Attempted ouster in ag post shows Farm Bureau’s political ambitions
BISMARCK – Eric Aasmundstad stepped down from the helm of the North Dakota Farm Bureau in 2011 with a vow that the organization he led for 12 years would get more political.
By any measure, the conservative-leaning agricultural trade group has followed through. And in a state where agriculture is king, lawmakers and political observers on both sides of the aisle say the Farm Bureau wields tremendous influence, in Bismarck and across the state.
Its political action committee has pumped tens of thousands of dollars into local and statewide elections – almost exclusively to Republican candidates. The group organized and helped pass a “right-to-farm” constitutional amendment in 2012, and spearheaded another ballot measure for 2014 to reform North Dakota property taxes, though the Farm Bureau decided late last month to scrap it.
Last week, the Farm Bureau launched a power play to replace incumbent Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring – whom it helped elect in 2010 – with its own, handpicked candidate.
Farm Bureau Executive Vice President Jeffrey Missling said all of its political moves are driven by farmer concerns raised at its local boards, which it has in 52 of North Dakota’s 53 counties.
Some critics look at the challenge to Goehring and the since-abandoned property tax measure and see an organization that has grown out of touch with the concerns of North Dakota farmers. Even some Farm Bureau friends are puzzled by the decision to take on a popular Republican agricultural commissioner, who won his seat with almost 70 percent of the vote.
“It’s got a lot of rank-and-file Republicans upset,” said Rep. Jim Kasper, a Fargo Republican. “I don’t think in the long run it’s going to do (the Farm Bureau) any good. I think it might hurt them.”
Long a powerful group
Since stepping down as president of the Farm Bureau, Aasmundstad has become a fixture at the Capitol.
Aasmundstad, a former farmer from Devils Lake, is one of five Farm Bureau officials registered to lobby lawmakers in Bismarck, according to secretary of state filings. Aasmundstad directed an interview request to Missling and his replacement as president, Doyle Johannes.
With its status as a major agricultural group – along with its more liberal counterpart, the North Dakota Farmers Union – the Farm Bureau has always had potent political influence.
“They’ve always been involved in policymaking, although not as obvious as recently,” said former Lt. Gov. Lloyd Omdahl, a Democrat.
“They’re a powerful group,” said Sen. Joe Miller, a Park River Republican and farmer. “Being who I am, I share a lot of the same thoughts and views on things. I care a lot about their opinion.”
Farm Bureau lobbyists flexed some of their political muscle last year on a bill that beefed up penalties for people who harm animals. The Farm Bureau was part of a coalition that helped put the bill together for the 2013 session. But as the session progressed, the organization balked at the thought of ranchers being hit with felony charges and backed away from the bill.
Rep. Joshua Boschee, D-Fargo, said Farm Bureau lobbyists worked House lawmakers to vote against the bill on its final vote. Rep. Craig Hedlund, a Montpelier Republican, also said he remembered the group lobbying against the bill.
In the bill’s first full House vote, just one lawmaker voted “no.” After going to the Senate and coming back for final approval, 12 House members voted against it.
Missling denied lobbying against the bill, which, in its final form, established some felony-level penalties for animal cruelty and a misdemeanor for neglect. Instead, Missling said they tried to amend it to make it more palatable, and in many cases succeeded.
“If we wanted to kill that bill, we could have,” he said.
‘This didn’t happen overnight’
The animal cruelty bill saga underscored some of the Farm Bureau’s long-standing concerns with Goehring’s tenure as agriculture commissioner. Missling called the final product “a huge victory” for the Humane Society of the United States, and a call-to-action for Farm Bureau members.
Missling said Goehring gave testimony on the bill “in direct opposition” to the Farm Bureau’s view. He faulted the commissioner for not making it clear to the Humane Society that it was unwelcome in North Dakota.
“We need to have the support of our elected officials on key issues to our members. When we don’t have that support, that’s when our phone rings,” he said. “This didn’t happen overnight.”
Goehring is a former Farm Bureau official himself. He got the organization’s support in a failed 2006 bid for the commissioner’s seat as well as in 2010, when the Farm Bureau pumped $24,000 into his campaign, according to campaign finance records.
The Farm Bureau’s PAC was the single-largest contributor to Goehring’s 2010 election bid. That campaign contribution also stands out among the money the Farm Bureau PAC has spent on politics since 2008, second only to the $25,000 it gave to The Feed Families Committee, which supported the “right-to-farm” ballot measure.
Goehring gives the Farm Bureau credit for his 2010 victory. Today, he’s at a loss as to why his former colleagues are angling to unseat him.
“I’ve been on the same side of the issues almost all the time,” he said. “Maybe the approach and the implementation are different than how the Farm Bureau would want to do it.”
Missling said the Farm Bureau’s PAC will likely route financial support to its new candidate, Judy Estenson.
In press events announcing her campaign in Bismarck and Fargo last week, the Farm Bureau threw its support behind Estenson and also referenced sexual harassment and hostile work environment claims made against Goehring.
Public records of the investigation show Goehring reportedly introduced one new female employee as a “babe in the woods” and referred to a group of women – some of them employees – as a “harem.” Both incidents happened in the summer of 2012.
“We have a duty and an obligation to look out for the reputation of this organization,” Missling said in an interview.
Goehring and Estenson will square off for the Republican nomination, starting at local county conventions this month. Missling said the Farm Bureau will do its best to elect as many Estenson supporters to the state convention, where a Republican nominee for the post will be chosen.
“I don’t think they can beat Goehring,” Omdahl said. “I think they’re going up a dead end.”
Boschee wasn’t so sure.
“I certainly wouldn’t want to be a Republican candidate going against the Farm Bureau in a Republican convention,” he said.
Tax measure scrapped
The group is – for now – stepping back from another of its attempts to affect policy in North Dakota.
After months of drafting language, the Farm Bureau’s state board voted late last month to scrap its proposed ballot measure to reform property taxes.
Missling said the group’s plans, which would have restricted local governments from automatically raising property taxes as property valuations rise and given residents a vote in budget increases, “ran into a brick wall.”
“We learned that there are so many limitations on what we can do, both through state statute and the state’s constitution, in trying to reform the property tax system,” he said.
Among those roadblocks, a ballot measure cannot compel the Legislature to appropriate money, which threw a wrench in the Farm Bureau’s proposal to create a homestead credit for property taxes.
In the end, Missling said Farm Bureau members felt their measure would slow local government spending but wouldn’t ultimately lower property taxes for North Dakotans.
Missling said the Farm Bureau will bring some of its ideas to the Legislature in 2015.