BISMARCK - Dozens of Dakota Access Pipeline opponents briefly turned North Dakota's second gubernatorial debate into a protest rally Monday, erupting into shouts and heckles after the three candidates opined on whether the pipeline was properly permitted and should be completed.
About 15 minutes into the hour-long debate sponsored by the North Dakota Newspaper Association, Joye Braun, an organzier with Indigenous Environmental Network, rose from her seat and started down the aisle toward the Belle Mehus Auditorium stage, leading about 50 protesters in a coordinated chant of "Mni Wiconi! Water is life!"
"We will never allow this pipeline through. Not now and not ever," Braun yelled.
The candidates - Democratic state Rep. Marvin Nelson of Rolla, Republican entrepreneur Doug Burgum and Fargo business owner Marty Riske of the Libertarian Party candidate - waited as moderator Harvey Brock, publisher of The Dickinson Press, tried to calm the protesters.
"We want you to abide by our rules," he said.
"Why don't you abide by the treaty," a woman shot back, referring to American Indians' opposition to the pipeline crossing a dammed section of the Missouri River less than a mile north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation on ancestral treaty land.
There was a heavy police presence inside and outside the auditorium, but officers didn't intervene during the protest inside. After several minutes, about a third of the crowd of roughly 175 people made their way to the exits to continue protesting outside. Bismarck Police Lt. Jason Stugelmeyer said no arrests were made and no one had to be physically escorted out. More than 100 protesters in all demonstrated outside the Belle before the 7 p.m. debate.
Ricardo Cate, 52, who is from the Santa Domingo Pueblo in New Mexico and has been camping with thousands of other pipeline opponents about 35 miles south of Mandan, said he doesn't see North Dakota leaders listening to the state's native populations, "but I'm hoping that we as a people will get them to notice us."
"We hate to be here in their face, but that's how you get things done," he said.
Steve Andrist, executive director of the NDNA, said he'd never seen anything like it.
"We did ask them to observe our rules and they didn't really do that, but I don't think it caused that much of a problem," he said, adding, "They were attempting to make a point, and we were able to move on."
The outburst followed candidates' answers to a reader-submitted question on whether they believe the $3.8 billion, 1,172-mile pipeline from the Bakken oilfields to Patoka, Ill., was permitted properly and fairly to all parties and should be completed. A federal court has halted construction 20 miles east and west of the river as the courts and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers weigh the tribe's legal challenge and its concerns that the pipeline will contaminate their water supply and disturb sacred sites.
Nelson, a crop consultant, said the process "seems to be a mess from the start," alluding to the fact that Dakota Access LLC, a subsidiary of Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners, started construction before it had a Corps easement for the Lake Oahe crossing.
"It should not have been sited where it was," he said, reiterating his contention that it's a source water-protected area. "Now we have to pull back and look at it and we have to decide what to do."
Riske said a federal judge took a long time to determine everything was done properly. But then President Obama "waved his hand and said, 'No, it's not a done deal,' " he said, referring to how the Corps and two other federal agencies stopped construction at the water crossing despite a judge denying the tribe's injunction request on Sept. 9.
"I see it as President Obama's job to get it done," said Riske, who owns a chain of hair salons.
Burgum, the former Microsoft executive and current real estate developer and investor, called it a "collision of principles," including the right to protest and several hundred years of Native Americans feeling the federal government has broken promises.
"As we see this collision coming together ... I think there's an opportunity for us to open up a new dialogue," he said.
The remainder of the debate was relatively low-key, with candidates clashing perhaps most noticeably on how to improve low-performing K-12 schools.
Burgum advocated for alternatives such as charter schools or voucher systems and reinventing the education system from top to bottom, focusing more on results than fighting over dollars.
"We've proven that more money isn't the solution," he said. Riske also said he's in favor of vouchers and charter schools.
Nelson disagreed, saying schools do better where more money is spent and noting that caps prevented many districts from receiving their full funding under the state's formula.
"Funding is very critical, and we should not be punishing those schools that are poor performing, we should be helping them, and it does take money," he said.