Term limits, Super PACS, and our billionaire governor

In a letter circulated last week, Secretary of State Al Jaeger definitively put to bed the ongoing saga over the petitions for the proposed initiated measure to add term limits to the North Dakota Constitution. The measure would have added term limits to the governor and the state Legislature, which currently have no limitations on terms of service. While sponsoring committee chairman Jared Hendrix decried the decision and claimed 82% of North Dakotans favored such a measure, the controversies and issues surrounding signatures ultimately doomed the measure from appearing on ballots this fall.

For another cycle, elected officials in North Dakota are safe and secure from their tenure being ended arbitrarily, assuming they are able to convince voters. Winning the support of the electorate will be an easy task for incumbent Republicans in this state to do, with the party platform of the opposition proving so odious in most districts that the Dem-NPL can’t even find anyone to run. The real danger to any Republican running for office in this state truly lies in one place, and that’s the governor’s pocketbook.

Governor Doug Burgum won in 2016 on the notion that the “Old Guard” in North Dakota politics needed to be shaken up. From the beginning of his tenure as governor, Burgum butted heads with former House Majority Leader Al Carlson, our legislature’s old political boss who infamously said western legislators needed to “sing for their supper” before he’d consider supporting their communities’ concerns. That was until his district in South Fargo surged blue in 2018, not that many of his colleagues wept to see him go. In hindsight, we’ve simply traded one entrenched power block for another.

After dropping millions of dollars of dark money into the 2020 election cycle, the former software executive has reportedly donated $935,000 to the Dakota Leadership PAC in anticipation of the 2022 midterms. This secretive committee is chaired by the governor’s former policy director and 2016 campaign worker Levi Bachmeier, and operates in such a way that its activities and spending are shielded from public scrutiny. While such PACs usually are a means for out of state money to influence elections and initiated measures, it’s quite another thing for a state’s governor to be such a generous political donor, especially when his targets are his own fellow Republicans.

Burgum’s massive infusion into the 2020 primaries was primarily directed at unseating antagonistic legislators and other assorted gadflies, who found themselves the targets of expensive negative advertising they couldn’t hope to contend with. Between the incessant mailings and omnipresent multimedia packages, several high-profile incumbents like House Appropriations Chairman Rep. Jeff Delzer were unseated by Burgum’s endorsed candidates. Naturally this direct foray into legislative races drove a wedge between the governor and the Legislature, but the real concern is the chilling effect it caused in the Capitol.

If the appeal of the doomed term limits measure was to prevent the entrenchment of raw political power, it seems almost quaint when set against the ability of our billionaire governor to determine the outcomes from within the state GOP itself with essentially no accountability or transparency. In fact, any attempt by legislators in the wake of the 2020 spending spree to constrain the governor or shine sunlight on how Dakota Leadership PAC is spending his money has only painted a target on their backs.

Last year, Rep. Jeff Magrum of Hazelton sponsored a bill that would have blocked the governor from endorsing or making political donations to legislative candidates. Magrum was the only Republican to survive the PAC’s 2020 onslaught, with the dollar amount spent in support of his Burgum-endorsed challenger hidden from public view. Magrum later withdrew the proposal, deferring to concerns from his fellow legislators that they might face retribution for supporting it.

“He’s got them all scared. So out of respect for my colleagues I pulled it. At this point I regret doing that.” Magrum told me in a phone call on Friday, May 20.

By all accounts, Magrum is correct, as his fellow lawmakers cower and fumble for excuses as the modern power elite of North Dakota exerts its influence over the state house unchecked and unabated. A second bill that would have made entities like Dakota Leadership PAC disclose which campaigns they supported or opposed with donations, was scuttled for dubious reasons related to the extra paperwork it would create. There is less opposition than self-preservation involved in derailing these bills than anything else, frozen in place lest they also fall under the gaze of the governor’s basilisk.

In an age where votes are secured by slick algorithm driven campaigns, no one wields more power than the individuals or entities paying for them. What can a candidate from a rural district with a micro fraction of the budget hope to do against influence campaigns funded from the overflow bursting from Scrooge McDuck’s money pool?

Sunlight can only disinfect if paired with transparency, and deliberately allowing an infection to be obscured will only poison our political process until it is too gangrenous to save. With a governor equipped and willing to cull any internal opposition, it seems North Dakota will just have to get used to the status quo of a political regime that will remain in power as long it wants to. Maybe term limits aren’t such a bad idea after all.


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