McFeely: Burgum shows his anti-Trump side in State of the State

FARGO -- Gov. Doug Burgum spoke for about 34 minutes in his inaugural State of the State address to the North Dakota Legislature on Tuesday, Jan. 3. He covered some things you'd expect him to cover, including lowering property taxes (blah), re-in...

Mike McFeely, Oct. 17, 2015Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

FARGO - Gov. Doug Burgum spoke for about 34 minutes in his inaugural State of the State address to the North Dakota Legislature on Tuesday, Jan. 3. He covered some things you'd expect him to cover, including lowering property taxes (blah), re-inventing state government (blah, blah), and making downtowns walkable and attractive to talented young people (blah, blah, blah).

These are the ways he's going to Make North Dakota Great Again, to cop a line from the presidential candidate Burgum strongly backed in the November election. Donald Trump garnered 63 percent of the vote in the state, showing how wise Burgum was to back the Republican horse he backed. It also shows Burgum probably had some pretty good polling to indicate which horse he should back.

All of those items Burgum checked off his to-do list were things on which he campaigned. He will do his best to see them through.

But the new governor also threw a couple of curveballs that showed he might, indeed, be the different kind of North Dakota politician, something many hoped he would be.

Burgum spent considerable time acknowledging the state's drug crisis, sharing a personal story of meeting a homeless addict in downtown Fargo (during which he broke down). He also spoke of the state's broken relationship with its Native American citizens and his hopes of repairing it.


It was Burgum's anti-Trump moment, particularly when it came to the words he used when speaking of North Dakota's tribes.

"As a state government and as neighbors and citizens, we need to learn more and assume less about the histories and cultures within our borders," Burgum said.

Burgum spent about four minutes talking about Native American relations, which might be unprecedented in the recent history of gubernatorial speeches. He vowed to meet with leaders of all the state's tribes, with the goal "to understand each tribe's issues and circumstances so we can move forward together toward greater mutual respect, harmony and prosperity."

The impetus for Burgum's words, of course, was the Dakota Access Pipeline protest near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. He called the early part of the protest over water-quality concerns "legitimate," but said the movement was hijacked by out-of-state interests with a different agenda. He supported Standing Rock Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault's call for the remaining protesters to go home. These sentiments are not all that different from those held by Burgum's predecessor, Jack Dalrymple.

Beyond that, there are no similarities. Burgum spoke with eloquence and understanding not heard in the previous administration. And his words were in direct contrast to those spit out by powerful House Majority Leader Al Carlson of Fargo. It was Carlson who defiantly canceled the traditional tribal address to legislators last November, a move widely seen as payback for the protest.

"The history of American settlement and westward expansion contains many tragic episodes of broken promises, displaced native peoples and forced assimilation. It is in this context the Standing Rock situation must be understood," Burgum said. "This is not an issue that will simply go away once the pipeline is completed. Trust has been eroded and it will take time, effort and leadership to rebuild."

Burgum's message was jarring, in part, because he seems intent on treating Native Americans as actual constituents. As residents of North Dakota. As neighbors. As friends. And not, as has been the case, as adversaries. The change in rhetoric from the previous administration and most major media in the state could not be more obvious.

"As governor, I pledge my administration to a fresh start in our relations with all tribal nations who live with us and among us," Burgum said.


"We must work with resolve to shape a new future," he continued. "It will require leadership from all sides equipped with renewed empathy and humility."

Four minutes. About 12 percent of his entire speech. That's all it took for the new governor to inspire a new way of thinking about Native Americans in North Dakota. This is important.

Words are only that. Whatever action Burgum takes is far more important than what he says. But the fact he spoke about Native Americans, noticed that they lead a troubled existence in his state, already puts him miles ahead of the field.

If nothing else, it is important to note that a political leader can talk about business and taxes and growth-sure to be bulwarks of the new governor's administration-and still care about the less privileged among us. Success and empathy, perhaps, are not mutually exclusive.

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