At UND Drew Wrigley Likely Sees Some Low Hanging Fruit

Since announcing he will not be pursuing a gubernatorial campaign in the 2016 election cycle there has been a lot of speculation about what it is, exactly, Drew Wrigley is going to do once his term as Lt. Governor is up.

Most speculation has circled around Wrigley and the Attorney General position. The man who currently holds that office, Wayne Stenehjem, is expected by many to announce a run for governor soon. And given that Democrats aren’t likely to find a candidate capable of challenging and beating the enormously popular Stenehjem (more on that later today), it’s also expected that Stenehjem will win.

Which would leave him in a position to appoint his replacement at the Attorney General’s office. Something Wrigley – who spent years as a prosecutor on the east coast and then, later, as North Dakota’s U.S. attorney – would be eminently qualified for. And it would be a good move for Wrigley. He moves into a statewide elected office that is perhaps, after the governorship, the most consequential in the state. He runs for that office again in 2018, gaining some of the electoral experience which has been lacking from his resume (he’s been on exactly one ballot in his career, and that as running mate for current Governor Jack Dalrymple), and then perhaps he can consider a run for governor again down the road.

Wrigley, after all, is still a young man.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]Former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, urged by many to run for President in the 2012 elections, chose instead to become the president of Purdue University where he has built a reputation as an aggressive and competent reformer. Perhaps Wrigley sees a similar opportunity[/mks_pullquote]

When I spoke with Wrigley recently, though, he discounted this speculation pointing out that it’s simply too early to talk about such a thing. After all, Stenehjem has to choose to run for governor. And then win. And then vet and choose Wrigley as his successor.

And then news broke that Wrigley might be interested in running the University of North Dakota.

The first time you probably heard about this story was when Forum reporter Anna Burleson mistakenly reported that Wrigley wasn’t interested in the position at all. What he was saying (you can hear him correct the record with talk radio host Scott Hennen towards the end of the clip above) is that he hasn’t ruled out being in the mix for the permanent position, as opposed to being appointed the interim president of the school.

That’s surprising news to a lot of political observers, I think. The assumption has been that Wrigley’s ambitions are still political, even after the setback he suffered this year when he admitted to an extramarital affair. To that end, being the interim president at UND might make sense. He serves as caretaker for a year or so, collecting the sort of obscene salary higher education administrators make and keeping his name in the headlines in a generally positive way, all while considering his jump back into electoral politics.

But being the president of UND permanently? That would seem a path that’s far less likely to lead back to electoral politics any time soon, because the people doing the hiring for that position are going to want a long-term commitment.

There is some precedent for this, though. Former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, urged by many to run for President in the 2012 elections, chose instead to become the president of Purdue University where he has built a reputation as an aggressive and competent reformer.

Perhaps Wrigley sees a similar opportunity?

Things at the University of North Dakota are most certainly a mess. Current President Robert Kelley has managed, over the last couple of years, to alienate the students, alienate the faculty, and alienate vast swaths of the school’s alumni and sports fans.  That on top of the more general problems that plague higher education in North Dakota – bureaucratic bloat, skyrocketing costs for taxpayers and students, embarrassing graduation rates, and pedestrian academic outcomes – might be viewed by Wrigley as a dragon he could slay.

Which isn’t to say that I have any clue what Wrigley’s feelings on these issues are. Only that I suspect Wrigley sees an opportunity at UND to clean up a mess.

I suspect his success of failure would hinge on the degree to which he’s perceived as investing himself in the job. Is he there to fix UND? Or is he there to use UND as a political stepping stone to something else? I think the former would be true, but Wrigley would need to guard against his critics saying the latter is true.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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