Last month I conducted a lengthy interview with state Rep. Rick Becker of Bismarck who is one of the NDGOP’s two gubernatorial candidates heading into 2016. Today I conducted a similar interview with the other candidate, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem.
I spoke with Stenehjem about the abortion issue, law enforcement issues, and the state’s fiscal situation. Stenehjem defended his pro-law enforcement position. He described himself as someone who believes in protecting potential life, but also said he doesn’t like the term “pro-life.”
He said that his long history in public office both in lean fiscal times and in times with strong revenues has prepared him to handle the state’s current budget situation amid falling revenues and low commodity prices.
He also made a clear statement on how he plans to handle the nomination contest with Becker.
The convention will choose the candidate
In the 2012 election cycle Kevin Cramer, who would ultimately win election to North Dakota’s at-large seat in the U.S. House, decided to skip the Republican party’s state endorsing convention all together. Instead he took his campaign straight to the June primary ballot where he defeated Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk with over 54 percent of the vote.
In resulting campaign cycles there has been anxiety among Republicans that there may be a trend toward candidates with lots of name recognition choosing to skip the convention and go directly to the primary. Or to go to the primary anyway if they lose the convention’s endorsement.
Becker has been asked about his plans in this regard several times – including by me – and his answers have usually left some wiggle room for a potential primary run after the convention. “We plan on winning the convention and we do not anticipate a primary challenge,” Jared Hendrix, Becker’s campaign manager, told me in November.
I asked Stenehjem about his plans, and he was direct in saying that he plans to abide by the convention outcome. “I’ve been a delegate to every convention since 1972. I have always supported the nominee. That is what I will do here as well,” he said.
It followed up with Becker after my interview with Stenehjem and he said he will abide by the convention’s choice as well. “It sounds to me like Wayne has agreed to abide by the convention,” he told me. “I will do so as well.”
Don’t call him pro-life
Pro-life activists often tell me that Stenehjem is squishy on their issue. I asked Stenehjem if he would describe himself as pro-life, and he told me he doesn’t like that term.
“I’m a member of the ELCA church,” he said referring to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. “I abide by and agree with their position on abortion, and one of the things they say is don’t use those words. I recognize that every life is unique. I also understand that there are other situations like rape, incest, and the life of the mother where difficult decisions have to be made.”
“I carry around with me the position of my church,” he added. “It’s lengthy but I think very thoughtful.” If you’re curious, you can read the ELCA’s position on abortion here.
Asked about North Dakota’s pro-life laws in particular, Stenehjem said he would have signed most of them had he been governor (Becker has changed his position on some of his votes for those laws). One of the laws – the one which bans abortions after a baby’s heartbeat can be detected – he wouldn’t comment on as his office is currently challenging it to the Supreme Court and he didn’t want his comments to me to be used in that case.
“The ones that were upheld and we defended I would have [voted for],” Stenehjem told me. “The one that’s now pending before the Supreme Court I’m not going to comment at this point. I hope you understand why.”
“There was some concern that I wasn’t going to appeal it,” he said, referring to the heartbeat bill. “There was some concern from pro-life groups about whether or not that was a good law. But I recognized by constitutional obligation to defend laws passed by the legislature.”
‘The budget is going to be one of the big challenges’
When I interviewed Becker had expressed some stark concerns about the state’s fiscal health. Stenehjem largely agreed with him.
“It’s going to present some challenges no question about it,” Stenehjem said of the state’s falling revenues. “We have a constitutional obligation to balance our budget unlike Washington which can turn on the printing presses. We need to pay close attention to what our revenue is and adjust the spending accordingly.”
But Stenehjem says his long tenure in state government has prepared him for what’s coming.
“I have experience both in the legislature for 24 years, and 15 years in the executive branch, so broad experience,” Stenehjem said. “I have worked with budgets when we needed to make cuts and budgets when we had funds available to fund our priorities.”
“I think I have, and Rep. Becker has said it, that I have done an excellent job,” he added. referring to a joke Becker cracked in Dickinson recently about Stenehjem doing such a great job he ought to remain as Attorney General.
But where Becker was somewhat critical of the state’s handling of windfall revenues during the oil boom, arguing that spending had gone too high, Stenehjem had praise for lawmakers and outgoing Governor Jack Dalrymple.
“I think the legislature and the governor deserve a great deal of credit because we’re funding our obligations, making one time expenditures, giving tax relief, and setting money aside in various funds that were designed for times just as these,” he said. “It’s easy to look back and say here’s what I might have done differently, but I think by and large the legislature and the governor have been very responsible with our budgeting.”
Asked how he would help make sure the state’s economy and budget outlook remain healthy, Stenehjem said the key is not just focusing on energy and agriculture.
“We have to make sure we’re not just focusing on our agriculture or our energy economy, but we need to continue to do things to encourage diversification of our economy,” he said. “That includes things like all the high tech things that are going on in Fargo. That’s one of the reasons why North Dakota has consistently been designated as one of the best places for young people.”
“We’re not going to raise taxes,” he added.
‘Satisfied’ with handling of oil and gas regulation
One area where Democrats have focused a lot of criticism in recent years is on the state’s handling of oil and gas development. Republican handling of development, specifically, since there hasn’t been a Democrat on the state’s Industrial Commission – which oversees oil and gas development – since 2009.
Stenehjem, though, says he’s satisfied with the way the state has handled development. Specifically in how the state has dealt with spills in the oil patch.
“I’m actually very pleased and satisfied with what it is we’re doing. Sometimes we don’t get the message out good enough,” he said.
“There are spills and everyone recognizes that there are spills,” he continued. “The first response we take with every company that spills is you’re going to clean it up. That’s irrespective of what the reason for what the spill may have been. From there you have to look at a case by case basis on what the reason for the spill was.”
Stenehjem said he has made sure that every fine is ultimately approved by the Industrial Commission so that he and his fellow commissioners can be accountable for it. He also said that they have applied maximum fines and even criminal penalties where appropriate, but often those things aren’t appropriate.
“What happens is like you hear in a criminal case where the maximum penalty is a fine and time in prison,” he said. “Everyone understands that those fines may not be imposed at the maximum level. It depends on what the facts are. The maximums are there because in the appropriate case they may need to be imposed. But we still have the full range of options below that. There are some instances where we have imposed the maximum fine.”
Law enforcement issues
“We were not involved in any way in the Andrew Sadek case,” Stenehjem told me when I asked him about the North Dakota State School of Sciences student who was found dead after working as a criminal informant for a drug task force. The case was featured recently on 60 Minutes.
But Stenejem did say he supports the use of criminal informants in law enforcement work, and opposes calls from Sadek’s parents which would bar using college students as informants.
“The use of confidential informants not just for drug cases but all cases is a critical part of what law enforcement does. I do think that it’s important that people who are asked know exactly what they’re getting into,” he said.
Drug task forces that work under the Attorney General’s office – the one Sadek worked for wasn’t among them at the time of his death – have a “checklist” Stenehjem says ensures that criminal informants are treated properly.
“We will always be working on our process and our checklist so that people know what they’re getting into but also so that they have it as an option,” he said. “I was involved in criminal defense before I became attorney general. I had many clients come to me to ask about being criminal informants and most of them were happy to do it because they didn’t want a conviction on their record to impact their careers of what they wanted to do.”
Asked about growing criticism of law enforcement from some across the nation, Stenehjem offered generally complimentary comments. “I have worked of course for 15 years, and even before that, closely with law enforcement. I am very proud of the work they do. I speak with law enforcement officers who are out each and every day doing things nobody else wants to do with bad hours and low pay. They are doing exactly what they need to do to keep North Dakota safe,” he said.
Why Stenehjem and not Becker?
I asked Stenehjem why Republicans should make him their candidate and not Rep. Becker. The candidate touted his experience in state government and on the campaign trail.
“This is my 6th statewide campaign, my 13th campaign overall, and I’ve enjoyed just about all of them,” he said. “This is not something I was hungering for. I have been happy, I think this is a great job as Attorney General, but sometimes you have to step up.”
He also attributed his decision to get into the race to people who were supporting him even before he was officially a candidate.
“It is so humbling when people have sent checks in that you haven’t asked for. People who don’t want anything other than good government.”