS — Shelley Lenz wants voters to know: she’s not like the Democrats on television.
The western North Dakota veterinarian, running to unseat Republican Gov. Doug Burgum, takes great pains on this point. Yes, she has an Ivy League degree (a pharmacology doctorate from Penn), and yes, she has co-authored some academic articles.
But she’s much more interested in talking about herself as a dirt-under-the-fingernails westerner who’s traveled the world to work with animals. She likes to talk about her North Dakota ancestors — all the way back to the late 1800s — and says her family has one of the state’s oldest cattle brands.
Although she’s a Democratic-NPL candidate, she leans hard on Nonpartisan League heritage, which frames her campaign as grassroots populism, and very much not urban liberalism. In a lengthy interview with Forum News Service, she tentatively called herself a “progressive conservative.”
This is a long list of credentials that essentially mean Lenz, despite the "D" after her name, is not a Chuck Schumer/Nancy Pelosi liberal. For Democrats seeking statewide office, this is a careful kind of messaging that’s become increasingly necessary as North Dakota has drifted hard to the right in the last 10 years and hasn’t elected a Democratic governor in nearly three decades.
She even reveals that, in 2016, she voted for Burgum.
“I voted for Doug Burgum because he was a businessman and I’m a businesswoman. I didn’t know much about him, but he was an outsider,” Lenz said. “I assumed he was going to be a moderate conservative.”
And that’s as far as she goes.
“Out here in western North Dakota,” the resident of the Killdeer and Dickinson area says, “he’s just not getting the job done.”
The Nov. 3 election is now a month away, and Lenz holds little back on Burgum, her tech mogul-turned-politician opponent. She’s disappointed in how little he’s invested in the state — especially in the west — despite the state’s oil prosperity.
Lenz is horrified with Burgum’s handling of coronavirus. The infection has grown significantly in North Dakota, recently making it the national leader in recent cases per capita. Burgum has had three state health officers resign since the beginning of the pandemic. Lenz recently released a COVID response plan, arguing for a statewide mask mandate and condemning Burgum’s handling of the pandemic.
"This is where the mama bear comes out,” she said. “... I just feel like he's in denial of the depth of the crisis."
Mike Schrimpf, a spokesman for Burgum’s campaign, argued in an emailed statement that Burgum has deftly balanced his responsibilities through the crisis, both on the economy and on safety.
“Governor Burgum’s focus on individual responsibility has driven the administration’s decision making since the outbreak began and is saving lives and livelihoods,” Schrimpf said. “His focus on common-sense guidelines and personal responsibility is why North Dakota has not had to fully shutter the economy like other states and is better positioned than most states to overcome the health, economic and fiscal impact of the pandemic.”
But beyond coronavirus, the main points of Lenz’s campaign are based on bread-and-butter economic issues, centered on working-class North Dakotans and community investment.
“(Burgum) didn’t understand that the way we support our oil industry — and the same with our ag industry, but I’m out west — is through thriving communities, and stable communities,” she said. “What does that take? That is child care, health care, education, rent. … You invest in things that bring stability to a community, which is the working families.”
Democrats around the state are in relative lockstep on this kind of message. In Grand Forks, for instance, where the party is hoping to retake ground lost in a 2016 GOP blowout, legislative candidates are running on a chorus of education, infrastructure and health care. It’s a message that appears carefully calculated to work on white, working-class voters that swung from Barack Obama to Donald Trump between 2012 and 2016.
Will a similar strategy — calculated distance from national Democrats and a focus on kitchen-table economics — work for Lenz? It’s a longshot, since she’s against a Republican incumbent in a deep-red state. Very few political observers, in either party, see a win as likely. This is much more likely to be a year when Democrats boost their marginal caucus in the Legislature rather than storm the governor’s mansion.
Should Lenz win, though, she’ll face a January session that will bring hard choices about state funding. Although the state’s finances look like they’ll hold firm through the end of the biennium next summer, the pandemic has dropped the bottom out of the oil market — demand has plummeted as the world works from home and as planes remain on the ground — and North Dakota’s oil and gas tax revenue. As of July, average oil prices were down 25% against state forecasts, and average daily oil production was down about 28%.
It’s not clear how a Lenz administration would solve this. Asked about a potential budget crunch, she points out that her running mate, farmer and former legislator Ben Vig, would be an expert on the matter and that the state needs to diversify its economy to boost revenues.
A budget crunch could arrive in just a few months, as state leaders plan for the next biennium. That’s far sooner than any governor could create new revenue streams without new taxes.
Pressed on this point, Lenz said regardless of what happens, paid family leave is an important resource for North Dakotans as the crisis continues, and that she’d call an emergency session immediately upon becoming governor to begin working out the future of the state. And she said that her ability to build a team — one that can take on the state’s fiscal challenges — is precisely her role.
Lenz is counting both on those abilities and on her rural credentials to at least make a strong showing this November. She is not a polished politician — for example, she slipped up a few times during a lengthy interview, once calling her western North Dakota neighbors the “best God d**ned people” before quickly softening to “gosh-darned.” But that’s part of the charm.
“There’s three things, I say, that money can’t buy. And that’s love, home-grown tomatoes and grit,” she said.