GRAND FORKS — Politics cannot be dull. Even in a one-party state there are programs to pursue, ambitions to satisfy and scores to settle. All of this is apparent in the election cycle just getting underway in North Dakota. Already, Republicans have election contests that reflect these political imperatives.
Perhaps the most consequential of these is in legislative District 8. The state Capitol is visible from the south end of the district, which extends north and west of Bismarck. Location isn’t the important variable here, however; rather, it is incumbency. One of the most senior and most powerful persons in state politics is the apparent target of an electoral coup. His name is Jeff Delzer.
Consider his resume: First elected to the House of Representatives in 1992, Delzer sat out one session, then returned in 1996. He’s been in the Legislature since, for a total tenure of 26 years or 13 legislative sessions. Delzer served as Speaker of the House in 2007. He currently chairs both the House Appropriations Committee and the interim Budget Section. He’s also a member of the Emergency Commission, which decides whether and how to help agencies that might run into trouble with their budgets.
Some legislators may have a fuller, more rounded view of the state budget, but none has Delzer’s depth of knowledge. His eye for detail sets the tone of the budget debate and influences the result. Although he is crabby about details, he can also be wryly entertaining, so he’s often good for both a chuckle and an insight. That’s a powerful combination, especially for reporters. State officials aren’t always so appreciative. Nor are his colleagues, some of whom believe that Delzer has had a doleful influence on state budgets.
Blogger Rob Port alluded to this in one of his columns. He quoted a Republican legislator, not named, saying that “Delzer has been selling gloom and doom in regard to the numbers” – kind of like the grinch who locked up the treasury.
Delzer earned this reputation. He delivered the dressing down immediately ahead of Gov. Doug Burgum’s speech to legislators last session, and he was behind the move to strip the governor of power to present budget bills. He also opposed one of Burgum’s signature initiatives, the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. Delzer engineered a move to delay recording the earnings of the state’s Legacy Fund by a single day. Accounting for revenues on Aug. 1 rather than July 31 would have made the state’s resources look smaller, because the books close at midnight on the last day of July. Burgum won that round; he vetoed the move as unconstitutional.
Both of these guys are Republicans, remember.
Delzer may be the personification of the nemesis that Burgum described in his State of the State address in Grand Forks last week, “that piece of our culture, that self-imposed limitation that somehow in North Dakota we’re too small or we’re too distant and too cold…” He didn’t add “and too poor.” In an interview during the last session, Burgum said he believes it’s possible to be both rich and conservative. Conservatives needn’t be misers, in other words, just strategic.
Last week, the Bismarck Tribune reported that Delzer will have opposition for re-election – from Republicans. Here’s the situation: First, his colleague, Rep. Vernon Lanning announced his retirement. He’s served two terms, which is enough, he told the Tribune. “It’s time for some new blood in there.” Lanning told the Tribune he’d visited with the challengers, Dave Nehring and David Aandahl.
Aandahl and Nehring said they are running as a team, and they echoed Lannings’s theme. Nehring told the Tribune that the pair are not challenging Delzer himself, but rather “challenging the status quo. We felt as though we would be a strong team. … We feel it’s time for a change, quite honestly.” The Tribune quoted Aandahl as well. “Now’s the time for conservatives to lead North Dakota into the future. ...”
While it’s hard to imagine a legislator more conservative on fiscal issues than Rep. Delzer, his mindset might frustrate Republicans with other policy objectives. Ultimately the explanation for this challenge must lie with the three pillars of politics, which are ambition, policy and payback. Personal ambition is one potential motive. Policy ambition is another; a right-leaning group of Republicans has been building a “Liberty Caucus” in the House. Or somebody might be getting even.
In any case, Delzer said, “I’m planning to run and I’m hoping for the endorsement.”
Decision time is in mid-March. The primary election is in early June. If a race develops, voters in District 8 will make a decision that could have huge consequences for the state. The district is largely rural, although the growth of Bismarck is encroaching from the south, which could help decide the fate of the grinch in the Legislature.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.