GRAND FORKS — The most interesting figure in North Dakota politics today is Rick Becker of Bismarck. He heads the Bastiat Caucus, a group of right-leaning members of the House of Representatives. Despite the unfamiliar name, the caucus has had an impact in state politics. Rep. Becker himself plays a kind of puckish role. This was evident again last week, when he made news in two different ways, both of them provocative.
First, he applied to be state health officer. This isn’t so far-fetched professionally. Becker is a medical doctor with some training in immunology and medical statistics, both helpful in the health officer’s job. The outlandish part of the application is that Becker has been a conspicuous critic of Gov. Doug Burgum, a fellow Republican. His application for health officer taunted the governor, who’s lost three health officers in the space of four months, with the last incumbent lasting just 11 days.
Becker used the application as a kind of platform, outlining his own plan, which he called “freedom not fear.” In his letter of application, Becker wrote, “It takes a slightly different approach than has been used so far.”
That’s a considerable understatement. Becker attached a two-page “plan outline” that directly challenged most of Burgum’s protocols for addressing the virus, including mass testing, contact tracing and case reporting. In every instance, Becker emphasized personal decision-making. An example: “Private business will decide what, if any, policies and procedures they will implement, and customers will make their commerce decisions accordingly.” This is a direct challenge to Burgum’s so-called “Smart Restart” initiative, which involves color coding risk assessment.
Becker threw up similar challenges in other areas affected by the pandemic. For public schools, he said, “Kids shall be allowed in school face-to-face, masks optional, teachers provided plexiglass barriers upon request … Eliminate restrictions for parents to employ homeschool style pods and co-ops, so parents have another option to best have their children educated.”
“Allow parents the choice,” Becker said, “always a good mantra.”
His recommendations were similar for colleges and universities and nursing homes. For colleges and universities: “Eliminate the concerted effort to mold our youth into pliable and compliant citizens.” For the elderly: “Some will argue that it is better to live six months with the joy of being with loved ones than to live two years in safeguarded but lonely isolation. Let’s allow the elderly to decide.”
Punctuating all of this, Becker rejected penalties for violations of health department orders, “because we aren’t China.”
Becker conceded that he doesn’t expect to be offered the job, but that’s not the point. The point is that he seized an unlikely opportunity to attract attention to his own program. However outrageous his ideas might appear, they are undeniably appealing to thousands of North Dakotans. Witness the uprising against masks, a populist wave that Burgum has spent thousands of dollars to tamp down, even employing the electronic messaging boards designed to warn of highway hazards. Lately they’ve carried the message, “Mask Up ND.”
While Becker may not be serious about becoming health officer, he is serious about building a political movement, and his application for the job was a clever strategy in that continuing effort.
Becker is not without political ambition either. He was a candidate for governor at the Republican Party convention in 2016, where he and Burgum finished behind Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem. Unlike Burgum, Becker bowed out of the race after the convention; Burgum took his ambition to the primary — and won.
The relationship between Becker and Burgum has been fraught since then, and Becker’s clever intervention in this year’s election campaign could signal his intention to take another run at the governor’s office in 2024.
Becker found another way to taunt the governor this election cycle. He suggested that voters could embolden Republican legislators against the governor by voting for an independent candidate, Michael Coachman, who received 10% of the vote in the June primary, which was held entirely by mail. Of course, a write-in vote takes more effort — but not so much more if you’re sitting at the kitchen table filling out a ballot.
Lawmakers are already primed for confrontation with the governor after his expensive interference in some legislative contests in the primary election, notably a successful effort to defeat the chair of the House Appropriations Committee. Burgum’s self-funded Dakota Leadership PAC also backed the successful state treasurer candidate against a Bastiat Caucus member.
Burgum’s money is evident in this campaign as well. Flyers bearing the Dakota Leadership disclaimer arrived in our mailbox last week. These backed Kirsten Baesler, the incumbent superintendent of public instruction, nominally a nonpartisan office, and opposed Measure One on the ballot, a constitutional amendment that would enlarge the state Board of Higher Education. Is it worth remembering that the larger board plan emerged from the wreckage of Burgum’s own higher education taskforce, which recommended three separate boards? The option for voters is to reject the amendment and continue the present seven-member board.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.