FARGO -- George A. “Bud” Sinner took seminary classes while in college and once planned on entering the priesthood. He decided to take another path that led ultimately to him becoming North Dakota’s 29th governor.
Sinner died Friday, March 9, at the Eventide Fargo senior living facility. He was 89 years old.
As governor, Sinner served two terms, after being elected in 1984 and re-elected in 1988. His tenure coincided with the most difficult hardships to befall North Dakota since the Great Depression in the 1930s -- the farm crisis of the early 1980s, followed by a prolonged drought that parched the state in the late 1980s.
It was a time of farm foreclosures, protests, rallies and the establishment of rural suicide hotlines, as well as an accelerated exodus from the state’s rural areas as young people left to seek better opportunities elsewhere.
In the midst of those challenging times Sinner presided over a celebration of North Dakota’s centennial, on Nov. 2, 1989. Given the hardships that plagued his governorship, some called Sinner “Governor Gloom and Doom.”
Also in 1989, Sinner suffered a stinging political defeat when three tax increases, passed by a conservative Legislature and signed into law by Sinner, were rejected after being referred to voters. Sinner had traveled the state to promote the tax increases.
The defeat of the tax increases signaled a shift in North Dakota’s political alignment, in which an already conservative state took a rightward turn, that began with the election of Gov. Ed Schafer, a Republican, as governor in 1992. The Republicans would go on to thoroughly dominate North Dakota politics since then, leaving Sinner as the last Democrat to serve as governor.
In response to the economic struggles gripping the state, Sinner oversaw the establishment of economic development programs that would become known as Growing North Dakota, including low-interest loan programs through the state-owned Bank of North Dakota.
Sinner’s grandfather had come to Dakota Territory from Luxembourg in the early 1880s and worked as a saloon bouncer and a hand on bonanza farms, sprawling farming enterprises that sprouted in the fertile soil of the Red River Valley. He later became a farmer.
In fact, the Sinner family farm near Casselton, N.D., once was part of the Dalrymple bonanza operation, established by the family of Jack Dalrymple, who served as North Dakota’s 32nd governor and still oversees a large farming operation.
Sinner’s own start in farming came in 1948, when he joined with others to form a farming partnership called Sinner Brothers and Bresnahan. He graduated in 1950 from St. John’s University in Minnesota with a bachelor of arts degree in philosophy, and returned to the farm in 1952, after marrying Elizabeth Jane Baute in 1951.
Sinner’s start in politics came in 1962 when he was elected to the North Dakota Senate. He would lose his seat four years later. He served seven years on the State Board of Higher Education, beginning in 1967.
Sinner’s political career suffered another setback in 1972, when he lost a bid for the Democratic-NPL endorsement for governor to Art Link, who served two terms as North Dakota’s 27th governor, ending in 1981.
But Sinner’s political fortunes reversed in 1982 when he was elected to the North Dakota House, and served as chairman of the Finance and Tax Committee. He later unseated Republican Gov. Allen Olson in 1984. He won re-election by capturing almost 60 percent of the vote. His decision not to seek a third term came after he had emergency heart bypass surgery in 1991.
After stepping down as governor, Sinner moved to Fargo in 1992. He served as American Crystal Sugar’s vice president for public and governmental affairs before retiring.
"George Sinner was a giant of North Dakota politics,” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said in a statement. “His love of the land and compassion for its people was evident in all aspects of his professional and personal life. He never forgot the lessons of his rural upbringing, and his experiences with agriculture -- particularly sugar beets -- which carefully formed his policymaking and cultivated his relentless work ethic.”
Heitkamp added: “George was passionate, but never partisan, and his mentorship inspired and prompted me to begin my own career in public service. George’s legacy can be found across the fields and township roads of North Dakota, but also in the devoted family he leaves behind, who carry on his lifelong commitment to community.”
In his memoir, “Turning Points,” published in 2011, Sinner said he was guided by his faith in the Holy Spirit, and believed in God’s forgiveness.
“When others exhibited human frailty, Sinner was quick to forgive,” humanities scholar Clay Jenkinson wrote in the preface to Sinner’s memoir. “When they exhibited dishonesty and an unrepentant attitude, he was unafraid to express anger.”
In his memoir, Sinner, who recalled that he was able to laugh at his own mistakes, contemplated how he would like to be remembered. “I wasn’t perfect,” he wrote, “but was open and honestly trying to be a good public servant.”
Funeral arrangements were pending Friday night with Boulger Funeral Home.