North Dakota candidates for governor debate in Bismarck on Monday. Oct. 3, 2016. Pictured from the left is Marvin Nelson, Democrat, Doug Burgum, Republican, and Marty Riske Libertarian. Bismarck Tribune Photo/Will Kincaid

North Dakota’s gubernatorial candidates say despite a brief, four-minute interruption of a debate Monday in Bismarck by protesters of the Dakota Access Pipeline, they were still left with nearly an hour to discuss state issues.

Candidates felt they largely were able to get their message out to the Belle Mehus Auditorium audience of about 175 people.

Republican Party candidate Doug Burgum, state Rep. Marvin Nelson, D-Rolla, and Marty Riske of the Libertarian Party covered issues including how to deal with low agricultural commodity prices, government handling of expansion related to the oil boom, the makeup of the North Dakota Industrial Commission, state budget woes, education, fentanyl and other drug abuse, reporting of political contributions and childcare.

Burgum said he was able to express his platform of balancing the state budget without raising taxes, diversifying the economy and rethinking approaches to education.

Burgum and Riske expressed support for charter schools and voucher programs, while Nelson advocated for addressing lower-performing schools through funding increases.

“We certainly don’t agree on education,” Nelson said, adding that his message of a state in need of change went over fairly well.

Riske said he wishes he’d have had the time to touch on topics such as medical marijuana.

Addressing the protests

Responses to a debate question on the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline sparked the brief tirade against the project and oil and gas development in general. 

Nelson said the protesters didn’t surprise him and the incident was handled well by all sides.

He had visited the protest camp near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation the day before a clash last month between private security at a construction site and protesters that led to injuries on both sides and reports of people being bitten by guard dogs utilized by the security personnel and use of pepper spray.

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Nelson said a compromise is badly needed to diffuse a tense situation and avoid any serious violent confrontations.

“As things are right now it’s going to be ugly,” Nelson said. “It’s really going to damage North Dakota long-term in a variety of ways. It’s going to take some peacemakers and a lot of talking.”

Riske said he was active as a protester against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and also participated in anti-war rallies in the Fargo area before the United States went into Iraq in 2003.

“I’m greatly in favor of a short public demonstration during a public event,” Riske said. “Basically I’m in favor of that because I’ve been a demonstrator in the past.”

Riske said he went to the protest camp a few weeks ago and had a positive experience.

“I got the sense that they were open to talking,” Riske said.

Burgum said unlike his opponents he hasn’t yet gone to the protest camp near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, though he has kept an eye on the ongoing protest movement, which has drawn thousands in the last couple of months.

“We’re always one incident away from this being a very different situation,” Burgum said. “There’s (also) some people in this who don’t want any compromise.”

Burgum said he’s trying to be in contact with representatives on each side in order to be prepared to lead immediately if elected.

Dakota Access LLC has been working on the 1,172-mile, 30-inch diameter pipeline for months that would run from North Dakota to Illinois. The nearly $3.8 billion project when completed would transport up to 450,000 barrels per day of Bakken crude with a future maximum capacity of 570,000 barrels per day.

The project, which has a planned route crossing under the Missouri River near the reservation, has sparked opposition from Standing Rock Sioux Tribe officials, Native Americans and activists from around the country over fears of what would happen in the case of a leak.

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(Reach Nick Smith at 701-250-8255 or 701-223-8482 or at nick.smith@bismarcktribune.com.)