Burgum Lifts "Conflict Of Interest" Argument From Democrats


Yesterday Mike Nowatzki dropped a story about oil and coal interests seeming to pick a side in the Republican gubernatorial race. Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem has received tens of thousands of dollars from groups and individuals aligned with those industries.

Burgum has not. This is probably an indication of which way the oil/coal folks think the wind will be blowing on primary day. It may also be a reaction to the fact that Scott McNally, a “policy director” for the Burgum campaign, once wrote that using fossil fuels is “socially irresponsible.”

Stenehjem hasn’t always been a favorite of the oil/coal folks, but he’s got a decades-long track record of governing that they’ve probably decided they can live with. Burgum, on the other hand, is an unknown quantity.

But that’s just me reading between the lines.

More interesting is how Burgum responded to Nowatzki’s inquiries about the donations. He used a talking point we usually get from North Dakota Democrats. He accused Stenehjem of a conflict of interest in taking these donations, since Stenehjem sits on the North Dakota Industrial Commission which regulates aspects of both oil and coal activity in the state (emphasis mine):

As for Stenehjem’s contributions, Burgum said he believes a conflict of interest exists when candidates accept donations from those they regulate – especially when Stenehjem will continue to sit on the state Industrial Commission whether he wins or loses, because the elections for governor and attorney general are staggered by two years. Stenehjem serves with the governor and state agriculture commissioner on the three-member commission, which oversees the state’s Oil and Gas Division and also controls its oil and gas and lignite coal research programs.

“If you’re a member of the NDIC and you’re asking for someone’s support and you regulate that industry and they know you’re going to continue to regulate them, think about the power dynamic,” Burgum said.

Stenehjem said he doesn’t see a conflict of interest in accepting contributions from oil and coal interests, saying, “It’s all a matter of doing a job.” He said the industries have backed him for years because they appreciate his efforts as attorney general to fight federal overreach, including the state’s lawsuit against the Clean Power Plan, which he called “a job killer” for coal country.

That argument Burgum makes in bold has been tried by Democrat candidate Ryan Taylor, in 2012 when he ran for governor and in 2014 when he ran for Agriculture Commissioner (a position which also has a seat on the NDIC). Democrat candidates for the Public Service Commission – including Brad Crabtree, Tyler Axness, and Todd Reisenauer – tried it as well. So did U.S. House candidate Pam Gulleson who ran for the Democrats in 2012.

Not a single one of these candidates found success with this tactic. All were defeated. Soundly.

Heck during the 2012 cycle lawyers with a Democrat-aligned activist law firm sued over those sort of contributions, only to see their case tossed out of court.

So why on earth would Burgum go there? Is he so desperate for talking points against Stenehjem that he’ll resort to the sort of loser arguments Democrats have been making, over and over again, with zero success?

Also, I’m pretty sure Burgum would absolutely accept campaign contributions from oil and coal interests, despite the fact that the position he’s running for also has a seat on the NDIC. In fact, I’m pretty sure that Burgum has already taken campaign contributions from business people whose bottom lines would be enhanced by the sort of policies Burgum would promote.

And that’s fine! That’s great! That’s democracy! There isn’t a single thing wrong with it. If farmers or teachers or the CEO of some tech start up in Fargo want to help Burgum get elected by giving him money because they think he’ll implement policies that will benefit their careers or businesses or lives in some way, well, that’s how representative government works.

It should all be disclosed, of course, and to a greater degree than North Dakota’s campaign finance laws currently require.

But to call these donations – which by the way have been disclosed and are perfectly lawful – conflict of interest? That’s ridiculous.

Burgum should have left this particular talking point to the Democrats.