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Burgum not surprised as union endorses Stenehjem for governor

BISMARCK - North Dakota's largest public employees union endorsed Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem for governor Wednesday in a hotly contested Republican primary race, which challenger Doug Burgum said comes as no surprise.

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Wayne Stenehjem

BISMARCK – North Dakota’s largest public employees union endorsed Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem for governor Wednesday in a hotly contested Republican primary race, which challenger Doug Burgum said comes as no surprise.

North Dakota United said its members decided to endorse Stenehjem over Burgum based on the two candidates’ responses to questions asked on behalf of members during recent sit-downs.

The union represents more than 11,500 teachers, university faculty and staff and city, county and state employees. About 82 percent are from the education sector, President Nick Archuleta said.

Archuleta said the union normally does not endorse candidates in primaries but decided to do so in this year’s June 14 primary, which will decide which of three GOP candidates for governor advances to November.

“This is such an interesting race in that we haven’t seen any really strong competition in primary elections in the past,” Archuleta said.

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The union’s political action committee, made up of 20 members representing its various constituencies, made a recommendation to endorse Stenehjem, and its board of directors unanimously accepted it, Archuleta said.

He said both the North Dakota Education Association and North Dakota Public Employees Association, which merged to form North Dakota United in 2013, have history with Stenehjem, who served in the Legislature for 24 years before being elected attorney general in 2000.

“He was very familiar with our issues. The things our members think are important, he agrees are important,” he said.

Burgum, a real estate developer and venture capitalist who led Great Plains Software through its $1.1 billion sale to Microsoft in 2011, said he wasn’t surprised “at all” by the union’s endorsement.

“There’s a lot of deep relationships there in Bismarck that are preexisting,” said Burgum, who has tried to paint Stenehjem, the GOP’s endorsed candidate, as a “career politician” and status-quo candidate.

The union’s statement noted that Stenehjem’s wife Beth has worked as a teacher, and said the union is “pleased” that Stenehjem chose state Sen. Nicole Poolman, an English teacher at Bismarck Century High School, as his running mate.

“Her first-hand knowledge of educational issues will serve his administration well. Together, they will work hard to protect collective bargaining for K-12 teachers,” the release stated.

Archuleta said union members also appreciate that Stenehjem has pledged to make education funding a priority in what’s expected to be a tough 2017 legislative session, with state revenues down because of sagging prices for crude oil and agricultural commodities. Stenehjem echoed that sentiment.

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“They know from my history that I will back that up with action,” he said before his and Burgum’s final televised debate Wednesday night.

Burgum said he thought his two meetings with the union went “terrific” and that people understand how committed he is to education.

“I really look forward to working with them, because I think there are lots of good ideas teachers have about how we can drive innovation in education,” he said.

Bismarck oilfield consultant Paul Sorum, who also is seeking the GOP nomination, wasn’t interviewed because the union didn’t see him “as being at the epicenter of the contest,” Archuleta said.

He said the endorsement is only for the GOP primary, and the union will meet with gubernatorial candidates from all parties before giving its final nod for November.

The Democratic-NPL Party’s candidate, state Rep. Marvin Nelson of Rolla, and the Libertarian Party’s candidate, Fargo businessman Marty Riske, are running unopposed in the primary.

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Doug Burgum

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