Plain Talk is a podcast hosted by blogger and columnist Rob Port focusing on political news and current events in North Dakota. Host Rob Port writes SayAnythingBlog.com, North Dakota’s most popular and influential political blog, and is a columnist for the Forum News Service published in papers including the Fargo Forum, Grand Forks Herald, Jamestown Sun, Minot Daily News, and the Dickinson Press.
But when the University of North Dakota announced they were pursuing a new policy that could punish people for using the wrong pronouns, and would allow access to even sensitive campus facilities like locker rooms based on the gender a given student or university employee identifies with, Bochenski felt he had to speak out.
"I felt like there was a lack of transparency" in the way the rule was being developed, Bochenski said on this episode of Plain Talk.
"Compelling speech and forcing ideology on our students, our children and our community is abhorrent," he wrote in a Facebook post touting a letter from the North Dakota Catholic Conference objecting to the policy.
How have people responded to his public statements? "It's been mean on both sides," he said.
Also on this episode, Jim Hobart, a pollster with Public Opinion Strategies, talks about a new survey of North Dakotans showing strong support for coal mining, coal-fired power, and carbon capture. Hobart says that despite the often divisive national debate about energy and carbon capture, North Dakotans show strong consensus support for coal and carbon capture projects, even across partisan lines.
Read the polling memo here: https://www.scribd.com/document/553440998/North-Dakota-Energy-Key-Findings-Memo
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Roes Jones is currently a state representative, having been elected to the House from District 26 in 2016. She was just re-elected to that seat by a small but comfortable margin in 2020, and now she'd like to be mayor of Fargo.
On this episode of Plain Talk, she talks about why she'd be better for that job than incumbent Tim Mahoney, what the biggest challenges facing Fargo are, what it's like to campaign in Fargo's relatively new approval voting process, and what she'll do with her legislative seat if she wins this election.
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On this episode of Plain Talk, he talked about that decision, as well as what changed during his tenure in office, and what challenges North Dakota might face in the future.
"There was a decorum," Pollert said of politics when he first got started in the legislature. "There was a process...and we seem to have gotten away from that a little more."
He said modern politics have become more personal, and more divisive. "I want us to be able to fight like cats and dogs but also be able to respect one another," he said.
He has some personal experience with how personal state politics has gotten. Under Pollert's leadership last year, the state House took the extraordinary step of expelling a member for the first time in state history. Luke Simons, at the time a Representative from a Dickinson-area district, was voted out of his seat after being accused by multiple women, including two fellow Republican lawmakers, in a landslide vote that included a 2-1 majority among his fellow Republicans.
"I felt it had to be done," Pollert said of the vote, though he added that it was "a very unpleasant time" during which both he and his wife received ugly phone calls and messages from Simons supporters.
Pollert said his proudest accomplishment as a lawmaker was showing his children the importance of public service. As for what challenges face North Dakota's leaders going forward? Protecting baseload energy production, and the reliability of the power grid, are at the top of his list as well as managing the Legacy Fund so that it can be a resource for funding the state's needs as oil activity, and thus oil revenues, decline in future decades.
Rep. Michael Howe, a Republican from West Fargo, also joined the show to talk about his interest in running for Secretary of State. The incumbent, Al Jaeger, has held that office since 1992. "I was in kindergarten then," Howe said. Now that Jaeger has announced he's retiring, Howe said it's time for some new leadership.
He'd like the office to get better at handling business filings, which has been a recurring theme of Secretary of State campaigns for years now. He also spoke about how he'd rebuild trust in elections, at a time when many Americans have lost it.
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First, there's the sexy stuff. The hot-button stuff. Topics that immediately stir up interest from the audience. It's the stuff we spend most of our time talking about. How big should the government be, and how much should it cost us? Stuff like that.
Then there's the unsexy stuff. Like blockchain.
What is blockchain? North Dakota Chief Information Officer Shawn Riley knows. He's an advocate for it. He tried to explain it to this humble political wonk on this episode of Plain Talk, and what he said makes a lot of sense.
Blockchain is a way of recording transactions in a way that's simultaneously secure and transparent. He believes it could be used in everything from recording title histories for property to tracking mineral rights and, yes, even voting.
Nerd stuff, I know, but the impact could be very sexy in terms of that thing we all care about, which is how much government is costing us.
Riley estimates that North Dakota has something like $1.2 billion in what he calls "tech debt," which is to say investments in dated technology that needs to be upgraded. There's no holding back the rapid advance of technology, but Riley argues that if we implement blockchain for the information our government is built around - all the little transactions and data the state records and keeps - upgrading that technology could be a lot cheaper in the future.
Given that, who would want to run for public office, and expose themselves to the brutal acrimony of an increasingly uncivil process?
On this episode of Plain Talk, I spoke with two candidates for the North Dakota legislature about that very topic.
Mike Motschenbacher is running for the state House in District 47 in the Bismarck area. Mason Wede is running for the state Senate in District 29. They're both Republicans, and they both say that, as bad as things are, it's a job somebody has to do.
Our state, and our communities, has challenges. There are budgets that must be written. And if principled grownups aren't willing to do those jobs, who will?
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Jonathan Holth is one a North Dakota employer. He is a co-founder of the Toasted Frog restaurant in downtown Grand Forks, and has since opened additional locations in Bismarck and Fargo. He's also the co-owner of the Urban Stampede Coffee Bar in Grand Forks. On this episode of Plain Talk, he discusses what his business has been doing to keep workers on the job, which includes getting creative with leave time and other benefits.
Among the creativity is an accepting approach to employees struggling with addiction. Holth himself is nearly 14 years sober, and was appointed by Governor Doug Burgum to serve on the advisory council for North Dakota's Office of Recovery Reinvented.
Also on this episode, co-host Chad Oban and I talk about the upcoming anniversary of the January 6 riot in Washington D.C. and the growing mainstream acceptance of political extremism in America.
That challenge is perhaps on the minds of parents more so now than before, given the way COVID-19 has turned our lives upside down.
In October Kirsten Baesler, the Superintendent of North Dakota's public school system, released data from testing showing significant pandemic-era declines among the state's students in proficiency levels for English and mathematics.
How worried should that make you?
Perhaps not as worried as you think you should be says Dr. Dann Conn.
Conn is a professor of teacher education and kinesiology at Minot State University. He's also the co-author of a book, Unraveling the Assessment Industrial Complex, which calls into question the purpose and efficacies of the very testing regime being used to measure educational declines.
"Kids are resilient," Conn said on this episode of Plain Talk. "They'll bounce back."
He argues that parents, educators, and policymakers ought to be more focused on what we might call real-world outcomes than testing scores.
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Who will replace him? The name you'll hear most often in those conversations is Drew Wrigley, who served two stints as North Dakota's U.S. Attorney, one under former President George W. Bush, and another under former President Donald Trump, and between them served six years as Lt. Governor under former Governor Jack Dalrymple.
Wrigley joined this episode of Plain Talk to say nothing definitive about if he's running, though it sure seems like he is. In addition to speaking about what his approach to the office would be, what priorities he'd focus on, and his philosophy about the job of Attorney General, Wrigley hinted that those interested in whether he's running or not might want to check the candidate filings at the Secretary of State's office in the first week of 2022.
This seems to me like a pretty good confirmation that he's running.
On this episode of Plain Talk I was joined by Chad Oban and Jamie Selzler, both former executive directors of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL, to talk about the year that was in North Dakota.
We also talk about what next year, an election year, has in store.
Now, he's calling it a career, announcing that he'll step down once his current four-year term is up. Stenehjem joined this episode of Plain Talk to discuss it.
To say that his career was consequential for our state would be an understatement. In the Legislature, where he served with two of his brothers, Alan and Bob, something he believes to be unprecedented in America's legislative bodies, he had a hand in creating the open records and meetings law state government operates under today. He pushed for a uniform court system, moving it beyond an antiquated system that saw different areas of North Dakota served by different sorts of courts. When he became Attorney General in 2000, the State of North Dakota didn't even have a crime lab to handle evidence like fingerprints and DNA.
But it wasn't all serious business. Stenehjem also recounts how he reacted with his brother Bob, then the Senate Majority Leader, would steal his parking space at the capitol during a legislative session.
Also on this episode, North Dakota has had an ongoing debate about ethics for years now, well before voters approved an ethics amendment for the state constitution. Some of the people behind that push have notions about what constitutes ethics, as far as campaign finance go, that are hard to square with how Americans have traditionally viewed free speech and participatory democracy.
Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak, whose office has become ground zero for this argument, joined Plain Talk to discuss.