Tax Commissioner Ryan Rauschenberger Is Testing North Dakota’s New Attitudes on Addiction

North Dakota Tax Commissioner Ryan Rauschenberger announces his campaign for the Republican Party’s nomination for North Dakota Tax Commissioner office on Wednesday, Feb.5, 2014, at the Fargo Holiday Inn. David Samson / The Forum

Ryan Rauschenberger, North Dakota’s Republican tax commissioner, is an extremely intelligent and competent man. A dedicated public servant. On a personal level, he’s a warm and genuinely nice person. Rare things in the world of politics.

Which is why it’s heartbreaking to watch as he deals with alcohol addiction.

Back in September of 2014 I broke a story about Rauschenberger’s struggles with drinking. After his SUV was involved in a drunk driving incident (he had loaned it to a friend) I called him on the phone to discuss it. As we spoke he sounded inebriated. He admitted to drinking with his friend and loaning him the SUV, but the timing of it stunk to me. They had been drinking during daylight hours on a weekday.

Why was our tax commissioner day drinking with a friend on a Tuesday?

Voters forgave him last time, but last time was the first time. And last time he didn’t drive drunk.

I called Rauschenberger again the next day and he admitted to struggling with alcohol addiction. He said he’d been “doing some treatment.” After my story broke Rauschenberger took a leave of absence from his office to seek additional treatment. This was just weeks before election day and Rauschenberger, having been appointed to his position by Governor Jack Dalrymple the previous November, was hoping to win his first term in office.

He completed his treatment. He returned to office. He won election to his current term in office with 56 percent of the vote.

His Democratic opponent got just 36 percent.

It was a redemption story, I thought at the time. Not only had Rauschenberger taken the steps to get his life back on track, but the electorate eschewed the traditional judgments of addiction and gave him a chance.

But on Friday last week Rauschenberger announced he would be pleading guilty to a DUI charge. He was arrested on September 30 at about 10:30pm with a measured blood alcohol content of .206.

It takes a lot of drinking to get to a .206 BAC so early in the evening.

“I had not been in any direct treatment, and I feel like I had let that go as far as not going to as many meetings or not going to a regular counselor like I had been for a long time,” Rauschenberger told my colleague John Hageman. “I essentially took a lot for granted.”

He says he’s going to renew his commitment to treatment, though he won’t be taking a leave of absence from office. He said he hasn’t missed any work as a result of his drinking.

It’s an open question right now as to whether or not Rauschenberger will run for re-election.

I could tell you about the politics of this situation. I could point out that Raushcenberger on the ballot could be an opening for Democrats to win back a statewide elected office. That the NDGOP might be better off if Rauschenberger stepped down and Governor Doug Burgum appointed a replacement.

Voters forgave him last time, but last time was the first time.

And last time he didn’t drive drunk.

We are having a statewide discussion right now about addiction and its perceptions, led by First Lady Kathryn Helgaas Burgum, and I think it’s opening some doors to a more healthy and forgiving.

But how far will that new spirit of forgiveness stretch?

The politics of this situation really shouldn’t be the priority.

Dealing with addiction is a tough fight a lot of people don’t win even under the most ideal of circumstances. I’ve had my own small battle with alcohol abuse. Not so long ago I was arrested and convicted of a DUI, and it prompted me to face some ugly realities about my own relationship with drinking.

I can’t even imagine how difficult it must be to fight that battle while holding prominent office in the unforgiving world of politics.

I hope, whatever decision Rauschenberger makes, he makes his health and not politics the top priority.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and the host of the Rob (Re)Port on Fargo-based WDAY AM970 from noon-2pm weekdays.

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