Wayne Stenehjem: "I don't think a career politician is a bad thing"


ND Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem announces his candidacy for governor as his wife, Beth, looks on at the Archives Coffee House on the UND campus in Grand Forks Tuesday. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Yesterday NDGOP gubernatorial candidate Doug Burgum launched the first television advertising of the 2016 campaign cycle with a 30 second spot playing up anxiety over North Dakota’s economy and taking a shot at “career politicians.”

Yesterday afternoon while sitting in for Jay Thomas on WDAY AM970 I interviewed the man who was the target of that jab, Wayne Stenehjem, who has been Attorney General since 2000 and served in the state Legislature before that dating back to the 1970’s.

I asked him about Burgum’s ad, and far from running away from the “career politician” thing, he leaned into it. In fact, Stenehjem had quite a bit to say about it (audio above).

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]”I don’t think a career politician is a bad thing,” he told me. Stenehjem said that Burgum has used that phrase, and talked about term limits, but suggested the first-time candidate was bringing them up only because he thinks it’s what people want to hear.[/mks_pullquote]

“I don’t think a career politician is a bad thing,” he told me.

Stenehjem said that Burgum has used that phrase, and talked about term limits, but suggested the first-time candidate was bringing them up only because he thinks it’s what people want to hear.

“He tested some things,” Stenehjem said referring to the Burgum campaign’s internal polling in the race. “Apparently ‘career politicians’ is one of them.”

“My position is not an appointed one,” Stenehjem added, noting that it’s voters who have kept him in office for so long. He also pointed out that his position in the Legislature was only part time, and that the term limits issue has been on the statewide ballot at least three times in his memory with North Dakota voters rejecting it each time.

Stenehjem then pointed out that Burgum has been supporting Republican candidates who have also had lengthy political careers.

“I don’t know how he’s going to square it with John Hoeven,” Stenehjem said. He said that if Hoeven wins re-election this year (at this point he’s only facing a third-party challenge from Libertarian Robert Marquette) and finishes his term he’ll have been in office for 24 years.

Burgum has contributed heavily to Hoeven’s campaigns. “Is the Senator now a career politician?” Stenehjem asked.

About that pro-Obamacare amicus brief

Earlier this week I pointed out that Stenehjem’s opponents – Burgum and state Rep. Rick Becker – were letting Stenehjem have it over his support for an amicus brief he signed opposing a lawsuit – King vs. Burwell – aimed at taking out Obamacare.

“Mr. Stenehjem also filed an amicus brief with 23 other Democrat attorneys general in King v. Burwell, which was identified as the last hope to overturn Obamacare,” Becker told the crowd at a debate in Rugby which Stenehjem didn’t attend (more on that in a moment).

“I find that shocking that our attorney general would be the only Republican on that list along with Democratic attorney generals California, New York, Massachusetts and other places and that’s, again, disappointing,” Burgum said.

I asked Stenehjem why he signed on to that brief, and why he was the only Republican to do so.

“I look at these things without a political agenda,” Stenehjem told me.

[mks_pullquote align=”left” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]”I didn’t hear people calling for three debates in four days,” Stenehjem told me.[/mks_pullquote]

The lawsuit challenged the federal government’s ability to deliver subsidies for Obamacare policies purchased through the federal exchange. Proponents of the lawsuit have argued that it would have made the law unworkable and led to its downfall. Stenehjem didn’t agree, saying that North Dakotans who signed up for policies through the federal exchange would have lost subsidies they were promised.

“I think that’s a bait and switch,” he said adding that it would be “unconscionable” to deny people that subsidy.

Stenehjem did note that he joined North Dakota to the lawsuit filed by the states against Obamacare, though that one ultimately failed at the Supreme Court.

“Nobody in North Dkaota has fought harder against Obamacare than I have,” Stenehejem said.

Why skip the debates?

Becker and Burgum have also hit Stenehjem for only attending one of three scheduled debates in the gubernatorial race over the past two weeks. Those two candidates were at all three. Stenehjem attended the one in Bismarck hosted by the NDGOP, but skipped one in Rugby hosted by the local district Republican leadership and another hosted on television by Valley News Live commentator Chris Berg.

“I didn’t hear people calling for three debates in four days,” Stenehjem told me.

“People who are behind in the polls will always want a lot of debates,” he added.

Stenehjem said that this race has three legs: The convention, the primary, and then the general election.

“I thought since we’re in the convention phase of this struggle I thought the debate should be sponsored by the party. I thought one debate was good.”