N.D. Dems see legislative gains from WSI woesBISMARCK — One veteran Republican senator jokes ruefully that it’s the political “gift that keeps on giving.”
By: Janell Cole, N.D. Capitol Bureau
BISMARCK — One veteran Republican senator jokes ruefully that it’s the political “gift that keeps on giving.”
“It” is the relentless succession of investigations and upheavals at the troubled state workers’ compensation agency.
North Dakota Republicans and Democrats alike predict Workforce Safety and Insurance controversies will affect legislative races this year, with the Democrats presumably benefiting. It won’t be the only issue, they say, but surely will be felt.
Even-numbered legislative districts have elections this year.
Republican lawmakers have been mostly content to leave WSI to its own devices or even praise and support its management during its past 15 months of troubles, which recently culminated in the executive director’s and board chairman’s exits. Meanwhile, Democrats have called for sweeping changes, all of which have been denigrated and voted down by the GOP majority. The result: Democrats are convinced they’ll close a three-seat gap to win back the Senate majority they held from 1987-95 and also make significant gains in the House, where they’re outnumbered 61-33.
“That’s what we’re working at,” said a confident Rep. Dorvan Solberg, D-Ray, who hopes to move to the Senate by knocking off veteran Republican Sen. John Andrist of Crosby.
That is, if Andrist runs for re-election. He said in a recent interview that he hasn’t decided.
While voting down Democrats’ WSI bills, Republicans have proposed new WSI laws in recent sessions, many of which organized labor and Democrats denounce as unfair attacks on injured workers or their benefits. Some have passed; others were turned back.
One that failed was the $50,000 WSI “slush fund” that House Republicans championed last year. It would have legitimatized employee gift certificates, party favors, training session trinkets and legislators’ perks that the state auditor’s office had ruled illegal in a 2006 audit. While only a relative few – including Rep. Frank Wald of Dickinson and Rep. George Keiser of Bismarck – promoted the amendment passionately, the entire GOP House caucus voted for it, with the exception of Rep. Mark Owens of Grand Forks.
The Senate, in a bipartisan vote, quickly nixed the amendment. But Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, said campaign tactics and public perception may not distinguish between House Republicans who favored the “slush fund” and GOP senators who helped kill it. And Republican senators can’t very well try to absolve themselves by criticizing their House colleagues in public, he said.
Rep. Gil Herbel, R-Grafton, said recent Republican legislators’ initiatives to investigate troubles at WSI “should have been done right away,” when they arose, not after they had done damage to the party’s ability to retain legislative seats.
Holmberg, Solberg and others also predict that if a WSI initiated measure qualifies for the November ballot, it will surely pass and take down some Republican legislators at the same time. The measure would return WSI to the governor’s cabinet. Petitions are being circulated.
“Indications are it will do very, very well,” Holmberg said. He’s the veteran lawmaker who calls WSI controversies “the gift the keeps on giving, politically” — to the Democrats, that is.
One legislative race where Democrats will undoubtedly play the WSI card is Grand Forks’ District 42 Senate contest. Mac Schneider, a Fargo native now living in Grand Forks, is taking on Sen. Nick Hacker, R-Grand Forks. Hacker has a bulls-eye on his back because he took the lead last session in greatly watering down Democratic Sen. Joel Heitkamp’s bill that would have returned WSI to the governor’s control.
Schneider is from a politically successful Democratic-NPL family. His uncle was the late House minority leader and U.S. attorney, John Schneider, and his cousin is Rep. Jasper Schneider, D-Fargo, who also is a candidate for state insurance commissioner. And Mac Schneider’s father is Mark Schneider of Fargo, an attorney who often represents injured workers against WSI.
Democrats also have a new tool for the upcoming legislative campaigns: Because much of the House and Senate floor action was Webcast for the first time last year, Democrats recorded many debates on controversial issues and will be able to use (presumably damaging) broadcast-quality Republican incumbents’ sound bites in radio ads, said party Executive Director Jamie Selzler.
Besides Andrist, several other Republican legislators and at least one Democrat are not seeking re-election or are teetering toward possible retirement.
Sen. Herb Urlacher, R-Taylor (District 36), and Rep. Ron Carlisle, R-Bismarck (District 30) have already announced they’re getting out.
Urlacher’s running mate, Rep. C.B. “Buck” Haas, R-Taylor, is thinking about not running, as is Herbel (District 16), they said in recent interviews.
Haas and Herbel were key players in an interim property tax relief plan that would have sent more state funds to public schools. Herbel said he left the 2007 session very disappointed in what had become of their bill, which was amended to the point of being unrecognizable. Haas said that though he was disappointed, “I understand the legislative process and I don’t think that would be a factor” in his decision whether to run.
On the Democrats’ side, Heitkamp is torn about whether to seek re-election because he can either continue in the Legislature or keep his Democratic-leaning talk show job at KFGO, which he clearly enjoys. He can’t stay on the air if he seeks re-election. Heitkamp said Friday he will wait for his District 26 nominating convention to announce his decision.
Janell Cole works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Dickinson Press.