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Mike Jacobs: Week brings big political news in North Dakota

The most consequential political news of the week involves North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven. Donald Trump endorsed him for re-election, which could dampen the insurgency backing state Rep. Rick Becker.

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Whew! It was quite a week in North Dakota politics, with developments on several fronts. We’re going to flaunt the norms of newspaper journalism and report the most recent developments ahead of the most consequential and the most sensational.

Read on! We’ll get there.

On considering these developments, please remember that this column deadlines on Sunday, ahead of Wednesday publication. Things could change.

So starting with the newest news:

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The discovery of Indigenous remains and artifacts has happened elsewhere, too. But it may be more consequential here, given the fraught relationship between UND and North Dakota’s Indigenous nations.

North Dakota Democrats held their state convention in Minot late in the week. By all accounts it was a chaotic affair, with the convention often in recess as party officials trolled for potential candidates. In the end they ended up short. No one stepped up to run for secretary of state nor state tax commissioner. Both of these are important offices. The secretary of state oversees elections and the tax commissioner – well the job title is also the job description. An earlier generation of Democrats used the tax office to groom three U.S. senators: Byron Dorgan, Kent Conrad and Heidi Heitkamp.

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Candidates were found for six other offices. The most prominent is Mark Haugen, whose roots in the Democratic Party go back to its merger with the Nonpartisan League, a move that created a party that held the governorship for 28 of the last 40 years – but crumbled after a bitter fight in the gubernatorial primary of 1992. The resulting fissure has never healed, and the party has dribbled into near oblivion. No Democrat has won a statewide race in North Dakota since 2012.

Haugen made the best showing among Democrats in 2020. He won 34% of the vote in the race for state treasurer.

Among this year’s other candidates are two activist attorneys, Tim Lamb of Grand Forks for attorney general and Fintan Dooley of Bismarck for agriculture commissioner. These officials serve on the state Industrial Commission, which manages the state-owned Bank of North Dakota and the North Dakota Mill. Dooley has made news trying to save the historic Northern Pacific Railroad bridge in his hometown. His latest argument is that the state owns the bridge, not the railroad.

The candidates for two seats on the Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, are Trygve Hammer of Velva, a retired Marine, and Melanie Moniz, an enrolled member of the MHA Nation. She’s seeking the full term; Hammer is running for an unexpired four-year term.

Katrina Christiansen, who teaches at the University of Jamestown, is the candidate for the U.S. Senate. She volunteered for the role, announcing her candidacy a fortnight ago.

The most consequential political news of the week involves the incumbent senator, John Hoeven. Donald Trump endorsed him for reelection, which could dampen the insurgency backing state Rep. Rick Becker. For his part, Becker said he’d accept the will of the convention, which meets in Bismarck on April 1-2, Friday and Saturday of this week.

Trump said that Hoeven “who was with us on both of the Fraudulent Impeachments perpetrated by the Radical Left Democrats, is doing a great job as Senator for the People of North Dakota. He is a fighter for our Farmers, Military, Vets, the Second Amendment, American Energy Independence, and a Secure Border. I’ve known John for a long time, he is with us and has my Complete and Total Endorsement!”

That’s quite something, since it describes a man who flirted with being a Democrat before he assumed a role as a moderate Republican and won the governorship in 2000. He held the job for 10 years without hint of the kind of politics that Trump has wrought upon the country. This suggests that ambition, not principle, has been the driving force in Hoeven’s political career.

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The most sensational news of the week involved the secretary of state. Al Jaeger essentially threw out petitions seeking to impose term limits on statewide officials and legislators. He cited a list of problems: fraudulent signatures, forged signatures, signatures of people who live in other states and even foreign countries.

The petition errors could lead to criminal charges. That decision is in the hands of Attorney General Drew Wrigley, who took over the office in January, after the death of long-time incumbent, Wayne Stenehjem. This will be Wrigley’s first big decision as attorney general.

This development reflects badly on the conservative activists who drafted and circulated the petitions – backers of Becker in the Senate race for the most part – and could be another blow to his candidacy.

Petitions of another kind made news in Grand Forks, where a coalition of interests succeeded in gathering more than 5,000 signatures on petitions to overturn the City Council’s decision to extend tax breaks to a corn mill to be built on the northwest edge of the city.

Ownership of the company is Chinese, a circumstance that led political conservatives to line up with business people in the vicinity of the proposed mill, and with some farmers and the city’s core of eco-activists. This unlikely coalition set up petition signing stations and managed to attract more than enough signatures – but it’s unclear so far when or, perhaps, even if an election will be held.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.

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