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Mike Jacobs: Quiet settles over the North Dakota political landscape

A quiet week is a week to take notice.

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Mike Jacobs, Grand Forks Herald columnist.

As Garrison Keilor used to tell us, “It was a quiet week.” Of course, it was always a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, the fictional community that Keilor created and all of us recognized.

Not so in politics, where silence is rare.

So, a quiet week is a week to take notice, in this case of diverse developments, beginning with the stalest and proceeding thence to the most trivial and ending with the most serious – the opposite of what we were taught in journalism school, but there’s a reason for the upright rather than the inverted paragraph in this column.

The first week of December is often quiet in North Dakota politics. Ordinarily the Legislature has been long forgotten by this time of year, but that’s not the case this year. Memories of the November special session are fresh. One is frequently rehashed in the letters to the editor.

That would be legislative reapportionment. As it happens, I am a reapportionment nerd myself, and I agree with some of the points the critics of the Legislature’s plan are raising.

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But enough with it already!

Lawmakers have approved a reapportionment plan, the governor has signed it and it will shape the Legislature for the next decade.

Much of the criticism is coming from Democratic activists, but they have no complaint. They are a rump group at best, with few members and less clout.

Besides, they’re not the big losers. Glancing at the map and remembering where incumbents reside, it becomes clear that it is the right wing of the Republican Party that is most in peril. In North Dakota, this group is commonly called the “Bastiat Caucus,” after a 19th century French economist whom most caucus members had almost certainly never heard of before they reached the capitol. The new reapportionment map puts a number of these members in the same districts, meaning they’ll have to run against each other and some will likely lose.

Activists also are grinding away at the Ethics Commission, brought to us by initiated measure in 2018 and still not really up and running. Sponsors of the measure are now critics of the commission. They include a number of the same people who are harping about reapportionment. Their chances may be better with the Ethics Commission, but for the moment, at least, their efforts haven’t dented the rules that the commission has put in place for itself. These mostly protect elected officials rather than creating more transparency about campaigns.

An odd thing has happened on the Minnesota side of the Red River. There’s a move to name the post office in Oklee, Minn., after Coya Knutson, the first woman elected to Congress from Minnesota. She’s better remembered for how she lost her job than for how she did it.

Knutson served as the U.S. House member from Minnesota’s Seventh District for four years, 1955 to 1959. She was defeated in 1958 , after political enemies within the Democratic Party circulated a letter, allegedly written by her husband, Andy Knutson. He – or the letter writer, at least – pleaded for her to come home. The incident got nationwide attention, and the “Coya Come Home” message remains a potent symbol of sexism in American politics.

The Herald opined about the name change in its editorial on Saturday, Dec. 4, conceding that it would be OK to rename the post office, but that Congress shouldn’t make a habit of this sort of legislation, instead using its time for more serious issues.

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The sponsor of the legislation is Rep. Michelle Fischbach, who has little in common with Coya Knutson other than gender and a certain familiarity with brass knuckle campaigning.

Back in Bismarck, my friend Steve Andrist, former publisher of the Divide County Journal in Crosby, director of the state newspaper association and – in retirement – a columnist for the Bismarck Tribune, took advantage of the relative silence in local politics by reviewing historians’ ranking of the presidents, always a compelling topic. George Washington remains in first place on the most recent lists, and Donald Trump ranks among the worst. It’s important to remember that history is written by the winners, and there’s just no way to predict how our current political and cultural conflicts will be resolved.

Turning to more consequential matters:

The mask mandate apparently has failed. Suezette and I were at the UND Concert Choirs Winter WUNDderland Saturday. Masks came off as soon as the bar opened, and the crowd remained largely unmasked through dinner. Some remasked after dining, including the UND president and several at his table. Otherwise the only people consistently masked were the singers, and the masks didn't damage their performance at all.

Vaccine is the favored weapon in fighting COVID. Of course, it’s mask mandates that have generated much of the noise this political year.

Finally, on a personal note: Like all of you, I read of Grand Forks Herald columnist Chuck Haga’s cancer diagnosis in his Saturday column. Haga and I go all the way back to journalism classes at UND.

Suezette and I wish him the very best and we send this advice gleaned from our shared experience in the last 18 months: The road is a rough one. Take it day by day. Try to be optimistic. Trust the professionals and count on your friends. And remember that no matter how bad it seems, there’s always somebody worse off.

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

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