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Friday Mailbag: Fufeng mill, school choice, Supreme Court vacancy, and Trump's cynical political calculations

If you'd like to correspond with Rob, send your emails to rport@forumcomm.com.

Fufeng Group USA Chief Operating Officer Eric Chutorash meets with the Local Government Advisory Committee, which includes select members from all four of Grand Forks’ property-taxing groups Wednesday, in this photo from Jan. 12, 2022.Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
Fufeng Group USA Chief Operating Officer Eric Chutorash meets with the Local Government Advisory Committee, which includes select members from all four of Grand Forks’ property-taxing groups, on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022.
Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald
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MINOT, N.D. — This is the toughest time of the year in our part of the world, isn't it?

The holidays are over. The days are dark and cold. The novelty of running the snowblower has worn off, and now clearing the driveway is just more work. We can look ahead to the spring warm-up, but that's still weeks and probably a couple more blizzards away. Besides, the warmer weather brings with it that melting period where everything is wet and dirty.

Still, all that aside, I love it here. Our weather is interesting, at least. Think of those poor saps in San Diego who mostly know what their weather is going to be pretty much every day.

I'm bored just writing about it.

Anyway, let's get on with this week's mailbag. Lots of great questions. If you'd like to correspond with me, send your email to rport@forumcomm.com . Yes, you can Facebook message me, or direct message me on Twitter, but I get a lot of messages, and email is the place where it's easiest for me to manage everything.

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If your message is used in the column, it may be edited for clarity and brevity.

MORE FROM ROB PORT
A lot of people are watching these Republican primaries. North Dakota's government is dominated by Republicans, and there is a pitched battle going on right now for the soul of the NDGOP. These legislative races are the trenches in that battle. So far, based on one of the few objective data points we have, it appears the traditional conservatives are positioned to keep their hold on the party.

"Thank you for bringing this to light," Bob writes, referring to my column about the Fufeng corn milling project in Grand Forks. "As I was reading your article I was hoping to see you make some reference to industries already under heavy Chinese influence: meat packing; Hollywood just to name a couple. Again thanks for your investigative work."

Byron adds: "You are right on point with your recent article on the Chinese corn milling plant in GF."

For that piece I was actually riffing on an excellent bit of reporting done by Sam Easter for the Grand Forks Herald. Definitely go and read that article.

Bob is right about China's larger influence on our society. This particular column was actually written for print. That's sometimes hard to distinguish for digital readers who see no practical difference, but on Wednesdays and Saturdays, I write columns for our print versions that also appear in digital format.

Those columns, unlike my exclusively digital work, have a word limit.

I would have loved to get a bit more explicit than I did about China's influence in our economy and culture, through agriculture and entertainment, as Bob mentions, among other avenues, but, alas, I only had so much room.

Still, I hope people take to heart what's at stake here. Yes, doing business with China is lucrative. On paper, and ignoring the realities of what China's regime is, the Fufeng deal in Grand Forks is great.

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But how long can our economic interests trump our moral obligations?

"I listened to your podcast today about teachers and school choice, very interesting," Brandt writes, referring to a recent episode of Plain Talk with guest Nick Archuleta from North Dakota United. "One thing I didn't hear about school choice is the reality of who's local control gets to be the final authority? If the state gave, just for the sake of argument, $5000 to every student who wanted to use that to attend any school they would like, I struggle with a private school or charter school telling that student and parent, we won't let you come to our school because you are a student with disabilities, or think differently then we do — as an example. I have a niece that will be a very high dollar student — lot of medical issues, I know there will not be a private school or charter school that would allow her to attend due to the great cost she will be for that school. Just what I've struggled with in the debate of school choice."

I'm embedding that full episode for those who want to listen to the conversation.

I think Brandt brings up a completely valid point. Chad Oban (my co-host on Wednesday episodes) and Nick brought up the question of special needs students as well and made compelling arguments.

I wonder if that problem could be addressed by requiring schools who want "voucher" money (or whatever hypothetical funding we're making available) to accept students with special needs.

If need be, perhaps those students could also have the additional state funding follow them.

I love our public schools. We tried a private school here in Minot with our daughter Layla and went back to our public schools because, frankly, they're better. I'm a product of the public schools. My wife is, too. Heck, she's on the verge of being a public school teacher (she's just finishing her student teaching).

But I think we can support our public schools while also shaping our education policies create more education choices for parents and students. The school choice debate gets portrayed as being an either-or question. Either we support private schools, or we support public schools.

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I don't think it has to be a binary choice.

" I read your article today about the Supreme Court vacancy ," Collin writes. "I agree wholeheartedly with you. However, the reality of today’s politics is that President Biden really has little choice but to nominate a black woman to the Court. With his campaign promise (which he never should have made) and the failure of voting rights legislation (so far), he is really boxed in. Further, there is no real “upside” for him to do otherwise. Wish it weren’t so but here we are. I do suspect that whoever is confirmed, most likely a black woman, is not going to give a second thought to how she was advantaged by her race and gender. I will add a question to the thoughts. Is identify politics worse than label politics? I have Republican and Democrat friends who have outright stated to me that “i would never vote for an (R or D). You can fill it in. There are members of the Senate who will never vote to confirm a nominee of the other party. Maybe both are equally reprehensible."

No, identity politics isn't any better than label politics. I'm not sure there is even really a distinction, other than one set of traits are intrinsic and the other chosen.

Both are side effects of being stupidly closed-minded.

I'm not much inclined to feel sympathy for Joe Biden boxing himself in, though. He's the one who made a campaign promise to appoint a Supreme Court justice based on gender and skin color. That he did it for political advantage hardly improves the decision.

How should we expect our leaders to measure their actions? By the political opportunities they offer? Or what's right for our country?

I would argue that what's right for our country is to treat people as individuals, and not members of voting blocs to be pandered to.

I despise identity politics because they divide us by filing Americans into groups. You are not your skin color. Or your gender. Or your sexual orientation. You are an individual, with unique experiences and views, and should be treated as such.

"You and I are polar opposites when it comes to politics but I've always read your columns," Kristi writes, responding to my column about the grim calculations behind Trump's embrace of vaccinations . "It's important to get the views from all sides then make up one's own mind. I do give Trump credit for getting the covid vaccine on the fast-track. He stumbled badly at convincing his supporters that it was a good thing, however. I'm sad that people resisting the vaccine are having their lives forever changed by covid, or at the very worst, dying. It's hard not to judge them for plain stupidity and selfishness. The political chasms that exist today certainly didn't begin with Donald Trump, Mr. 'I alone can fix it.' His rhetoric has sown so much distrust in our government and vaccine resistance is a big part of that. I don't believe Trump is worried so much that people are dying. The fact that voters are dying is more of an issue for him."

I agree with Kristi. If it were left-leaning voters who were dying at disproportionate rates because they were unvaccinated, I don't think Trump would care. But it's his voters dying in swing states, and so he does.

I also don't believe Donald Trump believes many of the kooky things his base does. This is just my speculation, as an observer, but I don't think he really believes the 2020 election was stolen. I don't think he's actually against abortion. What drives his positions on those issues is political calculation. He's identified a group of people who will support him, and since those issues are important to them, he takes positions on them he thinks they'll like.

I don't even think that he, personally, is a bigot. I think he just doesn't mind pandering to bigots if they'll vote for him. And, yes, that's a bit of a Nuremberg defense . "I was just trying to get their votes" really isn't any moral defense any more than "I was just following orders" was.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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