It’s the end of another year and this one went by all too quickly. That is all too often the case when it comes to good years, and 2014 was a very good year for SAB.
In addition to having the best year ever in terms of visitors and engagement (despite largely eschewing traffic-driving national topics and focusing almost exclusively on ND), and adding a number of very good regular contributors, we broke a lot of news here on the blog this year.
Here’s a run-down of the biggest stories from 2014 here on SAB (in no particular order):
Goering vs. Taylor
SAB had a significant impact on the trajectory of the statewide elections. The hottest race on the statewide ballot was without a doubt the competition between incumbent Republican Ag Commissioner Doug Goehring and Democrat Ryan Taylor. Despite a seat on the oil-regulating Industrial Commission being up for grabs, it didn’t look like Democrats were going to recruit a strong candidate. Taylor said in late 2013 that he wasn’t going to run for anything in 2014. But then SAB broke the news about Goehring facing complaints over inappropriate activity (calling his female staffers his “harem” for instance), and Goehring facing primary challenger in Judy Estenson backed by the North Dakota Farm Bureau, and suddenly Taylor was in the race thinking he could pick up a win over a weakened opponent. That didn’t work out so well (Taylor barely got over 40 percent of the vote despite a well-financed campaign), but he might not have been in the race at all had news of Goehring’s behavior not become public.
Rauschenberger vs. Astrup
Another race SAB had an impact on was the Tax Commissioner competition. Commissioner Ryan Rauschenberger was on the ballot for the first time since being appointed by Governor Jack Dalrymple to replace former Commissioner Cory Fong. He looked to be on cruise control to an easy victory after Democrats nominated little-known political newby Jason Astrup to run against him, but after I noticed a roll-over accident involving Rauschenberger’s vehicle it came out that the Republican had been struggling with alcohol addiction while in office. It turns out the car was driven by an inebriated friend of Rauschenberger’s and that the two had been day drinking on a Tuesday before the accident. Rauschenberger had loaned the car to his friend to get cigarettes. After the crash I spoke with Rauschenberger, who sounded inebriated at the time, and he told me he and his friend had been hanging out when his friend went for cigarettes and got into the crash. This explanation didn’t pass muster with me – what was a statewide elected official doing hanging out in the middle of a work day? – so I called Rauschenberger again and pressed him on the issue at which point he admitted to struggling with alcohol addiction. North Dakota voters proved forgiving, however, as Astrup got just 36 percent of the vote.
The ballot measures in 2014 got a lot more attention than the candidates. SAB published a lot of stories and columns which had an impact on the debate for all of the measures, but the blog by far had the biggest impact on the debate over Measure 5, which would have created a constitutional slush fund for conservation groups. First it was the Measure 5 ad claiming to feature a teacher in support of the measure who a) was no longer an active teacher b) had actually terminated her employment with her school district in the middle of a school year (to the chagrin of school officials I spoke with) and c) was sitting in a fake classroom in the ad. Oh, and the “teacher” just so happened to be married to an employee of Ducks Unlimited which was running the Measure 5 campaign. A lot of you readers felt the ad was false and manipulative, and after SAB broke the news about the ad that post was by far the most visited post on the blog in 2014.
But the fun with Measure 5 ads didn’t end there. Another story SAB broke was about a group of friends who had volunteered to be in official state tourism ads promoting fishing and hunting in the state, but then found themselves featured in ads for the very controversial Measure 5 which wasn’t something they supported. It turned out that the marketing group working on behalf of the conservation activists behind Measure 5 had figured out that photos and footage owned by the State of North Dakota was public domain and free to use. But the Measure 5 folks didn’t bother to ask the people in the footage if they wanted to be portrayed as endorsing their measure. I spoke several of the gentlemen in the ads and they told me how frustrated they were with the situation, and in some cases told me the ads were actually hurting their business.
I doubt the blowback from this ham-handed marketing campaign is what ultimately cost Measure 5 at the ballot box – almost 80 percent of voters said no – but it sure didn’t help.
As anyone who reads SAB knows, I focus a lot on higher education. I try not to be myopic about it, but I think it’s one of the most problematic areas of state government. A huge slice of our taxpayer dollars being spent on institutions which seem to have prioritized perks for administrators, payroll bloat, campus expansion, and athletics above academics and serving students. Contrary to popular belief, our universities are performing mediocre at best, and far too many people seem more concerned with the “economic impact” of the universities than academic outcomes.
I feel like SAB has really helped move the needle on this topic. When I first started focusing on higher education a few years ago the reaction I got from many people was scorn. Our universities were the “economic engines” which drove the state, I was told. They are “world-class” institutions. But these claims just don’t square with the facts, and after years of work I think a lot of people have woken up to the problems in higher ed.
In 2014, I think the biggest moment in covering higher education was when I published audio from a “public” meeting that SBHE President Kirsten Diederich had asked the public to leave. That audio featured board members speaking candidly about serious problems with governing the university system, and at least one out-of-control university president. Diederich and Chancellor Larry Skogen have tried to claim that they were happy I published the audio, which doesn’t exactly jibe with the fact that they’ve now fired their compliance officer Kirsten Franzen for, in part, tipping me off to the meeting (she didn’t).
It pains me that someone apparently lost their job because of the work that I’ve done, even if just in part and especially when the accusation is false. But the goal of anyone doing this work is impact, and I don’t think anyone can claim SAB lacks that.
The North Dakota University System is besieged with scandal, much of it stemming from a remarkable sort of ego-driven incompetence that I’ve never seen displayed anywhere else in my life. Let’s hope for change in the new year.
A Thank You To Readers
Those stories above are by no means an exhaustive list of the major posts on SAB this year. These are just the topics and stories that have stuck in my memory as significant (feel free to add some of your own below).
I hope you all enjoy a very happy, very safe New Years Eve. The readers are everything here at SAB. I’m often told that people see this blog as their only news source. I don’t believe it, though it flatters me. SAB is not a primary news source. I break stories and provide what I think is sound analysis and annotation of the news of the day, but there are a lot of good reporters in the state doing fine work which SAB links to every day. If you’re only reading this blog, you’re not getting the full picture.
But thank you for the fact that you do read. I learn a lot from you readers, the comments you leave and the emails you send. In fact, a lot of my best posts start with someone sending me a message starting something like “check this out.” Please, keep it up, and if I for some reason don’t write about what you send me don’t be offended. I’m a one-man band, and I’ve got my hands full, but I’m paying attention.
I’m sorry to see 2014 go. It was a very, very good year for the blog, the eleventh year of its existence (I forgot to post something about that back in September).
In 2015 I think the blog will continue to be the pain in the ass many in North Dakota politics love to hate.