As Burgum doubles down on ‘career politician’ label, Stenehjem claims hypocrisy

BISMARCK - Entrepreneur versus career politician. Job creator versus regulator. Visionary versus the status quo. Fargo businessman Doug Burgum's campaign for governor has criticized Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem on many fronts, but none as con...

North Dakota gubernatorial candidate Wayne Stenehjem, from left, debates Doug Burgum and Paul Sorum at the North Dakota Newspaper Association convention Saturday, May 7, 2016, in Crosby. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service

BISMARCK – Entrepreneur versus career politician. Job creator versus regulator. Visionary versus the status quo.  

Fargo businessman Doug Burgum’s campaign for governor has criticized Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem on many fronts, but none as consistently as Stenehjem’s 40 years in elected office.

Burgum’s latest video, released last week, was arguably his harshest attack yet on his rival for the Republican nomination in the June 14 primary, knocking Stenehjem as a “career politician” first elected in 1976.

“Forty years later, he’s in the good ol’ boy network that keeps that status quo,” the ad states. “So despite a billion-dollar shortfall, Stenehjem wouldn’t have changed our budget. And Stenehjem wouldn’t do anything to change the economy. With 40 years in good ol’ boy politics, Wayne Stenehjem’s just not looking for new ideas.”

For Burgum, it’s an attempt to draw contrast between his background – an Arthur native who bet his share of the family farm on Great Plains Software in 1983, grew the Fargo startup through its sale to Microsoft for $1.1 billion in 2001 and served as a Microsoft executive until 2007 – and that of Stenehjem, who was elected attorney general in 2000 and has held the post longer than anyone else in state history.


When asked to define the term so prevalent in his ads, Burgum said a career politician “is where people, it’s been their primary occupation.”

“And I differentiate,” he said. “We’ve got lots of people in what I’d consider a citizen legislature. … They’ve got jobs. They’re farmers, they’re ranchers, they’re school teachers, they’re doctors, they’re lawyers, people who’ve got real jobs in the real world. And a lot of them are business owners, so they know how to make payroll.”

Stenehjem noted that before being elected attorney general, he ran a law office in Grand Forks, making payroll while serving 24 years in the Legislature that meets in session for four months every other year.

He called Burgum’s ads “hypocritical,” given that Burgum has contributed to the campaigns of many longtime Republican lawmakers and statewide officeholders – including Stenehjem himself, donating $1,000 to his re-election campaign in September 2010.

Campaign finance disclosures show Burgum gave $20,000 to the state Republican Party from 2011 to 2014 and contributed $25,000 in 2011 to the campaign of Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who served in the state House for 16 years before being elected lieutenant governor in 2000 with Gov. John Hoeven.

“These are not entitlements or inherited positions,” Stenehjem said of his time in elected office. “You get them because you earn the trust of the citizens year after year.”


‘An inconvenient truth’


Burgum said his business leadership skills – including his experience weathering economic downturns – make him a better fit for the executive role of governor.

While acknowledging some fellow Republicans are frustrated with his comments about “runaway” state spending, Burgum noted the Legislature approved a 2015-17 general fund budget with appropriations that exceeded estimated revenues by about $387 million, relying on the fund’s beginning balance to make up the difference.

“Now we’re not going to have money in the bank on the way out the door, and we’re going to head into the next session with no rainy day fund and a zero beginning balance, and I think that’s important for voters to understand that,” Burgum said. “It’s an inconvenient truth … but it’s important for voters to understand that.”

A $1.07 billion revenue shortfall projected in January prompted Gov. Jack Dalrymple to tap reserves and order 4 percent budget cuts for most agencies, and he’s asked agencies to prepare 90-percent budgets for next biennium.

While agreeing the state needs to bring spending back in line, House Majority Leader Al Carlson said Burgum’s ads criticizing spending and the “good ol’ boys” in Bismarck have rankled many Republican lawmakers who did their best to manage unprecedented demands related to the state’s oil boom.

Carlson, a Fargo contractor and state representative since 1993 who didn’t endorse Stenehjem before the GOP convention in April but is supporting him now as the party’s endorsed candidate, said “life will be very interesting” if Burgum becomes governor.

“My guys are nervous and they’re upset, because they don’t consider themselves career politicians,” he said, adding North Dakota has been ranked the best-run state in the country four years in a row by 24/7 Wall St.

Carlson said there’s value in the institutional knowledge that longtime elected officials bring to the table, and he questioned where Burgum would cut spending.


“Because talk is cheap, but it takes money to buy whiskey,” he said.

Burgum declined to identify specific cuts but said the first place he’d start is “on the processes themselves.” He cited the need for better revenue forecasting, risk management and budgeting systems, saying one change he’d propose is zero-based budgeting as opposed to traditional incremental budgeting in which department heads start at the previous budget’s base level.

As for his ads, “The legislators can interpret my advertising however they choose, but I’m running against Wayne, and Wayne is on the record as saying a career politician is not such a bad thing,” he said.

Burgum said he “absolutely” can work with the Legislature if elected.

“There’s a lot of time to build relationships, and we’re all North Dakotans,” he said.


Tax credits debated

Stenehjem said it’s “pure hypocrisy” that Burgum’s criticizes the “good ol’ boy network” in Bismarck without mentioning that leaders in his own city recently approved $15.5 million in tax incentives for an 18-story tower in downtown Fargo being planned by Burgum’s Kilbourne Group and two other firms.

Burgum argued that the $98 million Block 9 project is “absolutely, positively great for taxpayers” and will generate more property taxes in the long run.

He also bristled at recent scrutiny of how Arthur Ventures, a venture capital firm he co-founded, has utilized the state’s Angel Fund Investment Tax Credit to invest in out-of-state companies. Stenehjem has said Burgum has a “moral obligation” to use the tax credits to create in-state jobs, but Burgum pointed out the state already has a Seed Capital Tax Credit program for that purpose.

“I would put my record of investing in North Dakota up against Wayne Stenehjem anytime, anyplace, any day,” Burgum said, adding, “Has there ever been anybody who’s run for governor who’s invested as much in North Dakota as I have, and followed all the rules made by a Republican Legislature?”


Seen this before

Gubernatorial contests between an attorney general and a businessman are nothing new to North Dakota.

Stenehjem is the eighth attorney general in North Dakota history to run for governor, according to election results on the secretary of state’s website.

The only attorneys general to win the governor’s office were all Republicans: George Schafer in 1928, William Langer in 1920 and Allen Olson in 1980.

The two most recent cases involved Stenehjem’s two predecessors, both Democrats, losing to Republicans with business backgrounds.

Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp lost her gubernatorial bid in 2000 to Bank of North Dakota CEO John Hoeven. Both are now U.S. senators.

Democratic Attorney General Nicholas Spaeth defeated his party’s endorsed candidate, state Sen. Bill Heigaard, in the June 1992 primary, only to lose that November to Republican Ed Schafer, former president of Gold Seal Co., a company founded by his father.

Schafer told the Grand Forks Herald last week that he plans to vote for Burgum. Stenehjem is endorsed by both Hoeven and Dalrymple.

In red-state North Dakota, which hasn’t elected a Democrat for governor since 1988, the Republican winner in the June 14 primary will likely be considered a heavy favorite in November against Democratic state Rep. Marvin Nelson of Rolla and Libertarian candidate Marty Riske of Fargo. Paul Sorum of Bismarck also is seeking the GOP nomination.

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