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Mike Jacobs: Sarah Vogel brings state pedigree to UND conference

Vogel’s book is her retelling of the Coleman case, which challenged the Farmers Home Administration handling of agricultural loans.

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The 53 annual UND Writers Conference begins at noon Thursday, March 24, with a panel titled “Work.” The panelists are Jessica Bruder and Sarah Vogel. That last name will be familiar to North Dakotans. Sarah Vogel has one of the state’s longest political pedigrees.

At 4 p.m., Vogel will read from her book, “The Farmer’s Lawyer/The North Dakota Nine and the Fight to Save the Family Farm.”

Bruder will read at 8 p.m. A writer for the New York Times, she is the author of “Nomadland,” which examines a subculture of workers who travel from job to job, including jobs in the Red River Valley sugar beet harvest.

Vogel’s book is her retelling of the Coleman case, which challenged the Farmers Home Administration handling of agricultural loans. It is named for Dwight Coleman, the lead plaintiff in the case. He raised cattle and grain near Dunseith, N.D.

The book is a kind of legal adventure story with both heroes and villains. The farmers, of course, are heroes and the lenders – in this case a government agency – are villains. Vogel herself is the heroine of her story, although she takes care to be modest about the achievement.

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Vogel’s family has been prominent in North Dakota affairs for a century. Her grandfather, Frank Vogel, was elected to the North Dakota House of Representatives in 1920, and in the 1925 season he was the floor leader for the Nonpartisan League. Working with William “Wild Bill” Langer he rebuilt the League after its fall from power. By 1932, the NPL had morphed into Langer’s political machine. While Langer was the driver, Vogel was the man who kept the machine running, the “fixer,” so to speak. He served consecutively as tax commissioner and highway commissioner, the latter an especially rich vein of patronage jobs in the Depression years. In 1937, he became manager of the Bank of North Dakota, a job he kept until 1945. In 1950, he was the League’s unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate in the Republican primary. He died in 1951.

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Robert Vogel — his son and Sarah Vogel’s father — became an attorney. Dwight Eisenhower appointed him U.S. attorney for North Dakota, a position he held until 1961. In 1962, he ran for the U.S. House of Representatives. By that time, the League had migrated to the Democratic Party, and Vogel followed. Gov. Arthur A. Link, a Democrat, appointed Vogel to the state Supreme Court in 1973. He was elected to a full term in 1974, but resigned in 1978. He established a law firm in Grand Forks, specializing in medical malpractice cases. Although Langer had stayed with the Republican Party, Vogel remained a Langer loyalist. In 2004 he published “Unequal Contest: The Story of Bill Langer and his Political Enemies.” Robert Vogel died in 2005.

Sarah Vogel followed her success in the Coleman case by running for and winning the office of commissioner of agriculture in 1988. She was the first woman elected to the job in U.S. history. As ag commissioner she was a member of the Industrial Commission, which governs the state-owned Bank of North Dakota and the North Dakota Mill and Elevator and oversees the state’s oil and gas industry. On the commission, she played a role in launching John Hoeven’s political career. She and former U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, both Democrats, suggested Hoeven for leadership of the Bank of North Dakota. Although he flirted with the Democratic Party, Hoeven ultimately became one of the Republican Party's biggest vote getters, winning the governorship three times, first against Heitkamp in 2000. He was re-elected in 2004 and 2008 before moving to the U.S. Senate in 2020.

Hoeven faces a challenge from Rick Becker, a member of the state House of Representatives and the prime mover of the right wing of the state Republican Party. His tactics are remarkably similar to those used by the NPL a century ago, except that the League came from the left.

The Vogels remained staunch Leaguers. In “The Farmer’s Lawyer,” Vogel draws extensively on League history and weaves it effortlessly into the narrative of her own “insurgency,” the class action suit that she won.

Another hero of the story is U.S. District Judge Bruce Van Sickle, although his ruling for the plaintiffs wasn’t all Vogel wanted. Vogel celebrates his judgment that the foreclosure law had been too broad and that it disadvantaged farmers, but he laid the blame on national administrators rather than on state administrators who were more directly involved in the case. As a class action, the decision affected about 16,000 farmers nationwide.

It’s notable that Van sickle was the presiding judge in another landmark case, the one that brought reform to North Dakota’s treatment of people with mental challenges. Van Sickle died in 2007.

Vogel’s book is sprightly written. Although the issues are complex and the consequences weighty, the book itself is not a heavy lift. Like I said, it’s a legal adventure story.

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Others at this year’s Writers Conference are Kelli Jo Ford and Kaitlyn Greenridge, both novelists, and Hanif Abdurraqib, a poet. The conference runs through Saturday. The weekend events are online only. Details are at www.undwritersconference.org.

Full disclosure

Suezette and I have known Sarah Vogel for more than 50 years, way back when she was known as “Sally.” We were on the UND campus at the same time and hung out at the same places. She’ll be honored with the Sioux Award, UND’s highest, at Homecoming in the fall.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.

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