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Dem candidate Nelson criticizes would-be opponents ahead of primary

GRAND FORKS -- With a week left before voters head to the polls in a hotly contested Republican primary election race for North Dakota governor, the Democratic candidate in the race took several shots at his would-be general election competitors.

Marvin Nelson
Marvin Nelson

GRAND FORKS -- With a week left before voters head to the polls in a hotly contested Republican primary election race for North Dakota governor, the Democratic candidate in the race took several shots at his would-be general election competitors.

Marvin Nelson, a state representative from Rolla and the Democratic-NPL Party's endorsed candidate for governor, touched on an array of topics in a Monday interview with the Grand Forks Herald editorial board. That included environmental and energy policy, minimum wage, economic development and criminal justice reform.

In some of his most pointed remarks, Nelson said pledging to not raise taxes "should absolutely disqualify anybody from being in office." He cited the state's budget woes brought on by depressed oil and farm commodity prices and one-time spending priorities such as base retention and property tax relief.

"Everyone assumes that there's going to be more money, that wheat is going to go up, that oil is going to go up and there will be more money. It can go down too," he said. "If that's your philosophy, you do not belong in office, if there's nothing in government that's more important to you than (not raising taxes.) Because the next question is, 'Well then why do we have these taxes?' "

Asked if he has an open mind about raising taxes, Nelson responded, "If it comes down to it." He also said he would tap into the Legacy Fund before doing anything with taxes.

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Both Fargo businessman Doug Burgum and his opponent, the Republican-endorsed Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, have signed a pledge from Americans for Tax Reform to oppose tax increases, according to the organization's website.

Burgum pointed to the increased size of the state's general fund in arguing North Dakota has a spending problem rather than a revenue one.

"I'm counting on the fact that we can build a leaner, more efficient, more effective government with fewer dollars," he said. "It's about a reinvention of government."

Stenehjem said "we can balance our budget, fund our priorities, make cuts and still not raise taxes."


'Highly authentic'

Nelson, an agricultural consultant who was first elected in 2010, also criticized Stenehjem's proposal to improve behavioral health services to reduce criminal recidivism. Part of the longtime attorney general's plan is to "accelerate" the placement of licensed treatment professionals around the state, according to his website.

Nelson called the idea "a proposal to do nothing, except a few scholarships." He questioned how specialists would end up working in the state's rural areas.

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Stenehjem said those professionals could be encouraged through loan forgiveness and stipends, while building prisons and jails is more expensive.

"We can't just construct more prisons and not address the root problem," he said, adding the proposal would be "an accomplishment" of his governorship.

Meanwhile, Nelson said Burgum is an unknown quantity as a candidate and predicted he would "run back to the left" if he wins in June.

"How many millions of dollars does it take that you spend in North Dakota to convince people that you're conservative and know how to get by on less money?" Nelson said.

Burgum pushed back against assertions that his campaign has not been authentic.

"I think I've been exceptionally honest with them about the challenges that we're going to face, and I think that's highly authentic," he said. "I'm running the same campaign that I ran in January."

Nelson also pitched a minimum wage increase, which he said would reduce government spending through reductions in food stamps and health care costs. Asked what the minimum wage should be, Nelson said he didn't "see any reason we shouldn't be at $10, somewhere in that range."

Nelson, who introduced Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders during the Democratic presidential hopeful's visit to Bismarck last month, disagreed with Sanders' call to ban hydraulic fracturing. But he did criticize what he sees as lax regulation of the state's oil and gas industry.

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'Ground campaign'

The Republican candidates have received much of the media attention leading up to the June 14 election, given the contested nature of the race. A Democrat has not held the governor's office since George Sinner, who left office in 1992, and Republicans currently hold supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature.

Nelson said some of his biggest challenges are that the issues he's raising don't fit neatly into a soundbite, as well as fundraising. Nelson's pre-primary report showed $16,409 in contributions, a fraction of what Burgum or Stenehjem had raised.

"I can't snap my fingers and have $2 million show up tomorrow to run a campaign," he said. "We're going to have to do a ground campaign."

Asked about Democrats' lack of success in recent elections, Nelson said their candidates ran as "really nice" guys.

"Being a really nice guy in North Dakota as a Democrat will get you 30, 35 percent," he said. "But who's really gone after anybody?"

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