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Anti-Hoeven sentiment may affect Richland vote

When voters go to the Richland County primary polls June 11 to narrow the sheriff's race from five to two candidates, the outcome may be more than a statement about any single candidate.

When voters go to the Richland County primary polls June 11 to narrow the sheriff's race from five to two candidates, the outcome may be more than a statement about any single candidate.

The outcome could well be a vote against the one man not running: North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven.

Four candidates are lifelong residents of the county. The fifth, Sheriff Kim Murphy, is the new guy on the block. All claim they can bring change and lead the county into the future.

Many residents won't publicly say who they plan to vote for. One reason, said Sen. Joel Heitkamp, D-Hankinson, is that county voters are split in their opinions.

"It's anybody's race," Heitkamp said. "Whoever works the hardest and talks to the most people is going to be left standing after the primary."

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However, a thread of anti-Hoeven sentiment will likely play a role in the vote, Heitkamp said.

Murphy replaced Harlan Muehler, the winner of four campaigns, after Hoeven removed Muehler Aug. 17 for misconduct in office. Commissioners appointed Murphy, a former sergeant in the Cass County Sheriff's Department, to take over for Muehler.

Hoeven maintains he upheld state law, which required him to look at facts which appeared stacked against Muehler for profane and offensive language, refusing to hire women for some positions and operating an unlawful slush fund.

The governor, though, won't take a position in this race, which also includes Chief Deputy Larry Leshovsky, farmer Ray Zajac and heavy- equipment operator Gregory Puetz.

"As governor, I have a responsibility to uphold the law," Hoeven said. "Based on facts, I made the decision I felt I had to.

"It's time for the voters to make up their minds. I respect the right of voters to choose. This is an election for the voters of Richland County."

The top two vote-getters from the primary will square off against each other in the Nov. 5 general election.

A citizen's group called on Hoeven to remove Muehler and Dave Paulson, a county commissioner at the time, from office after filing a petition with the required 50 signatures. State law required that Hoeven name a special commissioner to gather evidence and present testimony to the governor, who conducts a hearing and makes a ruling.

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"I think people were upset in Richland County that the governor removed Harlan when they didn't get enough signatures (for a recall election)," Heitkamp said.

The citizen's group began collecting the 2,022 signatures required to force a recall, but opted to ask Hoeven to step in.

Hoeven ruled the evidence showed conduct by Muehler and Paulson overstepped the standards of decency set by North Dakotans and removed both officials.

Heitkamp, who knows all five sheriff's candidates, said he won't endorse anyone for the position.

He said the county doesn't favor any particular political party, but many people have made up their minds.

Statewide, Heitkamp said eyes are on the Richland County sheriff's race, a factor known to residents.

"There's very few races in the primary that people are looking at," he said. "That's one of them. This county feels its vote matters."

He's heard many people say they'll vote against The Forum's editorial position that Muehler be removed and Hoeven's decision to remove a man who worked in the Sheriff's Department since 1967.

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Another factor, Heitkamp said, is Richland County voters' perceptions about the county. "The perception wasn't that everything went to hell," he said. "The perception was that it was overblown (by the media)."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Steven P. Wagner at (701) 241-5542

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