Last week, shortly after news broke that he’d be getting a primary challenger, North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring sent an email to members of the North Dakota Farm Bureau (the group backing his challenger) explaining some of his more controversial policy positions and admitting to some inappropriate conduct with staff.
“It was wrong and I apologize for it,” Goehring told me in an interview after I obtained the email. Subsequent open records requests revealed a Human Resources investigation into complaints over multiple incidents, including one in which Goehring referred to a group of female subordinates as his “harem” and another in which Goehring invited a female subordinate to his hotel room to walk on his back.
A former Ag Commission employee named Katie Pinke, who complained that Goehring once referred to her as a “babe in the woods,” claims that Goehring has created a “hostile work environment” that has driven several employees from state employment though, it should be noted, that an exit interview of one of the employees Pinke refers to – the one asked to walk on Goehring’s back – indicates that she didn’t have an issue with the Commissioner.
This weekend I interviewed the challenger whose announced candidacy drove these issues into the public spotlight. Judy Estenson is a nurse and farmer from the Devils Lake area, and when I asked her about these complaints over Goehring’s professional behavior she distanced herself from them.
“There are suggestions I am personally attacking the commissioner,” she told me in an interview. “I haven’t read his file nor do I want to.”
Asked if she felt Goehring should resign over his behavior, Estenson said the “commissioner has to make that decision for himself.”
Estenson said that 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 told me.
“We now have a felony charge tied to animal cruelty,” she said. “I wouldn’t have gone along with most of what they asked for.”
I asked Estenson what she thought the biggest issue facing agriculture in North Dakota during the term of the next commissioner, and she said “I don’t know what the biggest one is,” but listed property rights and the coupling of crop insurance to conservation in the recent farm bill as two major issues.