Doug Burgum spent the past two days introducing himself to southwest North Dakotans, and left with an endorsement from a longtime area leader.
The Fargo-based tech millionaire and Republican candidate for governor wrapped up his trip Wednesday by receiving an endorsement from Dennis Johnson, Dickinson’s former mayor and president of TMI Systems Design Corp. — one of the city’s largest businesses.
“He’s one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met and I think he has what North Dakota needs right now,” said Johnson, who introduced Burgum to a crowd of a few dozen gathered at the B2 Lounge in downtown Dickinson. “We need to continue diversifying the economy and he knows all about that.”
Burgum and his lieutenant governor candidate, Watford City Mayor Brent Sanford, spent Tuesday visiting Bowman, Scranton and Hettinger. They then went to Beach and Medora on Wednesday before returning to Dickinson. Burgum is facing state Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and architect Paul Sorum in the June 14 primary.
Though he owns a ranch in southwest North Dakota, Burgum has made few appearances in the area since announcing his candidacy in January. He and Sanford, who joined the campaign during the North Dakota Republican convention in March, tried to make up for that this week.
The duo said they mostly heard from voters concerned about property taxes, infrastructure needs and declining sales in the wake of the oil industry’s downturn.
They claimed very few southwest North Dakotans pushed them on Burgum’s social leanings — both he and Stenehjem are on record supporting gay marriage and have been quiet on most other social issues — and said he saw this as a sign of what voters are truly concerned about.
“We’re not running on social issues,” Burgum said. “We’re running because we believe we can get conservative business leaders into the office — people who can help set the state on the right track, relative to our fiscal things. It (social issues) doesn’t come up. We don’t talk about it and they don’t bring it up, because I don’t think it’s the thing that’s leading on voter’s minds right now.”
Burgum was behind both Stenehjem and state Rep. Rick Becker in the state convention delegate voting, receiving just 15 percent of the vote on the first ballot and 10 percent on the second ballot.
However, earlier this month, his campaign released internal polling showing him trailing Stenehjem by just 4 percent
— 44 to 40 percent with 15 percent undecided and 1 percent backing Sorum, who joined the race after the convention. He reiterated that he doesn’t plan to release details of how his campaign came to those numbers.
“We’re very confident in the accuracy of the polling data and we’re very confident in how it was done,” Burgum said. “It is the same numbers we’re making decisions off of. I’m a guy who is data-driven. I’m not going to make decisions off of some pumped-up set of data.”
Several Dickinson business leaders listened to Burgum give his pitch for office during the meet and greet.
He said in a separate interview that, if elected, he’d push for more local “empowerment.” He used Sanford — who, in addition to being Watford City’s mayor, owns an automotive dealership — as an example of someone spent a good chunk of time during oil boom years lobbying for legislative funding as his city’s population and needs boomed.
“I want to make sure we’re the most empowered state we can possible be,” he said. “… If a mayor of a city has to spend half of their year, every other year, coming to Bismarck to try and get some dollars to come back to their community versus actually being in their community and driving ideas and making things happen, we’re taking them away from a productive role and making them come to the center to actually get an allocation.”
Scott Decker, who is running for mayor of Dickinson, attended the Wednesday evening meet and greet but didn’t say whether or not he was supporting Burgum for governor.
Decker, instead, said he used the opportunity to get “on my soapbox,” and tell the candidate about issues bothering him
— including the amount of energy-related funding that was allocated to non-Oil Patch areas in previous legislative sessions.
“I think he’s hearing different things from a lot of people,” Decker said.
Burgum spoke about his ownership in a cattle operation with the Hanson family of Slope County, though he laughed and said he’s “not pretending to be a real rancher.”
In his speech to the group, Burgum’s voice broke when speaking about Robert Hanson, a longtime Slope County rancher who Burgum said “really filled an important hole in my life” in the years following his own father’s death.
John Hanson, Robert’s son who became friends with Burgum while they were attending North Dakota State University, called him a “man who has particular skills — rare skills.”
“He has a huge amount of energy, he has a huge amount of passion, he is completely sincere about his desire to serve the people of the state and, in every way thus far, he has proven himself,” Hanson said. “He’s a leader. He’s exceptional. He’s an uncommon man.”
Burgum said he was pleased with what he learned on his trip to the southwest corner of the state, and, after visiting with many people affected by the energy industry’s downturn, leaves convinced he has a chance at winning the June primary.
“You can’t go to one of those places and go, ‘It’s never been a better time to be a North Dakotan,’” he said.