Grand Forks Herald
November’s election saw very little change in North Dakota’s political landscape.
Voters opposed seven of the eight constitutional measures on the ballot, all of the statewide offices remained in Republican control and Democrats gained one seat in the Legislature.
Yet Democrats — who have been outnumbered in the state Senate since 1992 and in the House since 1984 — say they still have an important role in the Legislature. From introducing their own bills, working with lawmakers on the other side of the aisle, and acting as a check against the Republican majority, Democrats said the numerical disadvantage doesn’t translate to irrelevancy.
“We’re pushing each other to make each other better for the good of the state,” said Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks, of Republicans and Democrats. “This isn’t about red vs. blue. I think we see good faith competition over ideas.”
Still, former Democratic Lt. Gov. Lloyd Omdahl, a retired political science professor at UND, said the minority could do more to offer alternative ideas.
“In this era of government prosperity due to the Bakken, maybe the circumstances don’t lend themselves to a lot of alternatives because the state has the money to do more things,” he said, citing debates over funding for the western part of the state to cope with increased oil-related activity. “The issue is not clear cut, it’s just a matter of the degree to which we think something ought to be solved.”
Grand Forks is home to another member of the minority party’s leadership in Rep. Corey Mock, the House’s assistant minority leader. He said he encourages his caucus members to draft legislation “as if you are the ruling party.”
“We want to people to know our ideas,” Mock said during the first week of the session. “We’re not limited to what bills we can put forth. Not everything passes, but everything gets a vote.”
Last week, Democrats proposed drafting a contingency budget in the face of uncertain oil prices. Responding to the Democrats’ proposal Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said that the two parties appear to somewhat agree on the “philosophy,” but “it’s just how we’re going to get there.”
House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, said he didn’t want two budgets.
Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, said Democrats can influence policy decisions by drafting legislation that others, including Republicans, can be a sponsor to, drafting amendments to existing legislation and working within committees to “gain credibility.”
Grand Forks legislators have already sponsored a number of bills alongside their Republican colleagues this session, including a bill to allow students the right to an attorney during university disciplinary proceedings. That’s sponsored by Democrat Lois Delmore in the House, alongside several Republican senators such as Sen. Ray Holmberg, also of Grand Forks.
Other efforts, such as tweaking the state’s voter identification law, are likely to have a more partisan debate.
“Sometimes we just differ (on issues),” Wardner said. “We’re just different.”
Omdahl sees part of the minority party’s role as holding the other side accountable. In the case of Democrats, he said Republicans have responded when they’ve been criticized.
“So even though the Democrats don’t have as many votes, Republicans still feel like they must explain or defend what they’re doing,” Omdahl said. “The minority party has a responsibility to point out errors or defects in programs that are proposed, but they’re also responsible for proposing their own.”
Earl Strinden, a former Grand Forks legislator who was the Republican leader in the ’70s and ’80s, said his party was in the minority for a session while he was in office. He pointed out that there’s often disagreements within parties on legislation, so policy decisions aren’t always about differences between the two sides.
“We kept a working relationship with our Democrat colleagues,” he said. “And certainly it was in the best interest to have good working relationship with the members of the other caucus.”
The conservative nature of North Dakota means the two parties are more similar ideologically than in other states, Omdahl said. The culture here also means criticism is a little bit more “muted.”
Wardner said the relationship between the two parties in the Senate is “very congenial.”
“We don’t agree on everything, but we get along,” he said. Wardner said the Republican leadership tries to keep the other side “in the loop” on things they’re working on.
Carlson didn’t return a message seeking comment Friday.
In Schneider’s first session in 2009, the Democrats were outnumbered in the Senate 26-21, a closer margin than today. That count took a hit in 2010, and they have gained back three in the last two elections, Schneider said.
Schneider said he hopes that trend continues in order to bring more “balance” to the Legislature.
“I think with that kind of political balance, you had a much better process,” Schneider said. “Our path forward is to recruit those centrist candidates who focus on bread and butter issues.”