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Jacobs: Bonusgate: A gift to North Dakota Democrats

GRAND FORKS -- North Dakota's gubernatorial race grew interesting again last week, after a month or so of disappointment. Democrats got a candidate and an issue. Sarah Vogel offered herself as a candidate -- though she stopped short of saying she...

GRAND FORKS - North Dakota’s gubernatorial race grew interesting again last week, after a month or so of disappointment.
Democrats got a candidate and an issue.
Sarah Vogel offered herself as a candidate - though she stopped short of saying she will make the race.
Jack Dalrymple, the sitting governor, provided an issue, though he didn’t intend to.
Vogel is a serious candidate with a serious pedigree in North Dakota politics.
Members of her family have been active in North Dakota politics for 80 years. Her grandfather, Frank Vogel, was Wild Bill Langer’s most important confidant. Langer, successively attorney general, governor and U.S. senator, was arguably the most colorful political figure ever to emerge from North Dakota.
Robert Vogel, Sarah Vogel’s father, was U.S. attorney for North Dakota, a candidate for the U.S. House and a member of the state Supreme Court. He ended his career as a trial lawyer in Grand Forks, often pursuing medical malpractice cases.
This was a family of loyalists. In retirement, Robert Vogel wrote a book debunking the legal case brought against Langer, including an effort to deny him a U.S. Senate seat.
Sarah Vogel herself served two terms as state agriculture commissioner, where she maintained a reputation for activism that she’d developed as an advocate for distressed farmers displaced during successive ag crises in the 1970s and 1980s.
She left the ag commissioner’s office in 1997 and rebuilt her law practice.
So she has political experience.
She’s also smart. As a lawyer, she’ll be able to hold her own in debates with the likely Republican candidate, Wayne Stenehjem, the state’s attorney general.
But there are challenges.
She’ll be 70 before the election. If she wins, she’d become the oldest serving governor in the state’s history.
It’s been 20 years since her name has been on an election ballot. Although she had a strong band of friends and supporters, most of them are older, too. Of course, they belong to a generation of activists. Maybe they’ll rally for one more big contest.
Gender could be a factor, too. It’s possible that 2016 will be a breakthrough year for women in politics, with the strong prospect of a woman presidential candidate. That could energize some voters.
But then there’s the issue of resources. North Dakota’s Democratic Party is poorly organized and close to broke. The second factor is crucial to mounting a campaign, the first to identifying voters and getting them to the polls.
So for Vogel, as for any Democrat, the campaign will be a challenge.
Dalrymple provided an issue when he gave his staff bonuses. This is standard practice in the business world, of course, and the bonuses weren’t all that large compared to those that corporate executives routinely receive. The total was not quite $100,000, about 2.5 percent of the office salary pool.
The money isn’t extra; it came out of the pool - money appropriated by the Legislature but left unspent, in other words.
But the bonuses brought a flurry of criticism - from Republicans as well as Democrats.
The bonuses present a three-fold problem.
One is the money, of course. This raises questions about fiscal priorities. Some of the bonuses were more than the annual salaries of state employees, including some teachers - a situation one Democratic legislator called “obscene.”
Another is the limited number of people who got the money, most of them political insiders. This raises an issue of favoritism. It also angers state employees, who are important voting bloc.
Most telling, though, the bonuses raise the issue of cronyism, both within and outside the government.
Ron Rauschenberger, the governor’s chief of staff, may have unwittingly played to that notion when he admitted that he’d received some “very nice” overtures from private businesses. To counter those, Dalrymple gave Rauschenberger a bonus of $31,960 to stay on the job. That amounts to 20 percent of Rauschenberger’s annual salary.
Again, that’s not a huge bonus in corporate terms - but corporations pay bonuses to those who make money. At least, that’s what they are supposed to do. That’s not what government does.
Democrats have suggested that Dalrymple’s government is too close to the businesses that it regulates, citing a laundry list of oil spills, illegal dumping and other violations of regulations. These have attracted lots of attention outside the state, notably comedian John Oliver’s rant last month.
This - and critical coverage in national media, including the New York Times - hasn’t phased the administration, though.
Dalrymple’s gift has a different feel to it. Extensive coverage on the state’s front pages, criticism from editorial writers and bloggers and the outcry from Democrats and Republicans alike may resonate with North Dakotans, though. Expect more of “Bonusgate” as the campaign develops.
One other important question remains about the gubernatorial campaign: Will he or won’t he? He is Doug Burgum, who has suggested he might run, either in the Republican primary or potentially as an independent.
His entry would skew things a bit, mixing up the campaign in ways that aren’t quite predictable yet.
Jacobs is retired as editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald, which is a part of Forum News Service. You can reach him at mjacobs@gfherald.com .

Related Topics: MIKE JACOBSMIKE JACOBS
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