BISMARCK – When the demands of work and his election campaign became too much, North Dakota Tax Commissioner Ryan Rauschenberger turned to the bottle.
“I think it just kind of came to the point this year where, with a lot of the different things going on, you end up using alcohol to cope with things inappropriately,” he said Wednesday in his first interview since taking a temporary unpaid leave of absence on Sept. 4 to seek additional professional help.
Rauschenberger returned to his campaign Wednesday and will be back at work today. He said he feels “probably the best I’ve felt in a number of months” after completing a 20-day inpatient treatment program at Hazelden in Center City, Minn.
In a 70-minute interview at state Republican Party headquarters in Bismarck, Rauschenberger talked about his treatment, the work he missed and the two car crashes on Sept. 2 that thrust his drinking problem into the public eye.
The 31-year-old said he had already met with an addiction counselor since returning to Bismarck on Monday. He said he plans to follow a continuing care plan and attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings – as he had been before going on leave – as he continues his campaign against Democratic challenger Jason Astrup, a Fargo attorney.
He said he’s thankful for the outpouring of support he’s received from family and friends.
“There’s always this stigma around addiction, but it isn’t quite what it used to be,” he said. “I think people are more understanding.”
Astrup said Wednesday that voters “really still need to look long and hard at what he did.
“He hid a serious addiction problem that hampered his ability to do the job that he’s there to work for all of us,” he said.
‘The time to go’
Rauschenberger said he was on his way to drop off his rent check on the morning of Sept. 2 when he rear-ended a vehicle at a stoplight in north Bismarck, earning a $30 ticket for care required. He said he had been at work before the crash and hadn’t been drinking.
Later that afternoon, he lent his 2007 Chevy Tahoe to an alleged drunken driver who rolled the vehicle in Mandan. Rauschenberger said he had met the 22-year-old man in treatment and went over to his home after the morning crash, but he declined to comment on whether he’d been drinking with the man, who wasn’t seriously injured in the crash.
“I didn’t realize he had had as much as he had apparently, but I should have realized that he was not in shape to be driving,” he said.
Rauschenberger released a statement Sept. 3 through his campaign consultant, Odney Advertising of Bismarck, saying he “had a relapse during which I showed poor judgment.” The next day, he announced his leave of absence.
Rauschenberger said he thinks he still would have checked into inpatient treatment had the crashes not happened and come to light, though the timing may have differed.
“Given the circumstances, it was clearly the time to go,” he said. “I do believe I would have gone down that same path.”
He said he drank but didn’t feel it was a problem at the time when Gov. Jack Dalrymple appointed him Nov. 8 to fill the shoes of former tax commissioner Cory Fong.
“I don’t feel that … I wasn’t fit for the job,” he said. “It hadn’t really hit that point.”
Rauschenberger had served as deputy tax commissioner since 2009. He said alcohol didn’t affect his work during that time, citing his positive performance evaluations.
He said he realized around late spring or mid-summer that his drinking had become noticeably worse. Between June and July, he missed “maybe half a dozen” days at work because he had drank too much the night before, he said.
His full-time job and full-time campaign, including parades and other events during the summer months, “was really a critical factor” in his drinking, he said. The unexpected deaths of his paternal grandfather on Valentine’s Day and maternal grandmother on Aug. 1 were another, he said.
“There was a lot of grief,” he said.
Rauschenberger spent much of August in what he termed “partial inpatient” treatment in Bismarck, attending treatment sessions during the day and working in the afternoon while also still trying to run a campaign.
“Your focus gets a little skewed when you’re that busy with everything and you’re trying to do treatment,” he said. “And it’s one of the reasons why I ended up really realizing that, you know, I need to really buckle down, do a full month inpatient, and felt it was best to go out of state. And I think it was a great decision.”
He said his staff did “a great job” covering the office’s responsibilities in his absence.
In it for the full term
As tax commissioner, Rauschenberger oversees an office with 134 employees responsible for collecting and administering state tax revenues, which have skyrocketed with the state’s booming oil and gas development.
The office handled $6.095 billion in tax revenue for the fiscal year that ended June 30, nearly 54 percent of it coming from taxes on oil and gas production and oil extraction.
The office has a $57.2 million budget for the 2013-2015 biennium.
Some have speculated that if Rauschenberger wins the Nov. 4 election, he will resign and allow Dalrymple to appoint another Republican to run the office until the November 2016 election.
Rauschenberger said he has no plans to resign if he wins.
“It is my intention to fill out the four-year term. That is why I am running,” he said.