Burgum Mailer Accuses Stenehjem Of Inappropriate Relationship With Lobbyists

On the campaign trail gubernatorial candidate Doug Burgum likes to say that he looks forward to working with his opponent, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, once he gets elected. The tongue-in-cheek joke being that Stenehjem won’t win the gubernatorial race.

But given some of Burgum’s campaign messaging, I can’t imagine he expects to have a good relationship with Stenehjem at all if he wins. Case in point, the four-page mailer below paid for by the Burgum campaign (and sent in by a SAB reader) which is made up to look like a newspaper complete with fake headlines about Stenehjem’s salary, skyrocketing crime, supposedly inappropriate relationships with lobbyist, and Burgum’s promise to forgo his salary if elected governor “shaking up” the race.

I’ll admit, that last one had me rolling my eyes.

The whole production is a little over the top. It’s cat nip for the sort of voter who already doesn’t like Stenehjem, but does the Burgum campaign really think this is going to win over people who like Stenehjem? Or knock undecided voters off the fence onto their side? I’m not so sure. It comes off as a little…slimey. Something kind of desperate from a candidate who is at the point in his campaign where he’s just going to throw everything at his opponent to see what might stick.

“Truly a new low in politics in our state,” the reader who sent it to me said.

Perhaps.

Still, there are some pretty serious accusations made here. Let’s take a look at them.

Skyrocketing crime?

The mailer points to rising crime in North Dakota, and of course blames that on Stenehjem. But we all know what really drove the increase in criminal activity in our state was the oil boom and all the new people it attracted. Which is hardly Stenehjem’s fault.

Also, I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that North Dakota’s crime has skyrocketed. I wrote about the most recent state crime report last year which covered data through 2014(we won’t get a new report covering 2015 until later this summer). For 2014 the AG’s office began using a new reporting method called the National Incident-Based Reporting System. The NBIRS groups crimes into two categories, which is Class A crimes and Class B crimes. You can see lists of the types of crimes in each category here, but Class A crimes are the most serious.

And if we look at the trend line for the Class A crime rate in North Dakota was see is an upward trend, but hardly something anyone would compare to a skyrocket:

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What’s more, if we go back to the FBI Index Crime rate, which the state used prior to NBIRS and which tracks fewer crimes, the trend line is actually down.

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I think the NBIRS numbers are actually a more comprehensive look at the state, but while they do show an upward trend in the rate of the most serious crimes, Burgum is guilty of some gross exaggeration here.

Inappropriate relationship with lobbyists

According to the mailing, Stenehjem’s “close ties to lobbyists” are under scrutiny by “watchdogs” in North Dakota.

But these supposed ties are legal and disclosed contributions made to Stenehjem’s campaign. Burgum has, lifting a talking point from North Dakota Democrats, made an issue out of those donations before, yet he hasn’t ruled out accepting those contributions from energy industry organizations and other groups. I get that some people don’t like that “big oil” or “big coal” or whatever makes contributions to political candidates, but Burgum is making out to be some sort of crime, which is silly.

The mailer also mentions Stenehjem’s taxpayer-funded travel, mentioning that he’s spent $20,000 on “out-of-state meetings with lobbyists” in places like Hawaii and Washington DC.

But first, how many years is that $20,000 spread out over? Stenehjem has been Attorney General since 2000. If that $20,000 is spread out over all the years of his service we’re talking about far less than $2,000 per year? That’s not exactly lavish travel.

And who are these “lobbyists” Stenehjem has been traveling to meet? That term, “lobbyist,” can apply to a lot of groups, some of which North Dakotans might actually want their Attorney General meeting with.

Stenehjem’s salary

The one part of the mailer that isn’t shrouded in innuendo is the bit about Stenehjem’s salary. I wrote an in-depth post last month about how the Attorney General’s Office got a big, fat raise under Stenehjem. The mailer actually appears to have lifted a graph from my post.

As you can see, AG pay under Stenehjem has increased 119 percent:

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The argument for the Legislature increasing the pay was that the AG position is one of just two on the statewide ballot which has an education requirement. Both the AG and the justices of the state Supreme Court must have legal degrees. The lawmakers thought the AG should be making a salary comparable to the justices.

But as my post pointed out, there was some angst among some lawmakers about the increase, and there have always been rumors that Stenehjem’s brother Bob – who was the Senate Majority Leader at the time – had a hand is pushing through the increase.

I don’t have any direct knowledge of that last, but but the spike in the AG pay is very real, though still North Dakota’s AG has just the 11th highest salary among AG’s in the nation.

So it’s not like our state is way out of line in terms of what other states are paying.

Here are photos of each page of the mailer. The rest is mostly about the state’s finances, and some syrupy hagiography about Burgum himself.

2016-06-03

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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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