BISMARCK – In their final debate before Tuesday’s primary election, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem on Friday attacked Fargo businessman Doug Burgum’s claim that he is pro-life, accusing him of asking Gov. Jack Dalrymple to veto an anti-abortion bill, which Burgum denied doing.
Conservative talk show host Scott Hennen moderated the hour-long debate on AM 1100 The Flag, taking listeners’ questions for the two candidates, one of whom will advance to the November election as the Republican nominee for governor.
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In one of the most pointed exchanges, Stenehjem said he has supported anti-abortion laws passed during his 24 years as a legislator, defended them during his 15 years as attorney general and would have signed the bills that Dalrymple signed.
When Burgum said he also was pro-life and would have signed the same bills, Stenehjem suggested Burgum had flip-flopped on his stance.
“Did you call the governor’s office asking him to veto those bills two sessions ago?” Stenehjem asked, referring to a raft of abortion-restricting bills Dalrymple signed in 2013.
“No, I did not,” Burgum said.
“All right. That’s not what I understand to be the case,” Stenehjem said.
He then pressed Burgum about it again and Burgum said he had spoken to Dalrymple’s chief of staff, Ron Rauschenberger, but said, “I did not urge him to veto a bill.”
Rauschenberger disputed that in a phone interview late Friday afternoon.
“He called me. He thought Jack should veto the abortion bills,” Rauschenberger said.
Rauschenberger said he remembers the conversation because Burgum told him that Dalrymple should read a letter to the editor written by Burgum’s ex-wife, Karen Stoker, explaining why Dalrymple should veto the bills. The March 25, 2013, letter, is still viewable on inforum.com, the website of The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead newspaper, with the headline “Attack on women’s health threatens health of state.”
In a follow-up interview, Burgum said Stoker had asked him if he knew anyone in the governor’s office, and he called Rauschenberger on her behalf but didn’t advocate for the positions in her letter. He also noted that Rauschenberger is supporting Stenehjem’s candidacy, which Rauschenberger confirmed. Campaign finance records show Rauschenberger has contributed $250 to Stenehjem’s campaign.
“These guys are losing and they’re desperate and they’re trying to make something out of nothing. And you talk about the good ol’ boys network, this is exactly how it works,” Burgum said, adding it shows the hypocrisy of Stenehjem’s claim that he’s running a clean campaign. “I guess that’s what career politicians do when they start to lose races. It starts to get ugly.”
Dalrymple also has endorsed Stenehjem, who defeated Burgum and state Rep. Rick Becker of Bismarck for the Republican Party’s official endorsement at the state GOP convention in April.
The question about Burgum’s abortion position came from a caller who identified himself as a recent high school graduate from Minot who said he’s Catholic and concerned that Burgum had refused to answer whether he is pro-life or pro-choice.
In an interview with Forum News Service last week, Burgum said he feels he has been “super clear” about the abortion issue.
“My position is that every abortion is a tragedy. And as a state, everyone can agree that we should have fewer abortions. ... The way you have fewer abortions is you have fewer unintended pregnancies, and the way you have fewer unintended pregnancies is working comprehensively,” including streamlining adoption services, he said.
When pressed on whether he supports a woman’s right to have an abortion, he said, “I believe that labels are divisive. They drive people to the edges. They’re good for fundraising. They’re good for getting the vote out. They’re not good for problem solving, and I want to focus on solving the problem.”
The candidates also clashed Friday on the state’s fiscal situation.
Stenehjem tried to clarify his statement from an earlier debate in which he said he wouldn’t have done differently about the budget passed by the Legislature in April 2015, which resulted in a projected $1.1 billion revenue shortfall that triggered budget cuts.
“Knowing what we all know now, looking back with perfect hindsight, of course we would have done things differently,” including spending less, he said.
“I’m on the record as saying I would have done something differently, and this is not hindsight,” Burgum said. He added that the state’s revenue forecast was off by millions as revenues climbed during the oil boom and “anybody that works in the private sector” would have known the forecasting system was broken and would be off on the way down.
Hennen noted a lot of lawmakers are rankled by Burgum’s campaign, which has criticized “runaway” state spending.
“I would think if I was a legislator, I would want to elect someone who’s going to do everything they can to give them the most accurate forecasting possible,” Burgum said.
Burgum also blasted Stenehjem for his repeated references to North Dakota being named the best-run state in the nation four years in a row, noting the most recent ranking was based on 2014 data.
“This is not only status quo, this is looking in the rearview mirror as opposed to looking out the front window,” he said.
As with past debates, this one also found the candidates agreeing on many issues, including their support for the state developing its own education standards and their support for continuing property tax relief, though Burgum said the system needs reform.
Both praised former Gov. Ed Schafer – who has endorsed Burgum – for the deep budget cuts he’s made as the University of North Dakota’s interim president. Burgum, who grew Great Plains Software in Fargo and led the company through its sale to Microsoft for $1.1 billion in 2001, called it “a prime example of what a business leader can do when you put him in office.” Stenehjem said it was “a tough call, and I think that’s what we’re going to have to do going forward.”