GRAND FORKS — Last week’s recall election in California might have called to mind the first attempt to remove a governor from office by petition — but nobody remembers. It happened long ago in a state far away from national media centers and corridors of power.
That’s right! It happened here in North Dakota, six weeks short of 100 years ago.
Nor did North Dakotans stop at recalling the governor. They went after the attorney general and the state agriculture commissioner as well. All three were booted out of office.
The only other time a governor has been ousted in this way was in 2003, when Arnold Schwarzenegger defeated Gray Davis to take over as governor of California.
California’s current governor, Gavin Newsom, escaped recall. A majority voted no on the question of whether he should be removed from office. The same thing occurred in the only other attempted recall of a governor. Scott Walker of Wisconsin escaped that fate in 2012.
The California recall campaign drew national attention because it focused both on national issues and on the sharp divisions between the Republican and Democratic parties. Both campaigned vigorously in California.
The North Dakota recall drew attention, too, but not for those reasons. The issues were unique to North Dakota, but the recall was unprecedented in American history, and it helped establish North Dakota as one of the most enthusiastic of the reform states, those that embraced a series of election reforms advanced in what is called The Progressive Era, encompassing roughly the first two decades of the 20th century. These reforms included direct election of U.S. senators, primary elections to choose party candidates, plus recalls, initiatives and referendums. North Dakota adopted most of them while John Burke, a nationally prominent figure in the Progressive movement, was governor, from 1906 to 1912.
Recall came later, after the Nonpartisan League came to power. The League presented itself as a part of the Republican Party. It advocated state ownership of some industries. The Bank of North Dakota — unique in the United States — and the North Dakota Mill and Elevator are the League’s legacy. That and the recall process itself, which the League promoted.
Opponents of the League used its own recall idea against the members of the Industrial Commission, which had been established to manage the state-owned industries. Its members were — and still are — the governor, the attorney general and the agriculture commissioner.
It’s likely North Dakota has never seen another election so hotly contested. William Lemke was the attorney general under fire. The collection of his papers at the University of North Dakota's Chester Fritz Library contains several boxes of letters both to and from Lemke asking for money, advising activists, recruiting poll watchers and the like. Alas for Lemke and his colleagues, Gov. Lynn J. Frazier and Agriculture Commissioner John N. Hagen, voters thought otherwise.
R.A. Nestos won the governorship as the candidate of the Independent Voters Association, which owed its existence in no small part to Theodore Nelson, grandfather of Ed Schafer.
Schafer served as governor of North Dakota for eight years beginning in 1992. As governor, of course, he served as chairman of the Industrial Commission.
Nestos himself was a remarkable figure. He immigrated from Norway as a teenager, enrolled in a public school in Traill County as a first-grader, mastered English and earned a law degree from UND, all within five years. His enduring impact on North Dakota history was to accept the results of another election held on the same day. Opponents of the League had referred legislation creating the bank and the mill. Although the League officials lost, voters supported its program, and Nestos vowed to make the bank and the mill work. Both are now important parts of the North Dakota economy.
Recall is back in fashion in North Dakota. Petitions are circulating to recall a state legislator from Valley City, school board members in Fargo and city officials in Horace. Last week, demonstrators outside the Grand Forks School District offices threatened action against School Board members.
Nor has Gov. Doug Burgum been overlooked in the recent enthusiasm for recall elections. A Republican splinter group is behind this effort. It’s led by Michael Coachman of Larimore, who has run for the governor’s office in the past.
As for the League officials recalled from office a century ago? All of them continued in public office. Gov. Frazier was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1922 and served there until 1940. Attorney General Lemke was elected to Congress and served 18 years, though not continuously, until his death in 1950. Hagen returned to his job as agriculture commissioner in 1936 and served there until 1938.
Nestos was defeated for reelection in 1924. The winner was A.G. Sorlie, for whom the bridge in downtown Grand Forks is named.
The sequence of events from the emergence of the League through the recall and its aftermath helped re-energize William Langer’s political career, and he came to dominate North Dakota politics beginning with his first governorship in 1932 and ending with his death in 1959, after serving in the U.S. Senate for 18 years.
These long-ago events have little bearing on the California election last week, except establishing the precedent of recall elections. In North Dakota, the results of an election a century ago remain important, not just historically but to the North Dakota of today.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.