Stenehjem kicks off campaign for governor with plans to build on state’s success, prioritize spending

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Wayne Stenehjem returned to the city where his political career started Tuesday to make official what had been expected: He will run for North Dakota governor.

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ND Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem announces his candidacy for governor as his wife, Beth, looks on at the Archives Coffee House on the UND campus in Grand Forks Tuesday. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Wayne Stenehjem returned to the city where his political career started Tuesday to make official what had been expected: He will run for North Dakota governor.

Stenehjem, North Dakota's Republican attorney general for the past 15 years and a former legislator from Grand Forks, launched his bid for the state's highest office during an event on the University of North Dakota campus. Flanked by family and welcomed by a crowd of supporters, Stenehjem said North Dakota has experienced unprecedented economic success, citing its low unemployment rate, thousands of job openings and quality of life.

"But this is no time to stop, this is no time to pause," he said, calling drops in ag commodity and oil prices a concern. "Now is the time to press on and vigorously multiply all of our efforts."

Stenehjem said the state's government should be able to "withstand the drop in revenue over the course of the next year or two." If commodity prices don't pick up, he said, "we're going to have to make some challenging decisions, and that's to fund our priorities, which starts out with education (and) public safety."

In a press release, he said the state must balance its budget without tax increases, and added his campaign will focus on diversifying North Dakota's economy.


Stenehjem also touted his work as the state's top law enforcement official. He highlighted drug and human trafficking as issues facing North Dakota, with drug arrests jumping 17.7 percent in 2014.

"We are making good progress on them and we'll continue to do that," Stenehjem said.

He will seek the Republican nomination at the party's convention in April in Fargo. State Rep. Rick Becker of Bismarck is the only other Republican to officially announce a bid to succeed Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple next year.

Fargo businessman Doug Burgum, who's mulling his own run for governor, attended Stenehjem's campaign kickoff in Fargo. The men have been family friends since Burgum's brother and Stenehjem roomed together while attending the UND Law School.

Burgum has said he'll announce his decision around January. If he does run, it would be as a Republican, said Adrienne Olson, a spokeswoman for Kilbourne Group, Burgum's property development firm. Burgum had previously said he wouldn't rule out a run as an independent.

Kylie Oversen, the North Dakota Democratic NPL-Party chairwoman and state representative from Grand Forks, said Stenehjem "brings a lot of experience to the table.

"We're glad to have a competitive candidate who will hopefully be willing to have serious conversations about the issues facing North Dakota," she said.


Off and running

Stenehjem, 62, was born in Mohall, N.D. He earned his law degree from UND in 1977 and was elected to the North Dakota House of Representatives in 1976 and then to the Senate four years later in District 42 in Grand Forks.

Stenehjem was elected North Dakota attorney general in 2000, and has won re-election four times with at least 68 percent of the vote, most recently in 2014. He is married to Beth Bakke Stenehjem and has a son, Andrew.

Earl Strinden, the former North Dakota House majority leader, introduced Stenehjem to supporters at the Archives Coffee House on University Avenue Tuesday morning. He called Stenehjem "well-prepared" and said he would be "an outstanding governor."

Dalrymple said in a statement this week Stenehjem would be an "excellent governor" but stopped short of an official endorsement.

Republican Sen. Tom Campbell of Grafton, who considered a run for governor before bowing out this month, said Stenehjem has an inherent name recognition advantage over other candidates. But Stenehjem was quick to push back against any assumptions that he's already the frontrunner.

"I know that there are those that think this election is a sure thing. It is not," he told supporters. "Every election requires a relentless commitment to our goals, with energy and enthusiasm."

At his campaign event in Bismarck attended by about 150 elected officials, lawmakers, lobbyists, neighbors, family members and others, Stenehjem said he has not committed to a running mate or an attorney general appointment should he be elected governor. Stenehjem said in late October that he had raised more than $40,000, but was unsure when asked about current fundraising figures Tuesday.


Stenehjem will announce his campaign in Minot and Dickinson today and Williston on Monday.

He indicated he will outline specific policy proposals "in the coming weeks and months."

Striking a balance

Meanwhile, Democrats may be closer to having a candidate of their own. Sarah Vogel, a Bismarck attorney and former North Dakota agriculture commissioner, said Monday she is forming a committee to explore a possible run for governor. She told Forum News Service she is more likely to jump in the race than she was earlier this month.

Oversen said she's "pleased" Vogel is looking into a run for governor, but didn't rule out someone else jumping in as well.

"We've kept other people in mind," she said. "I can't say that I know anyone else will jump in. I hope so, because I think that creates a better campaign and we end up with a better candidate overall."

Vogel said Stenehjem's record on the three-member state Industrial Commission and its regulation of the oil and gas industry could be vulnerable during the campaign. Oversen said Stenehjem has tried to bring "some moderation" to the commission, which includes the governor and agriculture commissioner, but added that he hasn't "done it with a strong enough of a hand."

Stenehjem defended his record on the Industrial Commission, which drew criticism from an environmental group in September after it voted unanimously to delay a goal to capture 85 percent of natural gas produced from oil wells.

"We are doing the proper thing to properly balance the interest of development and take care of our environment," he said. "There are those on the other side, and their goal isn't necessarily to reduce flaring, but to stop development. And those of us who want to continue development and protect our environment are striking the proper balance."

In Fargo, Stenehjem said that North Dakota's economic future is in the kind of research and tech businesses based in the state's largest city.

"Certainly agriculture and energy will be important," he said. "But going forward, the kind of high-tech things that are happening here in Fargo, West Fargo, in particular, are key things looking into the future."

Stenehjem said it's high-tech, well-paying jobs that are attracting young people to Fargo. "We need to emphasize the importance of diversifying our economy," he said.

Stenehjem said North Dakota needs to make sure there's ongoing funding to protect the Red River Valley from floods and droughts.

"Water's a critical issue. It always has been in North Dakota," he said.

Forum reporter Archie Ingersoll contributed to this report.


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