Today Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem is (finally, grumble, grumble) announcing his campaign for Governor. He joins state Rep. Rick Becker, a Republican from Bismarck, in the race.
Last week Becker was kind enough to give me about 45 minutes of his time to talk about his campaign, the issues he’s focusing on, his life as a practicing surgeon and businessman, and the state of the State of North Dakota.
One headline-worthy thing Becker told me is that after some contemplation he’s changed his mind on one of the high-profile abortion bills he voted against in a previous legislative session. He also spoke bluntly about the state’s declining revenues and the need to rein in spending, and his approach to business.
Something I forgot to ask Becker during our conversation was the specifics on how the candidate plans to pursue the nomination. Specifically, if Becker plans to the NDGOP convention or the primary, and if he will abide by the convention’s decision if he loses the nomination there.
“We plan on winning the convention and we do not anticipate a primary challenge,” Jared Hendrix, Becker’s campaign manager, told me.
A different perspective on abortion
This is going to be an interesting election cycle for social conservatives, at least as far as the Republican nomination race goes. Stenehjem has long been viewed by pro-life activists and other social issue voters as not being terribly social conservative. Becker, meanwhile, has a distinct libertarian bent and has a history of voting against legislation touted by social issues activists. Doug Burgum, should he join the Republican race, isn’t viewed as being socially conservative at all.
Where among these candidates do social conservatives feel comfortable?
That question may be instructing some of the moves we’re seeing the candidates make. Stenehjem, for instance, announced that his office will be asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a lower court ruling barring a six-week abortion ban – the “heartbeat bill” – passed by the legislature during its 2013 session. Becker, meanwhile, who has listed former North Dakota Right To Life executive director Paul Maloney as a campaign advisor, tells me that given the chance he’d change his “no” vote on that legislation to a yes.
“My position is a very libertarian-type position which is that a person has a right to their life, liberty, and property,” he told me. “My question that I didn’t have an answer to in my heart was when does a person become a person, when does a person have individual rights. Whenever that point is, a person can’t be aborted any more than you can kill a two year old. I had this lack of assurance as to when that is, so I voted no,” he said referring to the six week ban.
Becker did vote for the 20-week ban on abortion which was also passed in 2013, but says he now regrets his vote on the six week ban.
“The thing that’s different now, though I hate to make this any sort of a centerpiece because there’s nothing I loathe more than a flip-flopping politician, but prior to that vote I was in a position of having to make a clear cut position,” he said. “Since that vote and having lots of people saying ‘what do you believe in’. You have to pick a time. If you’re unsure you may make an error. On one hand you could end a life. On the other hand you could force a woman to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term. So I decided you err on the side of life.”
“The right to one’s life is of primacy. It’s number one,” he added. “So if I accept that at this point in my life I can’t say 100 percent when life begins, it behooves me if I make a mistake to err on the side of not taking someone’s life. It’s for that reason that I would be very unlikely to vote no on a six week bill.”
The candidate told me he doesn’t see this as a change in his philosophy. Only a change in how he applies it. “I’m so reluctant to look like I’m flip flopping for political advantage,” he said.
Becker also sought to defuse criticism over some of his votes against human trafficking legislation by pointing out one can object to the specifics of legislation while simultaneously agreeing with its goal.
“When I look at a bill I look at it closely and I look at what’s in a bill. Someone might be content to say this is a human trafficking bill you have to vote for it or you’ll look really bad,” he said. “But I have to look at the bill. Sometimes there are things in the bill that won’t accomplish what we’re thinking.”
“For example I voted no on a bill regarding domestic violence,” he continued. “I might have been the only no vote. The Democrats said how in the world could you vote on that. My answer was within the bill it said the past medical records of a victim would become public. That’s apparently so that they can look more easily to find a history of abuse. My concern was that a victim then has no say over their private history.”
Put a rein on spending
“We’ve had these dramatic increases in revenues these past several years,” Becker told me. “We’ve also had these dramatic spending increases. I have been an advocate to put a rein on that spending. Cut taxes, reform taxes. Pension reform.”
Becker very much sees some troubled times ahead for North Dakota, with oil prices down and the agriculture sector struggling. “Our revenues are falling way behind the updated forecast we got in March. Moody’s revised forecast was overly optimistic,” he said. “It entirely missed the mark on sales tax revenues. I’m not sure why becuse those of us in the business sector, those of us who are fiscal conservatives, saw that writing on the wall. Now the chickens have come home to roost.”
“Add into this the EPA intrusion with the Clean Power Plan, we’re looking at some really – I don’t want to say tough times in the sense of where things could go – but we are looking at a dramatically different fiscal picture than we were a few years ago,” he added.
But the candidate doesn’t want to be seen as opportunistic.
“It’s not that I see it as a golden opportunity that we have decreased revenues, it’s just a fact. We have a huge disparity in the amount of spending, and the level of government we have, versus the revenue we have now. Anyone who gets in will have to do spending cuts,” he said.
According to Becker, the important question for Republican delegates and voters is how spending cuts will happen, and whether tax hikes can be avoided.
“Will [spending cuts] be done in a manner that doesn’t have secondary consequences? Are they going to be done in a manner where everyone has to tighten their belts? I think there’s going to be tremendous pressure to increase taxes. We’ve made some tremendous gains in decreasing taxes. I don’t want to undo that,” he said.
“I hope people start discussing more how significant the issue is with revenues,” Becker continued. “I like to point out that last biennium we had a beginning balance of $1.5 billion. The next governor is going to have to create his budget, or her budget, with a beginning balance of about zero because Governor Dalrymple is going to have to use the budget stablization fund. That’s a huge difference right from the get go. That’s a big deal and we need to talk about it. That’s the crux of where we’re going to be at is how we deal with that.”
Rick Becker the principled businessman
Becker is definitely perceived as being principled and generally loyal to his ideals. His critics call him an ideologue and suggest that his principles are more akin to a sort of hidebound intransigence.
However you define it, there’s no question that Becker sticks to his guns. One fascinating window into how this plays out in his private life was a letter I found through open records requests in which Becker, as owner of Humpback Sally’s restaurant in Bismarck, requested that officials rescind the business Renaissance Zone status and the tax breaks which come with it.
In the letter Becker expresses his support for property tax abatements as a way for the city to lure investment into blighted areas, but objected to the income tax abatement he was receiving.
I asked Becker about the letter and he told me he’s fine with local tax incentives for local development, but had a hard time with a break from a statewide tax for local development.
“The Renaissance Zone has two components. One is the abatement of property taxes for five years, the other is an income tax abatement,” Becker said. “It may sound like I’m splitting hairs on that. I’m in favor of one part of that. The income tax abatement makes the entire state pay for that project.”
But Becker maintains that he’s against most government efforts to subsidize development.
“I’m a very vocal opponent to most government incentive programs. I’m very much a believer in the free market,” he told me. “The downtown areas have various incentive programs, primarily renaissance zones or TIF funding. I’m opposed to the TIF funding, I don’t think that’s the right way to go, I think that splices general fund revenues into special projects which increases tax burdens overall.”
Becker describes himself as a serial entrepreneur, though his chief occupation is as a plastic surgeon. “It’s something I was not instructed on. At the time they did not teach anything about running a business in my classes or my residency. I made a lot of mistakes.”
“I started Spa D’Athena, which was very successful,” Becker said, referring to a business which provides massage, nail, health, and beauty services in Bismarck. “It’s still going on, though I no longer own it. That was the first business I got into that wasn’t my medical practice.”
From there Becker expanded his business enterprises into development. “I got into some commercial real estate. Finally in the past couple of years I’ve been owner of a bar and restaurant complex in downtown Bismarck.”