With history against him and a slim pocketbook in hand, Democrat Marvin Nelson aims for governor's office

ROLLA, N.D.--Marvin Nelson isn't shy about assessing his position on his party's list of choices of candidates for North Dakota governor. Asked whether he felt like he was the Democratic-NPL Party's third pick to run for governor after North Dako...

North Dakota gubernatorial candidate Marvin Nelson talks about his campaign in his home August 19 in Rolla N.D. (Jesse Trelstad/Grand Forks Herald)
North Dakota gubernatorial candidate Marvin Nelson talks about his campaign in his home August 19 in Rolla N.D. (Jesse Trelstad/Grand Forks Herald)

ROLLA, N.D.-Marvin Nelson isn't shy about assessing his position on his party's list of choices of candidates for North Dakota governor.

Asked whether he felt like he was the Democratic-NPL Party's third pick to run for governor after North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said she wouldn't attempt a return to Bismarck and former Agriculture Commissioner Sarah Vogel bowed out, Nelson offered a quick-witted response typical of his blunt style.

"I think I'd be farther down the list than that," he said with a laugh. "I wasn't a name in the Democratic Party. Really, now I'm developing that name."

That's just one hurdle Nelson faces if he's to take the governor's office in November.

His main opponent, Republican Doug Burgum, has shown his willingness to drop plenty of cash on a well-oiled political campaign and advertising blitz. Nelson, an independent crop consultant from Rolla, said he had raised about $50,000 as of Aug. 19, a fraction of what Burgum, a former software executive who develops real estate in downtown Fargo, hauled in before the June primary election.


And then there's North Dakota's electoral history. Voters haven't elected a Democratic governor since 1988, and Republicans currently hold a supermajority in the Legislature and all but one partisan statewide or congressional office.

The third candidate in the gubernatorial race, Marty Riske, is running as a Libertarian.

Despite all the forces that may be against Nelson, he's in the race to win. He recounted how the experience of a volunteer firefighter persuaded him to run for the state's top job.

A couple of months before the state Democratic Party convention, Geremy Olson talked with Nelson about the financial hardship he endured after suffering severe injuries in a 2005 grassfire as a member of the Wilton, N.D., fire department and the fight over workers' compensation benefits that went all the way to the state Supreme Court. Olson shook Nelson's hand and thanked him for listening to his story.

"Geremy said, 'In 11 years, you're the first person who listened to me,'" Nelson said. "And that was the moment I was running for governor of the state of North Dakota."

Nelson, who's running alongside state Sen. Joan Heckaman, remembers telling Olson he didn't know if he could win the race for governor, but he would fight for change at the state agency that manages workers' compensation claims, North Dakota Workforce Safety and Insurance.

"It doesn't matter if I win this governor's race, or if I don't win this governor's race, I'm going to change WSI," he said. "I'm not going away until that happens."

'Like the rest of us'


Nelson's single-story home sits just east of the city limits of Rolla, a town of roughly 1,300 people about 10 miles from the Canadian border in Rolette County. On the main drag there's a Leevers Foods, shops, a bank and a consignment store the Nelsons own. Wind turbines tower over the flat earth in the distance.

After dining on tater tot hotdish on a recent afternoon, Nelson recalled life growing up on a farm near Rugby where his family raised a variety of crops along with livestock, including mink for fur. Nelson joked he was more afraid of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, than he was of a Russian attack.

That didn't mean the Nelsons ignored the potential dangers that came with the Cold War. Marvin's parents were involved in Civil Defense, the organization that prepared civilians for emergencies and disasters.

"Mom measured, I think, every basement in a couple counties for how good of a fallout shelter it was," Nelson said. "I can remember standing next to Dad at the kitchen table while he plotted out the fallout from Minot Air Force Base and so on."

Nelson attended what is now Dakota College at Bottineau before transferring to North Dakota State University, earning a bachelor's degree in entomology. It was at church where he met his future wife, Susan Ulwelling.

"I was praying for just the right man," she said.

Among her hopes was to find a man who helped farmers, given her father's struggles with plant disease, army worms and foreclosure. It also wouldn't hurt if he was sociable and likable.

Nelson fit the bill.


Nelson said he would have liked to farm himself, but a down agriculture economy made that difficult. He turned instead to crop consulting.

"He goes out and works for a living like the rest of us," Olson said in an interview.

Attention to policy

Nelson remembers taking an interest in politics from a young age, when he went to party conventions with his parents. His dad, Marlowe, was a township treasurer and a Pierce County commissioner.

Nelson has been secretary of the local Democratic Party for close to 30 years, and he ran for the Legislature as an independent in 1990. But it wasn't until 2010 that he was elected to the state House.

"I've always been really policy-oriented," Nelson said. "I can sit here and talk to somebody and disagree with them very strongly on a topic ... and I can just move on to the next thing, and I might be your best buddy."

Kylie Oversen, chairwoman of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party, said Nelson's knowledge of arcane policy issues and the inner workings of state government are among his biggest assets. She pointed to a recent editorial from the Minot Daily News that expressed surprise that Nelson visited the newspaper "armed with facts and figures, logic and reason that transcended party politics" rather than Democratic talking points.

Oversen, who is also a state representative from Grand Forks, remembered Nelson paying close attention to committee testimony on her bill to address the gender wage gap. When Nelson speaks on the House floor, his colleagues pay attention, she said.

"There's been a handful of times when he'll be one of the only votes or the only vote voting against something, and everybody kind of stops and questions what we missed that Marvin caught," Oversen said.

As governor, Nelson wants to increase day care availability, prevent property tax increases and do more to reclaim land harmed by oil development. While announcing the launch of his campaign in March, he said North Dakota is in "crisis," contrasting its reputation as the "best-run state" in the country.

Nelson's challenge is getting that message to voters.

"The biggest thing for a statewide candidate is just really traveling, hitting the road, getting to all of the communities and just being out there as often as you can so people learn who you are," Oversen said. "I think (he's) been fairly well-received when he actually has a chance to sit down and visit with people."

That's the case for Olson, who said his decision to support Nelson publicly is coming at a personal cost because his production company does work for both political parties during election season. He seconded Nelson's nomination during the state convention this year.

"The worst thing I could do is take a side publicly," he said. "I think highly enough of Marvin to forego that this election cycle or probably forever."

The race

Rolette County, which covers the same geographic footprint as Nelson's legislative district, is sparsely populated. Its 15.4 people per square mile is about a third of the population density in Grand Forks County and about 18 percent of the national average, according to census figures.

More than three-fourths of the 13,937 people who live there are Native American, and almost a third of the county's population lives in poverty.

Nelson said the state is "pursuing a policy to kill the rural areas," pointing to a lack of services such as mental health treatment.

"Everybody still thinks of a road and stuff as infrastructure," he said. "But the real infrastructure, when we all talk about diversifying the economy, is things like day care, health care, community services."

Nelson's concern about rural communities echoes one of his criticisms of Burgum. He worries Burgum, who has campaigned against the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, will seek to withdraw from Medicaid expansion under that law. That would "decimate" health care in the rural areas of North Dakota, Nelson said.

"The sad thing to me is, I don't even think he understands what he's saying," Nelson said.

Jahan Wilcox, a Burgum campaign spokesman, said Burgum was not available for a phone interview last week. In response to specific questions on his position on the Affordable Care Act and other criticisms Nelson had for the Republican candidate, Wilcox provided a written statement that touted Burgum as a "political outsider and a business leader who knows how to bring people together to get things done.

"As governor, Doug will work with Republicans and Democrats to build a new economy for North Dakota, which will create jobs and economic stability," Wilcox added.

Nelson, however, rejected Burgum's claim that he's a political outsider in part because he was honorary co-chair of Gov. Jack Dalrymple's 2012 campaign. He also questioned his conservative status, given the amount of money he spent on the primary election.

"He spends the most money ever in history to convince everybody that he's a conservative that knows how to cut spending," Nelson said, before alluding to his own fundraising. "I'm the guy who knows how to get by on less."

Oversen doesn't expect to close the spending gap between Nelson and Burgum, considering Burgum's network of donors and personal wealth. But if polls start showing Nelson within striking distance of his Republican opponent, he expects money to start coming in.

"People don't want to waste their money, when it comes right down to it," he said. "If we get to the point where the polls start to move, the momentum starts to go, it's going to be very interesting, because then stuff will start to come."

That also would upend what Nelson sees as the conventional wisdom about his chances in this race.

"That's been the typical media thing, '(He's) really smart, got a lot of good points ... Doesn't stand a chance in hell,' " Nelson said, before adding with a hearty laugh: "If we can get rid of that last line."

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