Jamestown-area Republicans at a dinner last weekend auctioned bottles of wine named for and signed by State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler, just days after her arrest on suspicion of drunken driving.
North Dakota District 12 and 29 Republicans' Lincoln Day Dinner has for years featured a pie and wine auction as a fundraiser for candidates that includes bottles of wine named for guest speakers, according to House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, and Republican District 12 Chairwoman Delores Rath. The Lincoln Day Dinner is a celebration of President Abraham Lincoln, who founded the Republican Party.
Republican District 12 Executive Committee Member Dwaine Heinrich, who also is Jamestown's mayor, said he prepared the wine and labels for 11 bottles of "Baesler's Bulldog Red" and "Superintendent Baesler's Honor Roll White." He said the "bulldog" name is a reference to Baesler's Flasher alma mater.
"We've had Hoeven wine, we've had Dalrymple wine, we've had Cramer wine. We've had all of them," Rath said, referring to several prominent Republicans. "So it just so happened that we had the wine done, and we're not going to condemn her. I'm just not."
Baesler, 50, is seeking the North Dakota Republican Party's letter of endorsement for a third term. She was arrested for drunken driving late Wednesday night and cited for care required. Baesler refused to submit to blood and breath testing, starting a complicated process that could lead her to lose her driver's license or face a drunken driving-related charge.
In a statement to the Tribune on Tuesday, Baesler said she agreed late last fall to be the dinner's keynote speaker, for which she was "pleased to accept the invitation" and "excited for the opportunity."
She said when she arrived Saturday, she was asked to sign bottles of wine "that had been specially labeled with my name." She said she understood the wine was obtained in early February.
"I was told it was a longstanding tradition for the districts to auction off bottles of wine that had been personalized for the keynote speaker and signed by that person," Baesler said. "I was unaware of this tradition beforehand. I was told they were a major piece of the fundraising auction and that I would only be signing them."
Heinrich said the auction wine was "somewhat of a no-win situation." He said "the story would have been the story, only a different twist" if the event or wine auction were canceled.
"Now again we go back to just the reality of how these things work, is if we would have asked her not to come or canceled the event, then the same people that are trying to use this for political purposes would have used that cancellation for political purposes," he said. "I understand that and I recognize the reality of that."
Rath said Baesler offered on Saturday morning to let someone else speak at the dinner.
"I said, 'No, we had negotiated with you, and we are going to have you,'" Rath said. "Our district took the high road."
Heinrich said the auction wine was "my decision which (Baesler) agreed to go along with" on Saturday.
Pollert, who emceed the event, said Baesler did not take any wine. He and other area Republicans said she was upfront about her arrest and asked for forgiveness in her speech at the event.
Pollert said he can understand how "the timing wasn't the best" for the wine auction, but he also said "I had no problem with it" because the two districts have done it previously for years.
The longtime District 29 representative said Republicans were not "thumbing our nose at folks."
Rath said the pie and wine auction fundraiser dates to 2000.
It's unclear how much the wine fetched on Saturday or who had winning bids.
Heinrich said 75-80 people attended the dinner. Pollert said "we had a very enjoyable social evening."
Pollert said he has no position "whatsoever" on Baesler's arrest, but said "people make mistakes."
Rath pointed out that other Republican incumbents have been arrested for drunken driving, and that Baesler is "a classy lady in my book," "a talented lady," "a gracious person" and "a good superintendent."
"I'll just tell you how I feel: She's not the first, and she's not the last," Rath said. "And I feel we should look at ourselves -- how many of us have gone out, had a couple of drinks and drove home and didn't get caught or didn't get picked up? My father taught me 'Sweep off your own doorstep first and then go next door.' And I think that's a good philosophy."
Rath said "no one came to me" with concerns about the auction wine after Baesler's arrest.
Charles Tuttle, who was an unsuccessful independent U.S. House candidate in 2018 and is challenging Baesler for the GOP support, said he'd prefer to face Baesler on K-12 education issues rather than on her personal history.
But he said "that dinner was a judgment call on leadership Republicans and her. She should have said, 'No, we can't put this out there today.'"
"As far as the dinner, I was there and was at that point in time disturbed that there wasn't better judgment on the Republican leadership of that dinner," Tuttle said.
Rep. Bernie Satrom, R-Jamestown, who is seeking reelection to represent District 12, said he thought "it would have been wise to change the labels" of the wine after news broke of Baesler's arrest, "but that did not happen."
He said he hopes she "gets the help she needs." Baesler has said she is "going to learn from this, seek help, and focus on my well-being and health."
"Sometimes we forget that we are all people, even people in the public arena," Satrom said in an email. "I and many in my family and many friends have struggled with addictions. Even though I do not drink now, I am not anxious to be the one to 'throw the first stone.'"
Sen. Terry Wanzek, R-Jamestown, said he can understand that "the optics (of the wine auction) don't look well" after Baesler's arrest. He also noted the 20-year-old tradition of the pie and wine auction and the two months of planning that went into the dinner. He also said some people at the dinner weren't even aware of Baesler's arrest.
"It was not meant to be a joke. It was not meant to be offensive in any way," Wanzek said. "We got to that point, and hindsight's always 20/20. It's always easier to say 'maybe we should have handled it differently,' but there's part of me, too, that has a Christian belief, 'don't judge unless thee be judged.'"
He also said Baesler seemed "remorseful" in her speech and that he believes she "did a pretty good job of her owning and being responsible for what she did."
In a statement, Democratic-NPL Party spokesman Alex Rohr questioned "how many DUI offenses by NDGOP elected officials will it take before their party starts taking public trust and safety seriously?"
He referred to Baesler, and state Tax Commissioner Ryan Rauschenberger and Rep. Craig Headland, R-Montpelier, who also have been arrested and charged for drunken driving.
Rauschenberger and Headland each pleaded guilty to a drunken driving-related misdemeanor under plea agreements that included unsupervised probation and fines. They were reelected in 2018, after their arrests.
"Still no consequences and no remorse for breaking the public trust," Rohr said. "The people of North Dakota deserve accountability and elected officials who hold each other to a higher standard."
North Dakota Republicans will gather March 27-29 in Bismarck for their state convention, when they will endorse candidates for state and congressional offices.
Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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