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Pandemic shapes North Dakota gubernatorial candidates' plans for office

Pandemic shapes North Dakota gubernatorial candidates' plans for office

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North Dakota voters this fall will determine a race central to the state's coronavirus response: who will be governor the next four years.

Republican Gov. Doug Burgum, a wealthy former software executive, is seeking a second term with Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford, a former Watford City mayor and auto dealer. They are challenged by the Democratic-NPL ticket of Dickinson-Killdeer veterinarian and former Killdeer School Board President Shelley Lenz and Sharon-area farmer and former state representative Ben Vig.

Burgum, Lenz and Libertarian DuWayne Hendrickson will meet at 8 p.m. Wednesday for their only debate, hosted by Prairie Public and sponsored by AARP North Dakota.

In interviews, the two major-party candidates touted their plans for the office and response to the pandemic in a year upended by the virus with the 2021 Legislature looming less than three months away. 

"I think people will, some voters will look at the broader picture, and I hope that they do because while we're handling the pandemic successfully with all the challenges, there's lots of folks who have opinions and ideas about how to navigate a storm that none of us have ever been through before," Burgum said. "But I think the results speak for themselves, and we look forward to in the next four years to continue making progress on all these other important areas."

Lenz said she voted for Burgum in 2016, but "he didn't get the job done, and so I started looking around for somebody to invest in and I found that that person was me, and so I stuck my hat in."

Republicans hold all statewide offices and control North Dakota's Legislature. Democrats last won the governor's office in 1988. The annual salaries for governor and lieutenant governor are $138,748 and $107,917, respectively.

'Driving the same agenda'

Burgum in 2016 ran on his business acumen and a message of reinventing state government amid a $1 billion state revenue shortfall.

He handily defeated longtime Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem in the Republican primary, advancing to the general election where he won nearly 77% of the vote in his first bid for elected office.

His first term has seen a series of crises, including the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, a monthslong 2017 drought, a historic October 2019 blizzard that devastated the fall harvest, and the ongoing pandemic.

Burgum said his administration has made great strides despite the emergencies, citing the state's rainy day fund being built up to $736.7 million, and his administration's efforts to combat addiction, advance tribal partnerships and strengthen the state's cybersecurity against increasing attacks.

He also counts work with the Legislature to pass criminal justice reform, set up the planned Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library and establish a statewide drone tracking network among his successes.

He sees his message of "reinventing government" delivered in his administration's online fiscal transparency portal and upgraded broadband connectivity for state and local governments and schools -- the latter a key tool in moving K-12 students to distance learning last spring when the pandemic struck the state.

In December he will deliver his next two-year executive budget to the Legislature.

He did not go deeply into specifics of his agenda beyond a focus on "the core things that we have to budget for, whether it's health care, education, corrections and the other state agencies, looking for ways that we can be more efficient, looking for ways to continue to invest in the future, continue to diversify our economy so that we are not reliant on commodity prices we can't control."

"We'll be driving the same agenda in the second term that we've had in the first one around our main priorities," Burgum said.

Coming from a decades-long technology career, Burgum said he's been invigorated by bringing other private sector leaders into his Cabinet and state government, and taking a team approach to upgrade and advance technology and employment practices. 

"I've learned that there's a lot of low-hanging fruit in ways that we can make government more efficient and more effective at a lower cost, and I get very energized about that," he said.

Burgum has an advantage in name recognition and incumbency, University of Mary Associate Professor of Politics Mark Springer said. He also said he's talked to a lot of people who favor Burgum's approach in keeping businesses open during the pandemic.

Statewide elections likely will depend on name recognition due to limitations on public appearances, Springer added. And Burgum's election results in 2016 appear hard to overcome.

"I think it's very difficult to chip away at that," Springer said.

'I think I can unify'

Lenz is an Ohio native with degrees in chemistry, biology, neuropharmacology and veterinary medicine. She is quick to point out her political independence and alignment with the Nonpartisan League, the populist movement that advocated farmers' interests and seized control of North Dakota politics in the late 1910s. The NPL later merged with North Dakota's Democratic Party.

She took the Democratic-NPL endorsement because of her North Dakota forebears' roots in the movement and because "it speaks to all North Dakotans and ... I think that kind of NPL philosophy, which you'll see in all of my platform, is pretty evident that it would unite all North Dakotans again and we'll become more purple instead of just red vs. blue, and so that's a large part of how I think I can unify."

She also is an animal agriculture advocate and a one-term Killdeer School Board member, and she sees balance with her running mate's farming background.

If elected, Lenz sees she could be "a bridge" to national Democrats about rural, food and energy issues, citing their importance in the state.

"North Dakota is such a key to the whole union and the world," she said.

Education is a large part of her platform. She cites her school board experience and knowledge of the effort that "goes into making sure every kid is cared for."

Seeing students walk across the stage as graduates, "I felt I helped a little bit, and that was really nice," Lenz said.

If elected, she would almost certainly face a Republican-controlled Legislature. Lenz said North Dakota probably will always have conservative legislatures, regardless of party control, and that she and Vig can advance "practical, nonpartisan solutions" through collaboration. 

"I think that's how the vision, the deep vision from our NPL roots, can get across the line," she said.

Springer said Lenz's NPL focus probably doesn't resonate with many voters and is a way to differentiate from "a negative connotation" generally to Democrats in North Dakota.

"I think too many people in North Dakota have taken the national perspective on what that means instead of looking at what Democrats in North Dakota have done for the state, and so that's the challenge that a lot of Democrats like Dr. Shelley have moving forward, and so I can see, like I said, why she would stress that NPL background," he said.

Pandemic

Burgum has been the face of North Dakota's pandemic response since March, when the virus emerged in the state.

In regular press conferences and to the Tribune, he has touted his approach to "saving lives and livelihoods," boosting testing and hospital capacities and taking "a holistic look" at needs in the state, from K-12 to behavioral health issues.

He sees 2021 bringing vaccines and improved understanding of treatments for COVID-19, and he watches for what Congress might do and how the presidential election will result.

He acknowledges the pandemic "is on everybody's mind now for sure" but asks "when the pandemic's in the rearview mirror, which it will be, then we'll have to say, 'What else does the candidate bring to the table?'"

Burgum declined to say whether he would have done anything different in his pandemic response, seeing "a mountain that no one's ever climbed before." 

"There's times when you scrape your hands, bump your knee, maybe you slip back down again, but the goal is to reach the summit, and that summit is to save lives and livelihoods," he said.

Lenz has criticized Burgum's response, calling his "ND Smart Restart" plan for businesses and gatherings, and its color-coded coronavirus county risk levels "arbitrary."

"There's absolutely no leadership," she said. "There's no plan. There's no structure. It's chaos. I'm going to just choose he's in a deep sense of denial and he has a very, very shallow understanding of the crisis that we're in."

Burgum said he looks forward to their Prairie Public debate and he "probably would choose not to debate her back and forth in this interview" when asked to respond to Lenz's comments.

But he said his administration has "a good team of advisers" working with the state Department of Health, citing Cabinet leaders and Dr. Joshua Wynne, dean of the University of North Dakota's School of Medicine and Health Sciences, who is the state's chief health strategist.

Lenz last month rolled out her proposed coronavirus response, which includes a statewide mask mandate to be enforced by local law enforcement and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a federal agency. Penalties would begin with warnings and extend to fines and, if violations are repeated, business closures, Lenz said.

Burgum has refrained from implementing a mask mandate. He wears a mask and urges people to do so out of personal responsibility and care for others, seeing a mandate as ineffective.

His opponent's plan also includes governing with the Legislature and tribal nations on a shared goal, relying on an "incident commander" as a key adviser, and calling an emergency legislative session -- even though the Legislature is set to convene three weeks after the governor takes office Dec. 15.

Lenz said the state might have more federal coronavirus aid to designate and could move earlier to implement new economic policies, such as paid family leave and a public-private partnership for a "private health care co-op buying group."

She sees the pandemic as continuing "for a couple years," with no guarantees on a vaccine.

"We are in an era of pandemics, so we have to start considering that as we invest in our local businesses, our local public sphere, our schools," Lenz said. "Here's the beauty of it: Fixing COVID is going to fix the problems we're having anyway in North Dakota."

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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