Jacobs: North Dakota Republicans have a strong bench, with nowhere to play

The Republican Party has built a solid red brick wall in the state. There’s little chance for advancement, unless one of the senior officeholders makes an unexpected decision.

Mike Jacobs, Grand Forks Herald columnist.
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GRAND FORKS — Jon Godfread, one of Grand Forks’ own, has gifts that make him a stand out on the Republican Party’s bench in North Dakota.

OK, so one of them is his height. At 6 feet 10 inches he is certified to be the tallest officeholder on the planet, per Guinness World Records. That’s not a qualification for office, true enough, but it’s not a liability either.

Besides, Godfread has other talents, like knowing how to frame an issue. He’s the motive force behind a move to earmark a significant part of the state’s Legacy Fund, which is built on oil tax revenue, for investment in North Dakota. This may seem a little off point for Godfread, who is the state’s elected insurance commissioner, but in that role he sits on the state investment board.

A bill incorporating Godfread’s investment idea is making its way through the Legislature where Rep. Mike Nathe of Bismarck is the chief sponsor, with much support and a few objections.

Godfread is also good at phrase making. He gave a simple, straightforward, completely understandable and utterly compelling argument in favor of his idea. “Because it’s the people’s money,” he said.


He’s sharp on the details, too. His plan would direct 10% of Legacy Fund earnings to fixed income investments within the state and 10% for equity investments. That’s $800 million in each pot for a total of $1.6 billion.

“Capital begets capital,” he said. And “there’s an inherent multiplier effect.”

These gifts — height, policy and clarity — have made him a star on the Republican Party’s bench in North Dakota.

The trouble is, when can he play? In other words, it’s not talent that determines his political future. It’s opportunity.

The Republican Party has built a solid red brick wall in the state. There’s little chance for advancement, unless one of the senior officeholders makes an unexpected decision. That’s possible, of course, but it doesn’t seem likely.

While Godfread is the standout on the bench, he’s not the only Republican with political credentials. Arguably, however, he has the fewest “negatives,” as the politicos like to say.

There’s Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak, for example. She’s toyed with running for other offices, but demurred, citing family considerations. The right opening might cause her to reconsider. The PSC has been a path to higher office; U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer served on the commission. Yet PSC membership has its political hazards, and Fedorchak has put off some parts of the energy lobby by siding with others, “the coal boys” particularly.

Neither Fedorchak nor Godfread are eligible for what could be the biggest prize on the 2022 ballot, attorney general, however. Neither is a licensed attorney in the state, though Godfread earned a law degree at UND.


Wayne Stenehjem, the sitting attorney general, is 68. Pressed about retirement plans, he deflected the question, but he volunteered that Beth, his wife, has retired. Stenehjem could be at risk in a primary election. Gov. Doug Burgum has proven ruthless is outspending political opponents, and Stenehjem fits that category. The two faced off in the 2016 gubernatorial primary and they have met in court chambers more recently. They’re not close. We can leave it at that.

Drew Wrigley may be interested in the attorney general’s job. He was lieutenant governor and served as U.S. attorney in the George W. Bush and Donald Trump administrations. The latter means he’s out of a job. Or will be. He’s suited to the attorney general’s spot.

John Hoeven’s seat in the U.S. Senate will be on the 2022 ballot, and he has announced his intent to run again. Had he decided against running for a third term, it likely would have caused a scramble of candidates, perhaps including Fedorchak, a close protégé. Hoeven appointed her to the PSC. And also, perhaps including Kelly Armstrong, who is safe in the state’s only seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Armstrong’s ambitions, whatever they are, hinge on others. He might leave the House to run for governor should Burgum decide to retire — though there’s no sign of that. Burgum has even joked that he might keep the job for the rest of his life. He’s 64 years old.

The professional human resource managers describe Armstrong’s current circumstance as “well placed now,” which implies potential promotion when opportunity arises.

The phrase could apply equally well to the rest of the GOP bench in the state. Which is a good thing, of course, because chances for advancement are slim in the Peace Garden State.

Full disclosure: Insurance Commissioner Godfread’s father, David Godfread — a longtime Grand Forks educator — and my life partner, Suezette Rene Bieri, and I are members of the Stanley, N.D., Severson High School Class of 1965. Dave Godfread and I were the tallest members of the class, and we brought up the rear of the graduation processional.

Public Service Commissioner Fedorchak also has Mountrail County credentials.


Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.

Correction, Feb. 10: Jon Godfread's height is 6 feet 10 inches, per Guinness World Records. His height was wrong in an earlier version of this column. We regret the error

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