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Candidates for U.S. House, state ag commissioner races debate for first time

BISMARCK — North Dakota candidates for Congress and state agriculture commissioner squared off in the first statewide debates of the election year Thursday night in Bismarck.

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Ryan Taylor, a cattle rancher and former state senator from Towner whose 2012 gubernatorial bid fell short, is trying to unseat current Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, who fended off an intraparty challenge for the Republican Party endorsement last month.

Asked about 43 employees in permanent positions who left the Department of Agriculture during his first four full years in office, Goehring attributed the turnover to retirements and moves to other agencies. He said recruitment and retention is a challenge, “But I’m not going to apologize for hiring good people that other people want.”

Taylor said the numbers are telling in an office with 61 permanent positions, saying, “It’s beyond competition for labor.” He took thinly veiled jabs at Goehring’s previously acknowledged “politically incorrect” actions and statements toward female staffers in 2012. Goehring has said he apologized to employees and addressed the issues through sensitivity training.

“I wouldn’t have to go to training to learn how to treat people or talk to people,” Taylor said.

Goehring touted his experience in international marketing with the U.S. Soybean Council and leadership of foreign trade missions as commissioner, noting that North Dakota agricultural exports have increased by more than 70 percent since 2010.

“That’s progress,” he said.

Taylor said planning “should have happened five years ago, probably when the ag commissioner took office,” to avoid the oil-related rail congestion that has hampered farmers’ ability to move product to market and obtain fertilizer. Goehring said he has been engaged with BNSF since October and that the railroad is making strides with more cars and locomotives on the rails, but he said the issue will continue until the price differential between markets taking oil by rail and pipeline is corrected.

In the race for the state’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, first-term Rep. Kevin Cramer debated Democratic state Sen. George B. Sinner of Fargo, a bank executive and the son of former North Dakota Gov. George “Bud” Sinner, and Libertarian candidate Jack Seaman of Fargo, owner of MinDak Gold Exchange.

The three candidates agreed on support for the Keystone XL oil pipeline but differed on a number of other issues, including raising the federal minimum wage and federal funding for the Red River Diversion project.

Cramer opposed raising the minimum wage, saying it would cost jobs, and he advocated an approach of less government, keeping taxes lower, welcoming businesses and creating jobs that has worked for North Dakota. Seaman said he’s not in favor of a higher minimum wage because it would force small businesses to cut jobs or raise prices, which hurts low-income earners. Sinner said he supports increasing the wage over time.

Sinner and Cramer both said they would support federal funding of the diversion project in its current form, but Seaman said he wouldn’t because of questions that need to be addressed about its layout and staging water south of Fargo, saying, “What about the rights of those citizens?”

In a debate over raising the federal debt ceiling, Sinner criticized Cramer for taking his House salary during the government shutdown last winter. Cramer shot back, “I worked every day, all day long,” and said he gave more to charity than what he earned in salary but didn’t brag about it.

Sinner was the only candidate not to call for a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, saying that while the “rollout was awful,” it helped people get coverage who couldn’t do so before and gave North Dakota hospitals a higher Medicare reimbursement rate. Cramer said Obamacare should be replaced with a more bipartisan health care act, while Seaman suggested replacing it with a free-market system with fewer government regulations and mandates.

The standing-room-only debate at the Radisson Hotel was organized by the North Dakota Newspaper Association and moderated by Harvey Brock, publisher of The Dickinson Press.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.