Today’s column is a hodgepodge meant to update stories that have been developing for some time. We’re tying up loose ends, in a way. In the news biz, we call this “follow-up.”
Let’s start with COVID, the topic which leads most every conversation and most every television news program and most newspaper websites and front pages. Here the news is not good. As of Sunday morning, Aug. 23, the number of active cases in North Dakota was 1,676, according to the state Health Department’s online dashboard.
Grand Forks County has 39 new cases, the most in the state. This is related to UND’s aggressive testing program ahead of the opening of the fall semester.
Positive tests have led to quarantines, not just for positive tests but for those who live in the same residences — a kind of lockdown just as classes get underway.
Fewer cases have shown up on NDSU’s campus, which is in Cass County, which had 23 new cases on Sunday. Testing there has been less extensive.
The state’s top health officer abruptly quit last week after less than three months on the job. Dr. Andrew Stahl’s departure had nothing to do with “different points of view” about risk levels connected to the COVID pandemic, Gov. Doug Burgum said, explaining that these judgments include factors that fall to the governor, such as potential economic and even political impacts.
Opponents of a Measure 3, a proposed constitutional amendment, also have taken a preemptive approach, asking the state Supreme Court to invalidate the measure that would change fundamentally how public officials are chosen. The case revolves around whether changes in law that must be incorporated into the petitions presented to potential signers. The case reaches back to 1924 for precedents — precedents that have not been applied in the last several initiated amendments.
The court heard arguments last week. Expect a quick decision.
Another amendment on November’s ballot would require that the Legislature approve sending amendments to voters. This idea reaches even further into the state’s history, to the fight over a state-owned mill and elevator that began in the 1891 legislative session. That struggle took nearly 30 years and succeeded only when the Legislature’s lock on presenting constitution was broken.
Earlier in the summer, Democrats pointed out that the state’s Emergency Commission isn’t representative. The commission was established in 1895, and its membership has changed over the years, but as far as I can determine, no woman has ever been a member. Neither have many Democrats been members, although in the early 1990s, Democrats actually formed a majority of the commission’s membership. No Democrat has served there since Ed Schafer became governor in 1993.
Farther from home — though not really, since around half of North Dakotans live closer to the Canadian border than we do to Bismarck — Justin Trudeau has added new evidence supporting the notion that the Canadian government is inherently unstable. Trudeau prorogued parliament. This is the same maneuver Boris Johnson used to hasten Britain's departure from the European Union, a moved called “Brexit.”
It’s a handy tool for a government in trouble, though. Essentially, Trudeau stole the momentum from his critics and brought it back to his side of the political equation. His action means that Parliamentary committees investigating shenanigans — and allegedly worse — by close associates of Trudeau will have to suspend their work. What’s more, Trudeau will be able to present himself and his party’s program to the nation immediately ahead of a vote of no confidence in the parliament.
This could blunt the move for a vote of no confidence discussed in last week’s column. Trudeau emerges as a high-stakes gambler willing to exploit the weaknesses of his opponents. Not only does he get to outline the issues facing the country in a speech before a confidence vote, he takes advantage of weakness among his political opponents. The Conservative Party, which holds the next largest number of seats in Parliament, chose a new leader in the wee hours of Monday morning. He is Erin O'Toole, a "back-bencher" who served briefly as Veterans Affairs minister without any other leadership experience, so he'll be a greenhorn next to Trudeau.
The timetable here is tight: Trudeau could deliver his speech within a month.
A confidence vote could follow within a few days and a new election soon after. In other words, Canadians could be voting on national leadership before we Americans figure out whether we should be voting by mail or in person.
Finally, to end on a somber note, Bill Bowman died last week. He served in the state Senate for 28 years representing the state’s southwestern-most legislative district. For much of that time, he was a member of the Appropriations Committee.
Yet Bowman was literally a “back-bencher.” He often took a seat behind the brass rail at the rear of the chamber, where lobbyists and reporters and other hangers-on were confined. I’d known Bowman when I worked at the Dickinson Press, and in Bismarck, he became a trusted source. He was insightful, candid and not preemptive at all.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.