The North Dakota Petroleum Council on Wednesday announced the “amazing speaker” it had been teasing as keynote for the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference will be Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
“Obviously, it provides a lot of excitement for the conference,” said Ron Ness, president of the Petroleum Council. “This has been so much of the American discussion over the past five, six, seven months that it’s obviously going to garner huge attention.”
The annual conference rotates between North Dakota and Saskatchewan and is scheduled to be held May 24-26 at the Bismarck Event Center. Getting a big name to headline the conference has been in the works for just more than a month. But Donald Trump wasn’t the only name floating around.
About a week before the North Dakota Republican Convention, someone from Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign contacted the North Dakota Petroleum Council about perhaps having the candidate speak at the conference.
“Once we realized there was that interest, we decided we would also contact Mr. Trump,” said Tessa Sandstrom, communications manager for the Petroleum Council.
It didn’t take long to get things in order for Trump to visit the state.
“I received confirmation from the campaign manager on Monday,” Sandstrom said.
Cruz on Tuesday announced he was dropping out of the presidential race and Ohio Gov. John Kasich dropped out Wednesday, making Trump the presumptive nominee for the Republican Party. Sandstrom has not heard whether Cruz still is interested in coming, too.
Ness said he has not reached out to the campaigns of either Democratic candidate.
“We would be thrilled to have one of the Democratic nominees attend and discuss North Dakota issues and real energy issues,” he said. “We have not had any type of interest or response shown.”
At least one Democrat expressed displeasure.
"North Dakotans deserve elected officials who stand up to extremism, hatred and discrimination of any form, rather than those, like Trump, who promote it. He does not share our values, and we call on North Dakota Republicans to denounce his hateful rhetoric and serve all North Dakotans," said Robert Haider, executive director of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL, in a statement.
Trump will not receive a speaking fee, Sandstrom said.
Before the Trump announcement was made on Wednesday, 1,650 people had registered for the $400 conference. Sandstrom said within 2½ hours, an additional 100 already had registered. Ness said a $30 ticket will be available for anyone who wants to see Trump without attending the whole conference, but he was unsure exactly how many of those tickets will be available. It will depend on the number of regular attendees.
“We’re expecting it to be a draw for people from a pretty wide region,” Sandstrom said.
By early Wednesday afternoon, Ness said he’d heard some pushback from people bothered by the Petroleum Council bringing Trump to North Dakota. But he was focused on the chance for North Dakota to get some attention during a presidential race — a rare opportunity for a low-population rural state.
“Love him or hate him, this is the process, and he is moving forward and we’re thrilled to have him coming,” Ness said.
Sandstrom said everything was developing smoothly for Trump’s visit. He was available to speak at 1 p.m. May 26, so not much juggling had to be done. While the conference will be held in the Exhibit Hall of the Bismarck Events Center, Trump’s speech will be held in the main arena to allow more space. Sandstrom said that also will simplify preparations, as no one will have to be cleared out of the conference to do a security sweep.
Prior to getting Trump on board, legendary football coach Lou Holtz was scheduled as the keynote speaker. Holtz will speak at 11 a.m. Holtz recently endorsed Trump for president. Other speakers include high-ranking oil company officials and research analysts.
The Williston Basin Petroleum Conference has brought in big names before. Two years ago, television personality Sean Hannity spoke to a crowd of 4,200— the biggest ever for the conference. Though he was a big name, he wasn’t Trump big, Sandstrom said.
“He didn’t have a Secret Service motorcade,” she said.
Ness said the interest of national political figures says a lot about the conference. While getting Trump is a big opportunity for the Petroleum Council, Sandstrom said it also is a big opportunity for Trump to talk about his policy positions.
“It kind of gets to the center of his message on encouraging economic growth and creation of jobs,” she said.