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Column: Democrats need to step up as a minority party

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opinion Jamestown, 58401
Jamestown North Dakota 121 3rd St NW 58401

By Lloyd Omdahl, Columnist

While moderate Republicans struggle to take back their party, the North Dakota Democrats have a problem of becoming one.

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Over the past 20 years, Democrats have seen their numbers in the Legislature dwindle from a majority in the Senate down to 14, with Republicans holding 33 seats. In the House, Democrats have 23 seats while Republicans hold 71.

Prospects for legislative gains in 2014 are less than cheerful for Democrats. Historically, the party of the president tends to lose seats in off-year elections.

As for the statewide offices, the Republicans now have all of them and the Democrats have a short bench going into 2014.

If elections mean anything, the state has become more conservative over the past 20 years — even though the U.S. Senate elections seem to be exceptions.

The only conclusion that can be drawn is that the North Dakota Democrats are hardly able to assume the duties of a minority party in a two-party system.

This is unfortunate for the state as a whole. In our democracy, minority parties have two primary functions: holding the majority party accountable and offering alternative policies.

While the small cadre of Democratic legislators probably does the best they can, their numbers limit their effectiveness. It is obvious that if they want to be a party, they need to take a serious look at options outside of the traditional legislature.

In North Dakota, we have two legislative processes. First, we have the state Legislature itself. In this forum, the Democrats are hard pressed to force accountability because of their small numbers.

Second, there is the other legislative process involving the initiative and referendum where “bad” legislation can be killed or “good” legislation can be proposed by a citizen petition.

If Democrats are serious about being a party, they need to quit speculating about major gains in the Legislature and accept the reality that they may be a minority party for a long time.

They need to utilize the second legislative process more aggressively. It is forum in which they can force accountability and propose alternative policies.

But circulating petitions to collect signatures is tedious and challenging work. That is why interest groups hire circulators to do the job. However, if Democrats want to be effective over the long run, they will need to create a permanent infrastructure and a responsible process that can be utilized to accept this option year after year.

But can the Democrats mobilize their loyalists to do the job? Or have they become content as a minority party living on hope?

Personally, I have a considerable investment in an effective two-party system. I was one of the insurgents in the Nonpartisan League who invested a lot of time creating the current two-party system. It took 10 years, involving scores of meetings, to arrive at the two-party system in 1956.

Just as today’s Republicans are fighting internal factions, most of those meetings involved internal fighting in the Nonpartisan League and then initially in the tumultuous marriage of the Insurgent League with the Democrats.

It wasn’t fun and it burned up a lot of time. So now I wonder whether or not the Democrats of today have the kind of commitment it takes to maintain the two-party system they’ve been handed.

If there ever was a time North Dakota needed political accountability and policy alternatives, it is now. Many decisions are being made and the application of all points of view can make those decisions better.

(Lloyd Omdahl, of Grand Forks, is a former lieutenant governor, state tax commissioner and state budget director)

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