MINOT, N.D. — Remarkably, crank candidate Charles Tuttle managed to get nearly 20% of the vote in the North Dakota Superintendent primary.
That's a nonpartisan race, so the top two vote-getters advance to the general election. Incumbent Kirsten Baesler received over 54% of the vote. The rest of the votes went to Underwood Public Schools Superintendent Brandt Dick (25.85%) and Tuttle (19.65%).
Tuttle is a bullying gadfly with an alarming background for someone who sought to be in charge of the education of North Dakota's children. As my colleague April Baumgarten reported in 2018, a court in Delaware County, Ohio, found that Tuttle "had sexual contact with a young child."
The court's decision that the minor was an "abused child as a result of the sexual contact," and it was upheld on appeal, though the finding didn't result in criminal charges.
Tuttle was also sentenced to 180 days in jail, with 120 days suspended, for assaulting his former father-in-law, a matter Tuttle also appealed and lost.
Despite these incidents, Tuttle earned 27,885 votes in the primary for superintendent.
That speaks to a remarkable level of dissatisfaction with the status quo, and the status quo is Baesler, who has some deep flaws of her own, not least of which is a DUI arrest earlier this year.
Still, she did earn a majority of the vote, so you may be wondering what justifies my suggestion that Baesler's tenure in her current office is over.
There are two things.
First, as evidenced by Tuttle's disturbingly strong finish, the anti-Baesler sentiment in the electorate is strong. The broader electorate, which will cast ballots in November, will likely be strongly influenced by Baesler's multiple arrests while in office. In addition to the DUI, he was also arrested on assault charges in 2015 after an alcohol-fueled altercation with her boyfriend, though she wasn't convicted.
Those closer to the work of the superintendent argue that her office is overly bureaucratic. Baesler herself can often be heard talking about her 70 to 80 hour work weeks, which from one perspective can be a testament to an intense work ethic, but from a different angle might suggest someone who is not great at delegation and efficient administration.
But dissatisfaction with the incumbent is not necessarily enough to lose an election. Voters must also have a good alternative to vote for.
If Brandt can raise some money, and campaign more vigorously in the general election than he did in the primary, he could convince many voters he is that alternative.
On paper, his resume is impressive. He's already a superintendent in one of the state's public schools system. He says he's the first sitting superintendent to run for the job Baesler currently has since the 1980s. He also knows his way around the capitol building in Bismarck, having spent a lot of time working with the Legislature while advocating for rural school districts.
I interviewed him for the podcast on May 14, and I was impressed.
Dick showed me he's not afraid to take an independent stand. "Even now two months after we shut down the schools, there are still 14 counties that haven't had a case," he said, referring to the coronavirus outbreak. "At what point will the governor give that local control back?" he asked.
He was also adept in his handling of Baesler's travails, showing compassion but also not letting her off the hook. That's going to be the crux of this race," he told me when I asked him about the incumbent's DUI arrest. "Are (voters) going to say it's time for a change?"
"I think I've shown in my career that I am a role model of professionalism," he added.
Dick is also a Republican. This is a nonpartisan race, but typically the political parties pick candidates to support anyway. This year the NDGOP didn't hold a convention and opted not to endorse in this race specifically, but Dick said he was planning to pursue that endorsement.
That alignment with the NDGOP will matter to many voters. Party chairman Rick Berg told me today that Republicans will endorse in this race at their summer meeting in Medora on July 18.
My feeling is there's a good chance Baesler doesn't land the party's backing.
However, that shakes out, if Dick can present himself to voters as a competent, conservative-minded alternative to Baesler, he could easily be the next superintendent.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.