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Minority party keeps things in check in ND Legislature

BISMARCK - November's election saw very little change in North Dakota's political landscape. Voters opposed seven of the eight constitutional measures on the ballot, all of the statewide offices remained in Republican control, and Democrats gaine...

Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks, left, and Assistant House Minority Leader Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, second from right, welcome their constituents before the State of The State Address on Tuesday in Bismarck. Logan Werlinger / Forum News Service

BISMARCK – November’s election saw very little change in North Dakota’s political landscape.
Voters opposed seven of the eight constitutional measures on the ballot, all of the statewide offices remained in Republican control, and Democrats gained one seat in the Legislature.
Yet, Democrats – who have been outnumbered in the state Senate since 1992 and in the House since 1984 – say they still have an important role in the Legislature. From introducing their own bills, working with lawmakers on the other side of the aisle and acting as a check against the Republican majority, Democrats said the numerical disadvantage doesn’t translate to irrelevancy.

“We’re pushing each other to make each other better for the good of the state,” said Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks, of Republicans and Democrats. “This isn’t about red vs. blue. I think we see good faith competition over ideas.”
Still, former Democratic Lt. Gov. Lloyd Omdahl, a retired political science professor at the University of North Dakota, said the minority could do more to offer alternative ideas.
“In this era of government prosperity due to the Bakken, maybe the circumstances don’t lend themselves to a lot of alternatives because the state has the money to do more things,” he said, citing debates over funding for the western part of the state to cope with increased oil-related activity.


Rep. Corey Mock of Grand Forks, the House’s assistant minority leader, said he encourages his caucus members to draft legislation “as if you are the ruling party.”
“We want people to know our ideas,” Mock said during the first week of the session.
This past week, Democrats proposed drafting a contingency budget in the face of uncertain oil prices. Responding to the Democrats’ proposal Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said that the two parties appear to somewhat agree on the “philosophy,” but “it’s just how we’re going to get there.”
House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, said he didn’t want two budgets.
Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, said Democrats can influence policy decisions by drafting legislation that others, including Republicans, can be a sponsor to, drafting amendments to existing legislation and working within committees to “gain credibility.”
Omdahl sees part of the minority party’s role as holding the other side accountable. In the case of Democrats, he said Republicans have responded when they’ve been criticized.
“So, even though the Democrats don’t have as many votes, Republicans still feel like they must explain or defend what they’re doing,” Omdahl said. “The minority party has a responsibility to point out errors or defects in programs that are proposed, but they’re also responsible for proposing their own.”



The conservative nature of North Dakota means the two parties are more similar ideologically than in other states, Omdahl said. The culture here also means criticism is a little bit more “muted.”
Wardner said the relationship between the two parties in the Senate is “very congenial.”
“We don’t agree on everything, but we get along,” he said. Wardner said the Republican leadership tries to keep the other side “in the loop” on things they’re working on.
Carlson didn’t return a message seeking comment Friday.
In Schneider’s first session in 2009, the Democrats were outnumbered in the Senate 26-21, a closer margin than today. That count took a hit in 2010, and they have gained back three in the past two elections, Schneider said.
Schneider said he hopes that trend continues in order to bring more “balance” to the Legislature.
“I think with that kind of political balance, you had a much better process,” Schneider said. “Our path forward is to recruit those centrist candidates who focus on bread and butter issues.”

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