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Jacobs: Moody weather and politics: March in ND

In North Dakota in the middle of March, time seems to end, then start again. Winter sports wind down. Class B boys basketball has a new state champion, the Indians of Four Winds-Minnewaukan, triumphant behind stars named Red Fox, Feather and Thre...

In North Dakota in the middle of March, time seems to end, then start again.

Winter sports wind down.

Class B boys basketball has a new state champion, the Indians of Four Winds-Minnewaukan, triumphant behind stars named Red Fox, Feather and ThreeIrons.

Newly styled the Fighting Hawks, UND’s hockey team emerged winless from the conference’s Frozen Face-off. Hopes now are pinned on regional tournaments and confidence in the team’s CBS Line: Caggiula, Boeser and Schmaltz.

The university got a new president and a sharper sense of the budget challenges that lie ahead. News about doomed programs spread across campus, drawing protests. Word of leaky boilers that require repair presaged yet more spending on infrastructure at a cost to academic programs.

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Money will be the new president’s greatest challenge.

His name is Mark Kennedy, a former congressman from Minnesota, now running a graduate program in political management at George Washington University in Washington.

Kennedy faced the two strikes against him squarely. When the Board of Higher Education chair greeted him as Congressman Kennedy, he replied, “Call me Mark,” thus deftly diminishing the notion that he might think too highly of himself.

And when the chair asked if he had any question for the board, he said, in effect, is there anything that troubles you about my application? A member replied with a question about a terminal degree. Kennedy offered a list of universities that have turned to political figures without doctorates to fill their presidencies. Thus he tied his own fate to an academic trend.

The new president will have big shoes to fill. Ed Schafer, the interim in the job, has proven to have near perfect pitch. He arrived at the board interviews carrying a backpack. He sat next to the student body president. Earlier he had invited students protesting cuts to the music department to an impromptu reception on the lawn of the president’s house. They responded with an impromptu performance.

The program remains on the block, nevertheless.

The search for a new president lasted several months, and it should dispel the notion that the state’s open recruitment process discourages applications. There were 43 candidates and six finalists.

In politics, Doug Burgum began his television campaign in a grain elevator - one of the oldest continuously operated businesses in the state, begun by his ancestors who traded grain for the bonanza farmers. He bet the farm to build a 21st Century business, Great Plains Software; and when he sold it to Microsoft, he made himself, his family and many of his employees rich.

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In his inaugural ad, he stands in front of a map of the state. As he talks, red dots pop up marking every high school whose graduates he’s hired.
Jobs, he says. Reinvention. A new economy.

Burgum’s challenge to the status quo is yet unanswered from other Republicans. They are concentrating on a convention at the end of the month. Burgum is looking at the primary election in June.

The other Republican candidates are Wayne Stenehjem, now attorney general, the presumptive favorite, and Rick Becker, a member of the state House who is pretty much an ideological libertarian.

On the Democratic side, faint stirrings are heard.

Candidates for governor and lieutenant governor have emerged. Both are rural legislators, Rep. Marvin Nelson of Rolla for governor and Sen. Joan Heckaman of New Rockford for lieutenant governor.

Both are solid, thoughtful lawmakers.

In his announcement, Nelson pushed back at Big Oil by expressing concern about how landowners - and the land - have been treated.

Big Agriculture is under fire, too. A plan for a hog farm at Buffalo, N.D., drew angry reaction, dividing the town of 200 people about 40 miles west of Fargo.

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The Legislature’s decision to allow corporations to own livestock farms - including pig farms - is on the primary election ballot, referred by petitions circulated by the North Dakota Farmers Union.

It’s a referral. People against the farms will have to vote No.

Add some possible legislative contests to the primary mix, and you’ve got a political season to anticipate.

One last political note: U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., is in Havana with the president. This continues North Dakota’s push for openness that Byron Dorgan pursued while he was in the Senate.

These Democrats see hungry Cubans as customers for North Dakota commodities.

North Dakotans paused to remember Sheila Schafer, stepmother of Ed, the interim president and former governor, and to smile at the memory.

She was a larger-than-life figure, a huge presence in Medora, the state’s premier tourism enterprise. She liked to dress in wide, western-style skirts and greet visitors personally.

North Dakotans called her “The First Lady of Medora.”

Then the weather turned sharply colder, ending what had promised to one of the earliest onsets of spring that any of us remember, and restarting winter.

It’s the middle of March in North Dakota, bittersweet as ever.

Related Topics: MIKE JACOBS
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