After Blistering Campaign Governor Burgum and Lawmakers Are Mostly Getting Along


TOM STROMME.Tribune Chief justice of the North Dakota Supreme Court Gerald VandeWalle, left, administers the oath of office to Governor Doug Burgum on Tuesday in the house chambers. Watching from left are Tom Burgum, 18, first lady Kathryn Helgaas Burgum and Jesse Burgum, 20.

During his campaign last year Governor Doug Burgum had a blistering message for voters about the status quo in Bismarck. One of a spendthrift “good old boys club” out of touch with the desires of the public.

It worked. Burgum won both a heated primary against Republican challenger Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and also a much less competitive general election campaign against Democrat Marvin Nelson.

But now Burgum is tasked with working with that “good old boys club,” and I think it’s fair to wonder how it’s going.

So far, legislative observers tell me, things have been very smooth.

There have been a couple of bumps in the road. Lawmakers aren’t cutting Burgum any slack when it comes to his desire to decline his gubernatorial salary. And Burgum seemed to vent a little frustration with the political process in a recent interview with WDAY, something I flagged in the inaugural iteration of my weekly notebook column.

Yesterday, though, a long time legislative observer told me he was impressed by how well lawmakers and Burgum’s administration have been getting along.

After hearing that I checked around with some other capitol sources and heard largely the same message. There is a sense of shared purpose between the legislative and executive branches right now. A level of cooperation unexpected given that just weeks ago many lawmakers, tweaked by Burgum’s campaign, were ready to make things difficult for him.

So what’s going on? There are multiple factors, I think.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]There is a sense of shared purpose between the legislative and executive branches right now. A level of cooperation unexpected given that just weeks ago many lawmakers, tweaked by Burgum’s campaign, were ready to make things difficult for him.[/mks_pullquote]

One is that most people elected in North Dakota politics are genuinely pursuing what they feel is best for our state. We sometimes have a habit of assuming that, because so much of the politicking we see at the national level is venal and cynical, that the same must be true of all politics. While North Dakota politicians are no saints, they’re far more pragmatic than what your average gadfly or partisan demagogue might want you to believe.

Also, while Burgum’s “good old boys” stuff may have ruffled feathers, it also earned him a lot of votes. Lawmakers are very, very aware of that fact.

Another factor is that Governor Doug Burgum appears genuine in his desire to be a curious and respectful sort of leader, a fact I can speak to from a place of experience. I’ve been sharply critical of Burgum at times, which has prompted him on a few occasions to reach out and discuss my criticism. We haven’t always ended those conversations agreeing, but there is something to be said about a willingness to engage.

Burgum’s approach permeates his administration, and that’s been like oil on troubled waters.

Notably, Burgum had a chance to scold the legislature when the state House voted down a bill banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. Before becoming governor, Burgum had been sharply critical of the Legislature for not advancing that policy. Some feared a tongue lashing from the executive branch when that bill failed, but instead Burgum’s criticism was restrained.

He expressed disappointment, but chose not to lecture.

This relationship may be strained by debates looming on the horizon. There is still a lot of work to be done on the state’s budgets, including making adjustments to reflect what changes may be coming in the state’s revenue forecasts, and few political debates are as rancorous as those over dollars and cents.

Next legislative session will kick off with a budget that is entirely Burgum’s, and not merely his tweaks on a budget crafted by his predecessor. Burgum has said he wants zero based budgeting.

It will be interesting to see how that goes over.

We’ve also yet to see Burgum wield his veto pen. While he may be solicitous of input from others, there is no question that Burgum has priorities he feels are important.

But that’s all the sort of friction we should expect between separate and equal branches of our state government. It’s part of the process. A feature baked into this form of republican government.

For now, though, it seems all involved have decided to govern like adults after the mudslinging of campaign politics.