Minot district leaders look to Republican principles to rally grassroots

District leaders look to Republican principles to rally grassroots

Jill Schramm/MDN District 40 Chairman Jay Lundeen presides over a district meeting June 1 with some of the district’s executive committee members, from left, Boyd Strand, Rich Bubach, Jonathan Starr and Todd Kaylor.

A wave of conservative fervor has injected new blood into Republican politics in the Minot area.

Districts 3, 5, 38 and 40 have turned over leadership in recent years as attendance at district reorganizational meetings has increased as much as fivefold. Much of that change has occurred in the past year.

Although national issues are on people’s minds, District 3 Chairwoman Amber Vibeto said state and local COVID-19 pandemic restrictions triggered her involvement and the involvement of many other new people in the party. Vibeto was elected District 3 chairwoman this spring after having been previously appointed to the position to fill a vacancy.

“It just really affected people’s everyday lives,” she said of pandemic restrictions. “People just kind of woke up to ‘Wait, who’s making these decisions? They don’t line up with my values.’ So I do think people are paying more attention to what’s going on locally.”

Despite the number of people paying attention, there is not a high level of commitment, said Jay Lundeen, newly elected District 40 chairman.

“There’s a lot of people that are interested, but I don’t know how bought in they are yet, and I think at some level, some have given up. But we are going to pick them up off the couch,” Lundeen said. “We want to disseminate information so that we wake up people.”

The goal is to engage the grassroots in helping set the priorities of the party, Lundeen said. Priorities would be based on Republican platform principles that include limited government, individual freedom and personal responsibility, he said.

“We’re here to connect with the people so that we know we have our representatives governing us the way that we want to be governed,” Lundeen said.

Despite Republicans’ dominance in state government, laws coming out of the 2021 Legislature, including the record level of spending and lack of tax relief, violate what has been held to be Republican principles, according to the new leadership.

“Being a supposedly Republican-majority state, it’s allowed districts to be lazy, not involve their people. It’s allowed people to run that run as Republicans yet don’t pledge to the platform,” said Travis Zablotney, elected District 5 chairman this spring. “Our job will be to make sure that our district-elected officials are representing the people and toeing the line of the platform.”

Zablotney said the goal is to solidify the existing Republican platform and not to develop any new radical agenda.

David Aas, who served as District 5 chairman for several years, said he is taking a wait-and-see position regarding the district’s new board and executive team. Republican moderates and conservatives can reach consensus if interested in compromise, he said.

He agrees with the new board, though, regarding party values.

“Holding lawmakers to the platform is important and it frustrates me when there are lawmakers that don’t. But not everybody’s perfect,” Aas said. “Most of the time they are popular with voters and they win.”

District leadership changes occurring around the state have distressed some long-active Republicans, who view the election of new conservative activists as takeovers. Part of the concern is that outside forces may be looking to shape local leadership as a means of capturing more state committee seats and potentially a chairmanship at the state level.

Jared Hendrix, first elected chairman in District 38 in 2017, has been pegged within his own party as someone helping facilitate the party governance changes around the state. Hendrix, who noted the changes are the result of elections, said the effort is not to push out people who have dedicated years to supporting the party. Rather, it is an effort to welcome new people who may be energized by emerging issues.

“If a new variant of what you would call conservative patriots are coming in higher numbers, then that’s where the political winds are,” Hendrix said. “That’s what is happening right now, both because of the in-state reasons but also the national movement. All of those things, I think, have kind of come to a head at the same time. So now you’ve got people fired up, that are paying attention in their communities for the first time.”

State Sen. Karen Krebsbach, who has represented District 40 since 1989, said the district has seen periods of increased involvement focused around new legislative candidates over the years but not the ideological movement occurring now.

“There are people that are stirred up,” she said. “It’s not the local things so much that they are stirred up about. It’s more about what’s happening on the national level. It’s things that we can’t make changes in at the state Legislature.”

Still, she said, increased involvement is welcomed.

“I like to see change. But I want it to be positive change,” Krebsbach said.

“Contrary to a lot of the chatter in the state, this movement per se – what’s been happening – is purely organic,” Zablotney said.

Zablotney said he has long had political interests but only limited involvement until seeking the District 5 chairmanship as a way to have an impact without committing to a publicly elected office. There was no orchestration by any outside group in his invitation to friends to attend the district meeting with him, he said.

“They have the same concerns that I do, and they’re happy to see someone stand up, to get involved, to start to try to make a difference. What does that difference look like? It looks like defending our Constitution. It looks like representing the Republican platform and holding our party to those values that are agreed upon,” Zablotney said. “Those with Democrat ideals from the Democrat Party that have infiltrated will make it appear that we’re divided because, truly, they’re not in support of the principles of the Republican Party. So it may look like division – fracturing within the party – but the reality is we’ve been infiltrated by those values.”

Hendrix said the antidote to Republican divisions is getting people behind a clear agenda.

“The platform is a good place to start but an agenda can be a lot more than just the platform. An agenda is, I think, your priorities, which change depending upon what’s happening in the world and what’s happening in the state,” he said. “Political parties have always existed to serve a purpose and to advance an agenda, and when you go away from that, it begs the question, ‘Well, what is the purpose of the party?’ There is no other purpose to it except to hold people into power. That’s not what this country is about.”

Zablotney noted that straying from the party platform is a minor issue within the Minot districts but it still needs to be addressed.

New party leaders see greater concerns in other parts of the state and in the executive branch. Their concerns include Gov. Doug Burgum’s vetoes of bills to prohibit transgender males from participating in girls’ sports and to bar state officials from mandating face masks. The Republican-dominated state Senate failed to override the transgender bill veto, which also troubles conservatives.

“It’s really the will of the people that was subjugated by his vetoes,” Zablotney said. “You can ask legislators- there were more phone calls, emails, texts sent on those two bills than they have seen in years.”

It is these types of incidents that leave people feeling disenfranchised or angry and motivated to get involved, the local party chairmen said.

“They couldn’t stand by, talk about it, anymore. It was time for action and that’s what’s happening,” Zablotney said.

Vibeto is president of the nonprofit North Dakota Conservative Advocates, formed in January and active during the legislative session in sending e-mail alerts to members on certain bills. She said she sees District 3 providing the same type of email communication to its Republican base, as well as holding more events. As pandemic restrictions ease, she said, the focus will remain on pro-life and Second Amendment issues and state’s rights.

“We want to rally as many conservatives as possible, to kind of get off the bench and just serve where they can,” she said. “I was one of those people that didn’t even know who my representatives were. I think I’m not alone in that. So, we just want to have better communication with the people in our district and work on getting people engaged.”


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