Port: If North Dakota's Democrats want to gain ground, they have to be more serious than the Republicans

"North Dakota Democrats have a real opportunity to contrast themselves favorably with Republicans, posturing as the adults in the room. But are they capable of it?"
The North Dakota House of Representatives during the 2017 legislative session.
Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune

MINOT, N.D. — It is an unfortunate reality that this Legislature in Bismarck has given the public plenty of reasons to doubt their seriousness in serving our state.

Given that, I understand the impetus behind a letter to the editor sent by Rep. Zac Ista, a Democrat from Grand Forks, who rips his Republican colleagues for their poor priorities. Ista would like to illustrate that voters have an alternative for better leadership in Democrats.

But do we?

Ista starts with a quote from current President Joe Biden: “Don’t tell me what your values are. Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what your values are.” Then, to illustrate that this Republican-controlled Legislature has poor values, he notes that they passed a school choice policy, directing some public funds to help parents choose private schools while, so far, eschewing any expansion of the state's school lunch program.

These are, indeed, poor priorities. Or, perhaps more accurately, inconsistent priorities. If our goal is to help families with children, then funding school choice is a good idea. So, too, would be taking the burden of school lunch payments off the backs of families.


A household with two children is easily paying well over $1,000 per school year for lunches. The state picking up the tab puts that money back into their pockets.

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We could do both, which would have been a boon to families with school-age children around the state. Instead, this Legislature chose only to help the small minority of parents who choose private schools.

I doubt that there's a school choice policy that Ista would support, given how beholden Democrats are to the interests of teacher unions. Still, his juxtaposition of these two points illustrates a very real failing of the Republican majority to achieve the level of public service we ought to expect from them.

But then Ista illustrates why we might not be governed any better by Democrats. By way of dunking on his Republican colleagues, he calls for an indiscriminate expansion of state-funded, means-tested benefits. "With private school vouchers available to families making up to 500% of the federal poverty level, that should become the new baseline for all means-tested benefits," he writes.


There may be plenty of North Dakota voters who are disillusioned with the Republican majority in Bismarck. The public is watching the Republicans be led by their noses by a noisy minority of perpetually online, Fox News-obsessed activists with an unquenchable thirst for the culture war.

Democrats have a real opportunity, in this environment, to contrast themselves favorably with these Republicans, posturing as the adults in the room. Leaders ready to make serious decisions.

But then Ista writes a letter like this, portraying himself and his fellow Democrats as unheeding profligates, willing to propose a massive spike in spending on state benefits. One not based on any careful review of need but to score a cheap political point against the opposition.


Do we need a more serious-minded political majority in Bismarck? Yes.

Am I convinced that North Dakota's Democrats are prepared to offer that? No.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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