Challenger backs away from controversy involving ag commissioner


By Rob Port | North Dakota Bureau

BISMARCK, N.D. — Judy Estenson, a nurse and farmer from the Devils Lake area, announced last week she is challenging incumbent Commissioner of Agriculture Doug Goehring for the North Dakota Republican Party’s endorsement. News of Estenson’s campaign broke alongside complaints from 2012 over Goehring’s behavior with female staff, but Estenson says she’s not the one making those complaints the issue.

“There are suggestions I am personally attacking the commissioner,” Estenson said in an interview. “I haven’t read his file nor do I want to.”

She’s referring to a file from North Dakota’s Risk Management agency ,which reviewed human resources complaints over multiple incidents involving Goehring and female staff, including one in which Goehring referred to a group of female subordinates as his “harem” and another in which the commissioner invited a female subordinate to his hotel room to walk on his back. A former employee of the Agriculture Commission has accused Goehring of creating a “hostile work environment.”

“It was wrong and I apologize for it,” Goehring told Watchdog after an email to members of the North Dakota Farm Bureau in which he references the complaint was made public. The Farm Bureau is widely seen as backing Estenson’s campaign, and it made an announcement that included references to Goehring’s professional behavior jointly with Estenson’s campaign announcement.

Asked if she felt Goehring should resign over the complaints, Estenson said the “commissioner has to make that decision for himself,” noting that it’s “really important to have good relationships within your office.”

Estenson says what primarily inspired her decision to run against Goehring was his policy positions. She felt Goehring could have done more to speak out against a push by the Humane Society of the United States to implement new animal cruelty laws in the state.

“That was an extremely important issue,” she said. “We now have a felony charge tied to animal cruelty. I wouldn’t have gone along with most of what they asked for.”

Last year the state Legislature passed SB2211, which created felony-level punishments for some acts of animal cruelty.

“This is a step in the right direction for North Dakota’s animals, but it’s disappointing that the bill was watered down from its original version and falls short of what voters were promised,” Karen Thunshelle, North Dakota state director for The Humane Society of the United States, said in an April, 2013, news release. ”Every major newspaper in the state called on lawmakers to honor their word, but the Farm Bureau and agribusiness groups worked to scuttle it and weaken the law.”

Asked about the biggest issue facing agriculture in North Dakota during the term of the next commissioner, Estenson said, “I don’t know what the biggest one is,” but she listed property rights and the coupling of crop insurance to conservation in the recent federal farm bill as two major issues.

The North Dakota Republican Party will endorse candidates during their statewide convention in Minot, scheduled for the beginning of April.

Goehring was re-elected in 2010. He faced no primary challenger, and defeated Democrat Merle Boucher with 67.98 percent of the vote.

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