One farmer’s journey through the ‘citizen legislature’

Ben Tucker, who farms near St. Thomas, N.D., is one of many private citizens who bring ideas to the Legislature and seek help from lawmakers and Legislative Council staff to guide them through the legislative process.
Diane Newberry / North Dakota Newspaper Association
Ben Tucker, who farms near St. Thomas, N.D., is one of many private citizens who bring ideas to the Legislature and seek help from lawmakers and Legislative Council staff to guide them through the legislative process. Diane Newberry / North Dakota Newspaper Association

BISMARCK — The capitol cafeteria is mostly deserted in the post-breakfast lull, but Ben Tucker leans in close. “Ok, I’ll be honest,” he said. “We’re Democrats.”

From the tone of his voice — reminiscent of a spy in a 1960s television show — one might get the impression that Tucker was on some sort of clandestine mission, perhaps trying to bring down the state’s Republican majority through espionage or blackmail. The mild-mannered farmer’s real mission at the Capitol, however, is not nearly so shocking.

The “we” Tucker is referring to is a group of politically minded neighbors and friends in the St. Thomas area who have been supporting Tucker as he lobbies for House Bill 1515, which would expand the number of women who are able to receive Medicaid benefits during pregnancy.

An email chain with local Democrats after the last election inspired Tucker to research medical assistance available to pregnant women in the state. He found that at the time, North Dakota covered women up to 152 percent above the federal poverty line, meaning it ranked 44th across all states for pregnancy coverage. Tucker felt compelled to change this and thought it didn’t have to be a partisan issue.

“The politics quickly dropped away from it because there’s no right, no left, no red, no blue to this issue,” Tucker said. “There are lots of reasons to vote for this bill and the only reason to vote against it is that we are on a tight budget cycle.”

Tucker had no prior experience in politics, except for briefly lobbying for a bill concerning a potato growers board years ago. As a farmer, he said, he used to fill his downtime in the colder months with curling. An injury put him on the lookout for a new hobby.

“We didn’t have any idea on how to do anything.” Tucker said. “So I did my research and I put this thing together, with a cover sheet and describing the bill as I foresaw it.”

Tucker’s “thing” is a white binder with multicolored writing on the front describing his goal to change Medicaid eligibility for pregnant women from 152 percent of the national poverty level to 203 percent. The final version of the bill proposes a 162 percent line. Tucker said he made about two dozen copies of his makeshift manifesto, managing to pass out about half to lawmakers. He was able to find support from a few lawmakers, namely Rep. Alisa Mitskog, D-Wahpeton, and Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford.

Although Tucker’s grassroots story might seem exceptional, John Bjornson, director of the Legislative Council, said he sees many citizen-driven bills every session.

This session alone, he said, Legislative Council has helped draft almost 1,200 bills, including citizen-sparked measures on almost every kind of issue, but the biggest are education, property rights and property tax — "those things that really touch them closest."

The bipartisan strategy

From the get-go, Tucker knew he had to reach across the aisle. His speculative binder reads, “A Bill to Reduce Abortions While Helping Our Most Vulnerable” in an effort to appeal to conservative lawmakers. In advocating for the bill, he emphasized studies that showed as much as a 17 percent decrease in abortions when states raised their levels of coverage. The bill’s carrier in the House, Matthew Ruby, R-Minot, leaned into the bill’s abortion reduction angle on the floor.

“This is a small investment in our future and an effective way to reduce the number of abortions in a way that will not be challenged by the courts,” Ruby said.

The bill passed the House in February on a 66-5 vote.

“I had a red-potato marketing meeting and I was at the hotel lobby — so I was watching the floor vote on my smartphone and when that board lit up green like a Christmas tree, my eyes just filled with tears,” Tucker said.

Tucker was proud that his strategy to appeal to a broad spectrum of legislators had worked, and believes it shows that a future of bipartisan solutions in the state is possible.

“You have to find areas where, OK, you can come at it from the North, I can come at it from the South, but we’re going to get to the same place,” Tucker said. “It just takes some imagination and it takes the ability to look at problems from the opposite point of view.”

An uncertain future

Although HB 1515 had wide support in the House, it was going to the Senate floor with a “Do Not Pass” recommendation from committee. Tucker said that since the bill received the Do Not Pass recommendation, he has been trying to “drum up” an email campaign in support of the bill.

Rep. Joshua Boschee, D-Fargo and the House minority leader, helped counsel Tucker through the legislative process although he did not co-sponsor the bill. As a legislator, Boschee said that beyond sponsoring bills, lawmakers can often help citizens by researching laws that might already address their concerns or guide them to established lobbying organizations. According to Boschee, Tucker’s email campaign could potentially have some sway.

“The one thing I continue to hear from policy makers is when they receive more than five emails on an issue, they know to pay attention,” Boschee said.

If the bill fails, “Good luck finding me,” Tucker joked. He said that while he would never run for office (he didn’t even put his name on a letter to the editor he sent to the Grand Forks Herald recently), he would consider putting the work in if another issue grabbed him like this one did.

“It’s a lot of work,” Tucker said. “But I have no life.”

As with everything Tucker says, he delivered this line with both a wink and a large Midwestern dose of sincerity.