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Democrat sees ND governor's race as 'uphill battle,' but winnable

BISMARCK - As a Democrat running for governor in a state that has voted Republican in every gubernatorial election since 1992 and every presidential election since 1968, Marvin Nelson knows the pundits will probably say his chances for success ar...

Marvin Nelson
Marvin Nelson

BISMARCK – As a Democrat running for governor in a state that has voted Republican in every gubernatorial election since 1992 and every presidential election since 1968, Marvin Nelson knows the pundits will probably say his chances for success aren't great.

But the state representative from Rolla isn't in it to lose.

"I'm not fooling myself in thinking that suddenly I'm going to be pulling 70, 80 percent in the polls," Nelson said in advance of officially announcing his candidacy Wednesday at stops in Bismarck and Fargo.

"It's going to be a lot of work. It's certainly an uphill battle, but I do believe it's winnable if people help me. I can't win it on my own, but I do believe if the party helps me that it is a winnable race," he said.

In an interview Tuesday at Democratic-NPL Party headquarters, Nelson talked about his reasons for running, his positions on controversial issues like abortion and marijuana and his strong desire for the state to avoid the mistakes of the past.


"We can't allow to have happen to North Dakota from this oil boom what happened in the last oil boom," he said. "We have thousands of acres of destroyed lands, and basically if the same thing is allowed to happen, we won't have a western North Dakota."

Nelson didn't seem concerned about the head start his Republican opponents have on fundraising and campaigning. He said he deposited his first campaign check on Saturday, from fellow District 9 Rep. Tracy Boe.

"Everybody tells me that campaigns are too long. There should be enough time. People should be able to make up their minds," he said.

Nelson grew up on a farm near Rugby with parents who were active in the Democratic-NPL Party.

He was first elected to the House in 2010, having been drafted by the District 9 executive committee when Rep. Merle Boucher decided to run for state agriculture commissioner. Nelson ran unopposed that year and again in 2014 in the heavily Democratic district.

The 57-year-old independent agricultural consultant said he hadn't thought a lot about running for governor before party Executive Director Robert Haider asked him recently. After he said he'd consider it, the phone rang often with supporters encouraging him to run, he said.

Republicans currently hold all statewide offices and two-thirds majorities in both the House and Senate, and Nelson pointed to the state's overcommitted Oil and Gas Impact Grant Fund as an example of problems that can arise from a lack of party balance in state government.

"We need a little order in some way, and that's one of the problems when everybody's from the same party and nobody wants to say anything bad because it kind of reflects on them, too," Nelson said.


He said inspections and enforcement of regulations for the oil and gas industry are lacking and have made it more difficult to site pipelines "because the landowners don't believe the state of North Dakota is there to protect them."

Like the three GOP hopefuls for governor - state Rep. Rick Becker of Bismarck, Fargo businessman Doug Burgum and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem - Nelson said the state must diversify an economy now driven by oil and agricultural commodities. He said the focus must be on technology, not just spinoffs of the oil and farm sectors.

"If we don't do things to really smooth this out, we're going to just keep riding this roller coaster," he said, referring to the state's projected $1 billion revenue shortfall blamed largely on collapsed oil and farm commodity prices.

On social issues, Nelson said he supports efforts to legalize medical marijuana - he co-sponsored a failed bill last session to do just that - but opposes legalizing it for recreational use, saying, "I think that's asking too many troubles."

His position on abortion is complicated, he said, noting he has voted both for and against abortion-restricting legislation.

"My wife and I, we have two children, and we lost five before birth, and that's a pretty tough thing," he said. "And I think of those children - and I do think of them as my children - and I really wish there weren't abortions. At the same time, I look at society and I see a lot of people who campaign against abortions and then they go and have them anyway."

In 2013, Nelson supported a bill banning abortions when a fetal heartbeat can be detected, but he said Tuesday that, "Looking back on it, that was probably a mistake." A federal court judge struck down the law as unconstitutional before it took effect, and the Supreme Court recently refused to review it.

Nelson said North Dakota is "about as restrictive as it can be" on abortion within the U.S. Constitution, "and I really as governor would not be that interested in having outside groups use us to use our money for test cases in the Supreme Court."


About state Rep. Marvin Nelson, D-Rolla

• 57 years old

• Independent agricultural consultant

• Elected to House in 2010 and 2014

• Born in Rugby, grew up on family farm that raised beef and dairy, chickens, hogs, mink, wheat, barley, oats and corn

• Associate degree in agriculture, bachelor's degree in entomology from NDSU in 1980

• Wife, Susan, runs the Clothing Connection, a consignment store that her husband built

• Two grown children and two grandchildren, the latest a Leap Day baby born last month

• Nelson will launch his campaign at 9 a.m. Wednesday at the Kennedy Center at 1902 E. Divide Ave. in Bismarck and at 2 p.m. at The Depot at 701 Main Ave. in Fargo.

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