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Ag commissioner seeking national post

BISMARCK -- Roger Johnson, North Dakota's agriculture commissioner since 1996, could be elected president of the National Farmers Union next week and if he is successful would resign his state post.

Johnson said Tuesday morning that he was "recruited, strongly encouraged," to seek the national Farmers Union presidency after the current president announced last week that he would step down.

If Johnson, a Democrat, resigns the state position, Gov. John Hoeven will get to appoint the first Republican agriculture commissioner in more than 20 years and leave North Dakota Democrats with a single statewide officer holder in the Capitol tower.

The appointee would fill out Johnson's term, which concludes at the end of 2010, and probably would be named only if he or she agrees to seek election in 2010, a prerequisite for previous Hoeven appointees to statewide office.

"It was not a decision made lightly," he said. "The people of North Dakota have elected me four times as their agriculture commissioner and it has been my honor and privilege to serve them."

Johnson said the Farmers Union has been in a leadership role on the national issues of a permanent farm disaster program, country-of-origin labeling for food and interstate shipment of state-inspected meat products.

North Dakota Farmers Union President Robert Carlson said the election is Tuesday during the National Farmers Union convention in Washington, D.C., and that he believes Johnson is the stronger of the two candidates. The other is Larry Breech of Pennsylvania.

Carlson said the bulk of the National Farmers Union membership is in the Plains states and Rocky Mountain states and that Johnson is well known and respected in states surrounding North Dakota. He said Johnson was influential in getting the permanent disaster program into last year's federal Farm Bill.

If elected, Johnson would move to Washington, D.C.

He made the decision Monday evening to accede to those encouraging him to run to replace Tom Buis, NFU president since 2006. The election is Tuesday and Carlson said the new president will reorganize the national board that evening.

The National Farmers Union president who resigned is Tom Buis, who announced Feb. 25 he will step down effective March 15 to become chief executive officer of Growth Energy, a bio-fuels organization. Buis was a grain and livestock producer in Indiana before joining the Farmers Union staff in 1998.

If Johnson resigns as agriculture commissioner and is replaced by a Republican, the only Democratic-NPL statewide officer holder will be Superintendent of Public Instruction Wayne Sanstead. The superintendent is elected on a nonpartisan ballot.

Johnson said that he spoke with Hoeven and asked him to appoint Deputy Agriculture Commissioner Jeff Weispfenning to fill out his term, but acknowledged that Hoeven can appoint anyone.

Hoeven said that as he considers an appointee, "I think there will be a significant amount of interest."

He said Johnson alerted him Monday he was strongly considering making the run for the Farmers Union post.

"I wish Roger the best. I've always had a good working relationship with him," Hoeven said.