Heart of a governor: When speaking publicly, Doug Burgum often bares his emotions

FARGO — Doug Burgum kicked off his run for governor last year with a speech peppered with jokes, like the one about how he started a chimney sweep business in college."I was looking for a job where I could stay in the black and move up fast," he ...

Doug Burgum announced his candidacy for governor of North Dakota in January 2016 in Fargo. At several times during the speech, he became emotional.
Doug Burgum announced his candidacy for governor of North Dakota in January 2016 in Fargo. At several times during the speech, he became emotional.
Forum file photo

FARGO — Doug Burgum kicked off his run for governor last year with a speech peppered with jokes, like the one about how he started a chimney sweep business in college.

"I was looking for a job where I could stay in the black and move up fast," he quipped.

Along with punchlines, there were also more than half a dozen moments in the 45-minute speech when the tech mogul touched on matters close to his heart, and his voice became strained with emotion or he had to pause because he was choked up.

Burgum also became verklempt at times during his State of the State address in January and this spring in meetings with the editorial boards of The Forum and the Grand Forks Herald.

In another era, the Republican governor's propensity to show his emotions may have sunk his political career. But Ben Kassow, a political science professor at the University of North Dakota, said times have changed.


Thirty or forty years ago, politicians were expected to remain stoic whereas now society is more accepting of politicians who occasionally display their emotions, Kassow said.

"You hear a lot about millennials craving quote-unquote authenticity, and that might include things like showing a tear, showing compassion," he said.

In speaking to the public and the press, a variety of topics have elicited Burgum's emotions, including addiction, tribal issues, American freedoms, his family, his close friends and his experience building Great Plains Software into a successful company.

Psychiatrist James Gordon said Burgum's displays of emotion are "pretty clearly tied to the specific situations of individuals who move him in one way or another. I think that's pretty healthy, actually."

Gordon, founder of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C., said he believes a politician's job is "to be in touch with the concerns and the needs of people and to figure out thoughtful ways to serve those needs."

"Having emotions, recognizing emotions, is extremely important for politicians," he added. Without compassion for constituents, "everything becomes a kind of cold, hard sort of economic or political calculus."

During his emotional moments in the public eye, Burgum hasn't actually come to tears. This sets him apart from former U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, whose frequent weeping was ridiculed by some. Despite being made fun of, Boehner's crying did not ruin his career.

However, things were different for the late Ed Muskie. Considered a favorite to win the 1972 Democratic nomination for president, Muskie's bid fell apart after he appeared to tear up during a news conference held outside in a snowstorm.


Journalists reported that Muskie had broken down and cried. He later said the tears were actually melted snowflakes, but it was too late to repair his damaged image.

The hardest part

While meeting last month with The Forum's editorial board, Burgum's voice swelled with emotion twice, once when relating the story of a Native American elder who told him drug abuse was her community's biggest problem. The other time came as he discussed the suicides of two children under the age of 14 on the Turtle Mountain Reservation.

Burgum told the board the hardest part about being governor is that almost every day he's faced with something emotional. He gave the example of meeting the mother of Andrew Sadek, a police informant found dead in the Red River in 2014.

"This isn't just theoretical," Burgum said of the experience. "This is somebody who lost a kid."

He also talked about speaking with the fiancée of Colt Allery, a Rolette County sheriff's deputy killed in January. Allery's fiancée told the governor of how days after Allery's shooting death, when another officer pulled up to her home in a squad car, her young son got excited thinking it was Allery.

"That stuff can age you, probably," Burgum told the board. "But there's also, you know, there's real joy in being able to make a difference every day."

Through his spokesman, Mike Nowatzki, Burgum declined to comment for this story. Nowatzki said the governor is "someone with a lot of empathy and compassion. Those are positive qualities in a leader."

Nowatzki said Burgum is not considering running for a higher office and is focused on his job as governor. But if Burgum were ever to seek a national office, it's unclear how his emotional side would play with voters.


Kassow pointed out that President Bill Clinton's occasional shedding of tears "made him seem real to people." Though, Kassow said displaying emotion too often may have diminishing returns, "but if you show it once in awhile at a really important moment, it shows that you care."

It's worth noting that Burgum does not get choked up every time he's behind a podium. In giving his election night victory speech in November and speaking to graduates of North Dakota State University in May, he didn't become emotional.

However, less than a minute into his first State of the State address in January, Burgum's voice wavered with emotion as he talked about gratitude. At another moment, his feelings overcame him as he told the story of a homeless, meth-addicted 19-year-old he encountered in a downtown Fargo alley on a cold December morning.

Last month, while meeting with the editorial board of the Grand Forks Herald, Burgum became emotional when discussing his vetoes from this year's legislative session.

The governor told the board about a phone call with a lawmaker whose bill he had just vetoed. "I want to come and talk to you," Burgum recalled telling the lawmaker. "I vetoed stuff that I know you worked very hard on."

At that point, Burgum hesitated, and emotion filled his voice. "I don't take that lightly," he said of vetoing legislation. "I respect how hard these guys work."

'More vulnerable'

Gordon, the psychiatrist, said older men tend to be more in touch with their emotions than younger men. The 75-year-old said it's something he's noticed in himself.

"You've come to a point in your life where you've accomplished certain things. You're not trying to prove how big and strong and tough you are anymore," he said. "You're more vulnerable to emotions."


Burgum, 60, attended NDSU, and it's there he befriended John Hanson in the mid-1970s. Hanson, a rancher near Amidon in the Little Missouri Badlands, said Burgum back then didn't show his emotions as much as he does now.

Hanson said he thinks Burgum may be more emotional these days because of the challenges he's experienced in life, such as losing his brother, mother and father, going through a divorce and weathering the stress of the corporate world.

"I think those things all have a cumulative effect," Hanson said.

Jeff Young became acquainted with Burgum in 1989, and they spent years working together at Great Plains. Young said the governor has been unafraid to show his emotions as long as he's known him.

"He just has always been a very, very sincere individual," Young said.

Hanson believes it's more of an asset than a liability for a politician to have a tender heart. "Think of a governor that had no emotion."

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