Port: Let's not let partisan talking points cloud the issues around North Dakota's health department

Some would have us believe this is about Burgum putting politics above public health, but the more believable explanation has to do with a department of state government being thrust into an unprecedented sort of emergency that has now stretched on for months with no end in sight.

PHOTO: Governor Doug Burgum 07-14-20 coronavirus press conference
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, a Republican, speaks during a July 14, 2020, news conference regarding the COVID-19 outbreak and the question of re-opening schools during a pandemic. (Screenshot via YouTube)

MINOT, N.D. — Yesterday we got the news that another North Dakota state health officer has quit rather abruptly.

“I want to thank Governor Burgum for the opportunity to serve as interim state health officer. It has been a very challenging and rewarding position," Dr. Andrew Stahl is quoted as saying in a news release from the governor's office. "COVID-19 has changed how we operate and has changed the practice of medicine in a huge way. I’m looking forward to continuing my plans to return to clinical practice and am thankful for the opportunity to serve.”

That's the second person to quit that job during the pandemic. The previous occupant of the office, Mylynn Tufte, quit back in May .

Some opportunists are working really, really hard at shoehorning this development into certain popular political narratives. They're supposing this is a reaction from the medical community to Gov. Doug Burgum's reticence in implementing policies, such as a mask mandate, that many, mostly on the left side of politics, have been demanding.

"Doug Burgum is consistently putting politics over the health and well-being of the people of North Dakota," Shelley Lenz, Burgum's opponent, told reporter Jeremy Turley . "Our state is now without a top doctor during a worldwide pandemic. It’s time for science and leadership — not politics and wishful thinking."


Lenz's political party was also spiking that rhetorical football on Twitter:

That narrative may be good for Democrats, and the Lenz campaign, but my sources in the capitol building are telling me a different story.

"Health is in chaos," one source told me, referring to department Stahl and Tufte were in charge of. "They just aren’t up to the task of managing an incident like this."

That's troubling news, though distinct from the aforementioned narrative.

Some would have us believe this is about Burgum putting politics above public health, but the more believable explanation has to do with a department of state government being thrust into an unprecedented sort of emergency that has now stretched on for months with no end in sight.

Do we need inside sources to tell us that leading such a department might be a gig with a high burnout rate?


I'm not defending the turnover. We need consistency of leadership at the Department of Health, now more than ever, which means we need to figure out why people keep leaving.

The best way to do that is to avoid getting caught up in partisan talking points.

This is about the health of our state, after all. Not winning elections.

Though, as Burgum noted candidly in Turley's article, political considerations are not at all invalid.

"If you're in the medical profession and in the state health officer role, then you make medical recommendations based strictly on that," Burgum said. "We're not asking state health officers to take on economic risk, financial risk, legal risk, political risk — that's not what they're hired or paid to do. Those decisions roll up to (the governor's) office in particular, and we have to look at a lot of different factors on how we're making those decisions."

Those comments are reminiscent of what President Truman had to say about where the "buck" stops .

In fact, perhaps more words from Truman are relevant here. This is what he had to say about Dwight Eisenhower taking over the job: “He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike — it won’t be a bit like the Army . . . I sit here all day trying to persuade people to do the things they ought to have sense enough to do without my persuading them."

Governing is, indeed, not at all like giving orders.


The medical community may believe that a mask mandate is the best policy, but implementing such a policy is a political question. If you try and enforce a mandate and the public rebels against it, what have you accomplished?

It is the job of elected leaders, like governors, to synthesize the advice from technical experts into practical real-world policies that work. Many politicians like to excuse themselves from that responsibility during emergent situations, blowing hot air about "just listening to the experts," which gives them plausible deniability if things don't work out.

Leadership is more than that.

Which is something Burgum, thankfully, seems to understand.

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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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