Something unusual is happening in North Dakota politics, something that may be portentous even if it’s not unprecedented. There aren’t words enough in this column to deal with the precedents; instead let’s concentrate on the portents.
The governor has taken an interest in legislative campaigns. No! That’s understating what’s true.
Gov. Doug Burgum has staked money on legislative campaigns — and on one campaign especially. This is the campaign for the state House of Representatives in District 8, a big swathe of territory generally north of Bismarck. Although the district is largely rural, you can see the state capitol building from the southern edge, even on a cloudy day.
Location isn’t everything in politics. Power is everything in politics, and this is a power struggle. Burgum is taking on one of the most powerful members of the Legislature, Jeff Delzer, who chairs the Appropriations Committee in the House of Representatives. Burgum has had early success. Republicans in the district failed to endorse Delzer, a 30-year veteran of the House. Unbowed, Delzer entered the primary election challenging the candidates endorsed by the district convention.
The result has been a quite expensive face-off between Delzer and other candidates in the district. A flurry of advertising has appeared in newspapers serving the district, including the Bismarck Tribune and several weekly newspapers. The critical piece, however, is a flier mailed to voters. The disclaimer, required by law, says the advertisement in favor of endorsed candidates is paid for by the Dakota Leadership PAC. You’d have to be an insider to know the rest of the story. This political action committee is closely connected to Burgum’s campaign. Former Burgum staffers, ambitious and savvy operatives, are behind the PAC.
Robbie Lauf, a Mayville, N.D., native, NDSU graduate and the committee’s registered agent, was one of Gov. Burgum’s first hires. He’s just returned to North Dakota after two years at Harvard University. Lauf’s not hiding anything. “We’re totally transparent,” he said in a telephone conversation on Monday, May 4. “We’re not hiding. We’re registered with the secretary of state,” in accordance with state law.
As a disclaimer here, I know and like Lauf. He’s smart, strategic and, maybe, representative of the new generation of political operatives. He thinks so anyway. In our conversation he conceded that a PAC might sit out a legislative primary contest, waiting until partisan voters select candidates in a contested primary. That strategy doesn’t work so well in a state dominated by a single party, however. The aim of his committee is to advance Burgum’s agenda. The District 8 campaign is one part of that strategy. It’s the only legislative race the PAC is involved with so far, Lauf said.
Burgum’s interest in defeating Delzer hasn’t been a secret. Nor, truthfully, has his motivation. Earlier this week, the rightward-leaning “Minuteman Blog” suggested that the Dakota Leadership PAC had put money into the campaign against Delzer because of his vote against the Theodore Roosevelt Library, one of Burgum’s signature initiatives. Lauf is a member of the library’s board of directors. It’s true that Delzer voted against a state appropriation to build the library — really more of a museum — but that’s not the basis of his involvement in the campaign against Delzer. The two simply don’t see things in the same way.
Delzer is a “glass-half-empty” kind of guy. Burgum believes in budgeting from plenty — that is to say, let’s fund what we can as opposed to Delzer’s let’s-guard-the-checkbook approach. Their disagreement became public during the organizational session of the Legislature after the 2018 elections. Burgum felt humiliated by a legislative dictum, delivered by Delzer, that executive budget bills wouldn’t be considered; instead, the state budget would be built on legislative projections. Burgum’s supporters have complained loudly about the consequences, which include — in their assessment — a budgeting process that is harder to follow and creates opportunities to hide money that the state might otherwise be able to spend.
This isn’t a trivial matter, of course, but it doesn’t get to the beating heart of the dispute. The beating heart is the question of power.
And that, political junkies, is what is so fascinating about this dispute, because — your money is safe on this bet —Burgum’s involvement in this race will have repercussions in the next legislative session. Of course, Burgum had problems enough with lawmakers throughout his first term in office, including standoffs, lawsuits and state Supreme Court judgments. There’s likely no end of that, given developments last week.
Here, as a portent, is Chet Pollert, Republican majority leader in the state House, who supports Delzer (and tends to understate things): “If Jeff wins, great. But there will be some difficulties. If Jeff loses, there will be a lot more difficulties.”
That’s only the start, of course. If a governor can influence, or even control, legislative elections, what becomes of separation of powers? The state constitution gives the governor relatively little power compared to the Legislature, as last session’s budget battle indicates. Money could change that equation, and Burgum has money.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.