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Sanford adjusting to new reality as lieutenant governor candidate

WATFORD CITY -- Brent Sanford could feel stressed out about a lot of things, starting with the fact that he is an election day away from likely becoming the lieutenant governor of North Dakota.

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Brent Sanford is contemplating the reality that he could soon be the state's next lieutenant governor, at the same time the auto dealership he took over when he returned to Watford City is undergoing a move and a major business transition.Watford City mayor prepares for potential move. LAUREN DONOVAN / BISMARCK TRIBUNE

WATFORD CITY - Brent Sanford could feel stressed out about a lot of things, starting with the fact that he is an election day away from likely becoming the lieutenant governor of North Dakota.

Two months ago, he was "just" a 44-year-old Watford City businessman, mayor of the town, a husband and a dad. Now, without a lick of legislative experience other than testifying endlessly on behalf of the oil patch communities, he could be presiding over the state Senate during the 2017 legislative session and partnering with a new governor for the next four years.

His phone is ringing off the hook. Everyone wants to schedule time with him at this annual meeting or that statewide conference or this committee hearing. He's also half of a dynamic campaign with surprise Republican gubernatorial primary winner Doug Burgum that starts now and won't stop until the election bell rings Nov. 8.

Even all that isn't stressful for this self-admitted adrenaline junkie.

S&S Motors, the car dealership he owns at a busy corner in a busy oil town, was literally being torn apart last week in a transition to a new location and new operational format. The power blinked on and off in the building, and staff was at loose ends as men came in to disassemble the furniture and carry it out the front door.

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"This, now this is stress," Sanford said, holding down a showroom couch because the lights, his computer, the whole works, was blacked out in his office.

Sanford's business will be split - with the service shop operating under a new name as S&S Motors and co-lease the current building with the town post office. The business move comes at a time when Sanford's facing the possibility that everything else in his life could change, too.

He and his wife, Sandra, have three children ages 15, 8 and 5, and, if elected, he'll be separated from them while they finish the upcoming school year in Watford City. The plan is that they'll join him then.

"I just really thought my kids would graduate from high school here like I did. It's hard on me to think of that growth in the school without my kids - we came home for that," Sanford said.

They came home a dozen years ago when, as Sanford related in a town documentary, he realized he and his family had the appearance of everything.

"I woke up one morning (in Denver) and realized we had nice cars, social opportunities and a nice home, but I felt completely alone in a city of 3 million," he said for that documentary.

They decided to leave their jobs - he was financial officer at Transwest Trucks, a dealership and manufacturing operation with 400 employees - cash in and come home to family. The couple had no a clue that the modestly robust Watford City of 2004 where they staked their future would within six years become the epicenter of one of the biggest shale oil plays in the world and he, as a new mayor, would play a key role in how it all played out.

Strong reputation

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He gained a reputation for standing up for western North Dakota, for equitable funding to get services, roads and schools in place for the thousands of new residents piling into the communities.

Vawnita Best, a McKenzie County commissioner who's related through marriage, said it was a surprise, but not a surprise when Sanford told family about his decision to join the Burgum ticket.

"Who would be more qualified after what the state's been through here in western North Dakota? We need a vision for strong rural communities, and this is the east and the west converging in the Capitol," she said.

There hasn't been much mixing of east and west at that level in modern times.

Former Gov. Art Link, of Alexander, held office from 1973 to 1981, and Orville Hagen, also of Watford City, was lieutenant governor from 1961 to 1963. Otherwise, the office has been fairly dominated by candidates from east of the Missouri River.

So, there was the opportunity to bring the west to Bismarck and then there was Sandra Sanford, who wasn't having any of her husband's self-doubts.

"She didn't want me to take the easy way out and say no. She told me a door is opening," Sanford said.

Sandra Sanford backed off her respiratory therapist career to raise the kids, but still keeps an active community profile in such things as heading a local human trafficking task force. She describes the two of them as "true blue North Dakotans to the core." When the invitation to join the Burgum ticket came in, she said they dealt with it like they do all important decisions.

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"We are Christians, and we don't move without prayer. As a family, we are at absolute peace with this. We're comfortable with failing, and we knew he wasn't going to lose even if they lose," she said.

On the other hand, she says, "We are not presumptuous. We will stay here until November and keep the kids in school through 2017."

She was with the kids at vacation Bible school the night the primary returns came in, so her husband was alone at home with his computer and phone, somewhat dazed as the returns started coming in, county after county in their column.

"It fell on me like a ton of bricks," Brent Sanford said of that moment, when he saw there was no turning back.

Sandra Sanford said she has complete faith in her husband's ability to do the job and sees him as a deeply intelligent man whose objectivity helps him redefine and restructure everything he touches. They've known each other since childhood, but didn't date until college while she was in the respiratory therapy program at North Dakota State University and he was earning a bachelor's degree in accounting at rival University of North Dakota, eventually becoming a certified public accountant. They graduated in 1994.

"I'm his biggest cheerleader and his biggest critic. We debate and talk, and there's depth to our conversation. We have the skin, the head and the heart for this," said Sandra Sanford, adding she is ready to live out her husband's political destiny, whatever that is.

"We've been married for 22 years, and I've always embraced the changes that have taken place in our life," she said. "If he's elected, my focus will be on our family and what happens will reveal itself."

Another transition

Brent Sanford also is thinking about the possible transition from Watford City government after 10 years. Who will be mayor if he leaves office? Should he resign so it could be filled in November, by election, or wait?

The current council is young, three are new and three are half-way through a term, so there's just six years' experience among all of them.

"None of them is putting their hand up in the air," he said.

If he leaves the post, it'll be with satisfaction of a job done as well as he could in the biggest transition the city has ever seen.

The city has $150 million in debt for projects that benefit the general populace, not private developers, and most of it backed by oil production revenue and sales tax, not general property tax, Sanford said.

"If we had gotten into all that infrastructure for developments, we could easily have another $150 million in debt, but we've only done the streets around public buildings and we made a choice to do that," he said. "We're at a point with water and wastewater systems, we've solved it for the population that's foreseeable here."

He remains focused for his community, which he believes is still ripe for opportunity as oil companies start looking at filling their ranks with permanent geologists when oil drilling starts up.

The primary campaign gave him the opportunity to get up close and personal with the whole state, and out there he found vibrant cities and towns that have potential and need leadership. He said he hopes the business acumen and focus on technology that he and Burgum would bring to the table in a relationship where Burgum functions as a chief executive officer and he as a chief operating officer will set the stage for making a genuine difference across all levels of population and geography.

"With technology, the future really knows no bounds. Our millennials are moving home; they get where they want to be and then they look for a job. We need to make sure the community is what it wants to be," he said.

At the same time as he looks ahead, he looks back at the dozen years that have been rich in family dinners and gatherings, watching the kids play with cousins and strengthening the ties that bind.

Sanford said he put off telling his mom about his decision to go with Burgum, but like any mom with a finely tuned sixth sense, she knew something was up.

"She took a deep breath and said she was so proud, but she wished I didn't have to move away from here," he said.

Sandra Sanford with her children, Sydney, 15, Erin, 5, and Nicholas, 8. She says if her husband, Brent Sanford, is elected to serve as lieutenant governor, along with gubernatorial candidate Doug Burgum, her focus will remain on family. SUBMITTED PHOTO
Sandra Sanford with her children, Sydney, 15, Erin, 5, and Nicholas, 8. She says if her husband, Brent Sanford, is elected to serve as lieutenant governor, along with gubernatorial candidate Doug Burgum, her focus will remain on family. SUBMITTED PHOTO

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