Port: Dem-NPL gov candidate doesn't want to be called a Democrat, stumbles on mask mandate question

Lenz seems to think that we could make masking the law, and everyone would comply, which is charmingly pollyannish, but also hopelessly naive.

Shelley Lenz, right, Democratic candidate for North Dakota governor, meets local voters during a picnic in June at Lincoln Park in Grand Forks. At left is Sheryll Weisenberger. (Forum News Service file photo)

MINOT, N.D. — If a candidate demands a mask mandate, shouldn't they be prepared to tell you what the consequences would be for violating it?

Democratic-NPL gubernatorial candidate Shelley Lenz isn't.

Monday I guest-hosted the "Jay Thomas Show" on WDAY AM970 and had nearly an hour-long conversation with Lenz.

I like Lenz. I think she's an interesting candidate . I wasn't impressed with her performance during our interview.

At least she showed up. I have been trying to organize Lenz and incumbent Republican Doug Burgum into a debate for my Plain Talk podcast, as I did earlier this year with the candidates in the U.S. House race , but Burgum demured. According to them, the one debate they have scheduled is enough.


Burgum and his people are probably making the right political calculation — they're the odds-on favorite to win, so why take unnecessary chances? — but leadership is about more than campaign math.

Back to my conversation with Lenz, I expected to have some ideological disagreement with her, but what I didn't expect was a struggle to clarify some of the most fundamental aspects of her campaign.

You can listen to our interview here. It begins at the 33:50 mark:

At the beginning of the interview, I described Lenz as the Democratic-NPL candidate for governor. She corrected me, saying she's an independent. Which is an odd thing to say for someone who campaigned for, and won, a political party's official nomination for public office?

If you want to run as an independent in North Dakota, you can gather a few hundred signatures and put yourself on the general election ballot with no partisan affiliation. Lenz didn't do that. She sought the Democratic-NPL nomination instead but now wants to be called an independent. She says she's not a Democrat, but an NPL'er, yet the Nonpartisan League of North Dakota's past doesn't exist anymore beyond some odd initials at the end of the state Democratic party's title.

But Lenz's idiosyncratic political taxonomy aside, her inability to articulate the specifics of her policy proposals was alarming.


Last week Lenz and her running mate, former lawmaker Ben Vig, came out, guns blazing, with a plan for addressing the COVID-19 pandemic . When I read the plan, I panned it , as seemed like buck-passing to me. A lot of words all adding up to Lenz appointing someone else to make tough pandemic-related decisions.

That's not leadership, folks.

Lenz assured me that I didn't understand her plan, so I pressed her on it during our interview, and I must say I still don't understand.

Lenz wants to appoint an "incident commander" to advise her and organize the state's response to COVID-19. But doesn't the state already have a chief medical officer?

She said this would be distinct from Burgum's approach, which has been more hands-on, something Lenz says is too political and inappropriate to boot because Burgum doesn't have medical training. She pointed to the recent departure of Dr. Andrew Stahl , who became the second medical officer to leave the job under Burgum earlier this year, as evidence of this.

But when I asked Lenz what she would do if her "incident commander" proposed policies that weren't to her liking? Would she fire that person? Ignore their advice?

Lenz didn't have a good answer. I worry that she sees leadership on the coronavirus issue as appointing an expert, and then just doing whatever they say, which isn't leadership at all.

Similarly, Lenz wasn't prepared to talk about her proposed mask mandate, which was also a centerpiece of her coronavirus response plan . Asked what the consequences would be if someone refused to wear a mask — would they get a ticket? would they be arrested? — she didn't have an answer.


She finally told me that maybe her incident commander could tell her what to do.

Lenz seems to think that we could make masking the law, and everyone would comply, which is charmingly Pollyannish, but also hopelessly naive.

A mask mandate, with no consequences for those who won't mask, is indistinguishable, as policy, from what Gov. Burgum is already doing.

Lenz's performance was disappointing. The COVID-19 pandemic is the most immediate public policy conundrum facing our state. Lenz's proposal for addressing it, though, is pablum.

Words and words, adding up to very little.

If you don't believe me, listen to the interview yourself.

To comment on this article, visit

Rob Port, founder of, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at .

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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