While legislators debate ND ethics amendment bills, two women who led election drive win national honor

Local Fargo "pro-democracy" activist Richard Jensen and North Dakotans for Public Integrity co-leader Ellen Chaffee hold the "Courage Award" that Chaffee and co-leader Dina Butcher received at a national summit in Nashville over the weekend for their work on getting Measure One passed last fall. Chaffee said the award really belongs to North Dakotans who voted for the ethics and anti-corruption amendment.   Barry Amundson / The Forum
Local Fargo "pro-democracy" activist Richard Jensen and North Dakotans for Public Integrity co-leader Ellen Chaffee hold the "Courage Award" that Chaffee and co-leader Dina Butcher received at a national summit in Nashville over the weekend for their work on getting Measure One passed last fall. Chaffee said the award really belongs to North Dakotans who voted for the ethics and anti-corruption amendment. Barry Amundson / The Forum

FARGO — While North Dakota legislators still haven't decided on how to implement the ethics amendment to the state constitution, the two women who led the charge to pass Measure 1 were in Nashville over the weekend to collect a national honor.

Ellen Chaffee and Dina Butcher received the "Courage Award" at a "pro-democracy" gathering of 2,000 Americans called the "Unrig Summit." Supporter and actress Jennifer Lawrence, who has a 12-minute video on the anti-corruption movement, presented the award to the two.

Chaffee told a group at an "anti-corruption event" at the Fargo Library on Wednesday night, April 3, that the award really belongs to the people of North Dakota who approved the amendment.

Chaffee and local activist Richard Jensen, who also helped with passage of the amendment, urged people at the meeting and listening through a podcast that they need to put pressure on legislators to pass the Senate bill that implements a state ethics commission, rather than the House version.

Chaffee said the House bill has many provisions that are in direct conflict with the Constitution as the measure went into effect 60 days after voters approved it last November. It also doesn't include the $500,000 that's in the Senate bill and is needed to get the required state ethics commission on its feet, she said.

The deadline for the bill to pass is this Friday, April 5, and Chaffee said legislators will likely have to ask for an extension until the two sides can reach an agreement on a bill.

Reilly Hedegaard, who works with the group North Dakotans for Public Integrity that worked on getting the measure approved by voters, told the gathering that people need to contact their legislators to get them to support the Senate version as it's likely headed for a conference committee to work out differences between the two bills.

He said phone calls are effective and if that's not possible, an email will work.

Chaffee said ethics is really a "nonpartisan issue." She pointed out that 93 legislators are from districts in the state where voters approved the ethics amendment, while only 43 aren't. She noted that Rep. Jim Kasper, who represents part of south Fargo and is chairing the House Ethics Committee, comes from a district where 62 percent of voters cast a ballot for the amendment.

Jensen, meanwhile, told the gathering that with passage of the anti-corruption amendment North Dakota was a leader in a national movement to improve the nation's democracy.

He said the movement is gaining steam and that the goals are to end gerrymandering of congressional districts, get automatic voter registration for all U.S. citizens and pass laws for more ranked voting like they system Fargo citizens approved for local elections last year.

Jensen also said getting big money out of politics is also needed as U.S. senators and representatives "spend 70 percent of their time raising money for re-election instead of doing the people's business."

The way to achieve advancements is on the grassroots and state level by building a movement through a right- and left-leaning coalition, similar to the effort in North Dakota on the amendment, and calling out corruption.

Someone in the audience asked about corruption in North Dakota and Chaffee's husband, David Schwalbe, said that they had 50 folders about elected officials who had violated ethics rules in the state. However, instead of taking the low road and exposing violations they took "the high road" to get the amendment approved.

Chaffee, a Democrat, and Butcher, a longtime Republican, traveled the state and were nicknamed "Badass Grandmas" in the campaign after a comment made by a friend of Butcher's teenage grandson. The name stuck and in Nashville over the weekend, the grandmas were honored and the crowd loved the nickname.

"I think Butcher got more hugs than Jennifer Lawrence," said Chaffee about the summit after the crowd learned about their story and what North Dakota voters had approved.