(Disclaimer: This is not meant to be an endorsement of any candidate, the North Dakota Watchdog Network cannot endorse candidates. Rather it is meant to put a current situation into historical perspective and project the negative impact it can have on the state; a cautionary tale, if you will.)
In North Dakota’s early territorial days, the politics of the prairie were government by the same sort of machine politics that ruled New York City via Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall or the Thompson and Daly machines in Chicago. But in North Dakota, it was the machine of Alexander McKenzie, a man who never rose higher in title than Burleigh County Sheriff. He personally selected many Republican candidates for the state legislature, the U.S. Senate, and the U.S. House of Representatives.
Here is a brief history endorsed by the State of North Dakota at ndstudies.gov:
In the 1880s, McKenzie began to invest in businesses. He had a real estate business through which he bought and sold land. He started a cattle ranch and was a partner in a Canadian construction company. He owned and operated the waterworks in the city of Bismarck. In 1899, he was in Alaska, where he bought gold mines.
In 1882, McKenzie changed his political party membership from Democrat to Republican. The Republican Party had a firm grip on Dakota politics. McKenzie was smart enough to find his way to the center of political power. With his political interests grounded in Bismarck and the Republican Party, McKenzie brought the territorial capital to Bismarck in 1883. It was a stunning maneuver that helped secure his political leadership position. After the capital removal, McKenzie was known as the “political boss” of North Dakota. He selected the men the party nominated for public office including governor, congressional representative, senator, and state legislator. He usually, but not always, got what he wanted.
He was the Republican National Committeeman for North Dakota for 21 years. McKenzie built and ran a powerful political organization in North Dakota. However, the “McKenzie machine” was widely accused of stealing votes, intimidating voters, and physically beating opponents.
Those who know the recent history of North Dakota know how the McKenzie era led to the reform era and then the rise of the Non-Partisan League takeover of the Republican Party.
Fast forward to 2020, when Governor Doug Burgum has placed his bets against State Representative Jeff Delzer in the District 8 Republican Primary. Delzer is the sitting House Appropriations Committee Chairman, and a member of Burgum’s own party.
According to the May 8th, 2020 48-Hour report with the Secretary of State’s office, Doug Burgum personally donated $195,000 to the Dakota Leadership PAC which is run by Levi Bachmeier and Robbie Lauf, both of whom are former Burgum staffers.
The notion that a PAC (Political Action Committee) would take out a sitting legislators is not really a big deal. Nor is even the idea that a governor would bless former staffers to run the operation, but leave himself plausible deniability that he was actually behind it. The term “political operative” is one that people in the business use to equate themselves to spies, because these sorts of actions are done in the shadows. This was not at all in the shadows, this is upfront and in public.
And it is not only a public action to take down one legislator, it is a message to all other legislators:
YOU SERVE AT THE PLEASURE OF DOUG BURGUM!
The old ways of running simple old-fashioned campaigns on a shoestring budget are over – unless you play the game the right way. Or unless you can drum up hundreds of thousands of dollars and fight a war of attrition.
Beyond this, it is also a message to every single political donor in the state: put your dollars in the right places, or they will be wasted.
It is an interesting moment in history to make these moves. With the pandemic having shut down the worldwide economy, and the subsequent collapse in oil prices causing the yet to be actualized demolishing of the state budget; some might say that it is a selfish power play that injects the politics of old into the 21st Century.
The voters of District 8 will have an opportunity to reject the sort of big money hostile takeover this action represents. Doug Burgum is a businessman, and hostile takeovers are a prime tool in world of big business. We shall see if such tactics will be a new and permanent feature of North Dakota politics.
The writing is on the wall, North Dakota is about to change politically in ways the darkest aspects of the oil boom could never have created. And it is just a matter of time before history repeats itself once again, and the people of North Dakota kick this sort of politics out the door, and anyone who tied themselves to it.
About the Author
Dustin Gawrylow is the Managing Director of the North Dakota Watchdog Network, a taxpayer advocacy group that promote limited government, less spending, lower taxes, and government transparency.