Plain Talk With Rob Port

Plain Talk is a podcast hosted by blogger and columnist Rob Port focusing on political news and current events in North Dakota. Host Rob Port writes, North Dakota’s most popular and influential political blog, and is a columnist for the Forum News Service published in papers including the Fargo Forum, Grand Forks Herald, Jamestown Sun, Minot Daily News, and the Dickinson Press.

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Latest Episodes
379: "There are a big number of legislators who are tired of politics"
Wed Nov 23 12:18:55 EST 2022
Election day has come and gone, and in North Dakota, that means a new session of the state legislature is looming. There will be an organizational meeting and a budget address from Gov. Doug Burgum in December, and then the regular session commences in January, tasked with tackling issues ranging from income tax and property tax relief to child care and water needs.

And the legislature will go about its business with new leaders. Two long-time chairs of the House and Senate appropriations committees are no longer in the legislature. Two long-serving lawmakers who served as majority leaders last session have retired.

Their replacements - Sen. David Hogue of Minot and Rep. Mike Lefor of Dickinson, now the Senate and House majority leaders, respectively - joined this episode of Plain Talk to discuss the upcoming session.

They talked about the challenges a newly-approved term limits amendment to the state constitution poses when it comes to recruiting competent lawmakers and mentoring legislative leadership. They also discussed how they'll approach their relationship with Gov. Burgum, who had a sometimes rocky tenure with their predecessors, and how they'll manage sprawling caucus that make up almost the entirety of the chambers they serve in.

Lefor, specifically, said he's focused on taking "the wind out of politics" in the House. "There are a big number of legislators who are tired of the politics," he continued, saying he'd like to tamp down the theatrics and get focused on policy debates.

Hogue agreed, saying he'd like members of his caucus to take up "portfolios" of policy areas where they can serve as experts for their fellow lawmakers, though time will tell how well that works in a Republican supermajority that, in many ways, is divided against itself.

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378: Armstrong on winning re-election, the new Congress, and Trump
Wed Nov 16 11:29:25 EST 2022
Nationally, Republicans didn't perform as well in the midterm elections as expected. The "red wave" was more of a "red mist."

North Dakota Republicans bucked that trend, though, and Congressman Kelly Armstrong's re-election was a part of that.

On this episode of Plain Talk, he argued that, despite Republicans not living up to "red wave" expectations, they've gained ground in the legislative chamber he serves in for three straight election cycles. As for why the NDGOP did better than Republicans nationally? Armstrong said a part of it is because our state's chief industries, agriculture and energy, were a bigger priority than some of the hot-button issues, like abortion, that dominated campaign messaging.

Also, he argued, it didn't help Democratic turnout that the party axed their own House candidate in the middle of the election year.

Armstrong also discussed why he supported Rep. Kevin McCarthy as Speaker of the House for what will presumably be a narrow GOP majority, what Republicans need to do in the next two years to expand on those majorities, and how Congress should handle the war between Ukraine and Russia.

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377: Republicans can blame Trump for election night losses
Wed Nov 09 12:18:12 EST 2022
Is there any question that disgraced former President Donald Trump had a big hand in the failure of Republicans to fulfill expectations in last night's midterms?

In Pennsylvania Doug Mastriano, a Trump-endorsed MAGA candidate who fully embraced 2020 election conspiracy theories, lost big in the gubernatorial race. In that state's Senate race, Dr. Mehemet Oz lost to John Fetterman, the Democratic candidate who had a stroke and is, by an objective measure, not fit to serve in office.

In George, Trump-backed Senate candidate Herschel Walker is currently behind the Democratic candidate, and headed for a runoff, even though the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Brian Kemp, a Trump enemy, won his election handily.

In Arizona, Trump-backed Senate candidate Blake Masters lost, and Trump-backed gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake appears to be losing a very close race.

But perhaps the best example is in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Republicans chose a Trump-backed candidate, John Gibbs, over the incumbent, Peter Meijer, who had voted to impeach Trump. Now Gibbs has lost that race, allowing a Democrat to hold that seat for the first time in 50 years.

On this episode of Plain Talk, Chad Oban and I discuss all of these national election results, and we get very local too. Rick Becker lost big in North Dakota's Senate race. What will he do next?

Former Miss America Cara Mund also lost in a landslide to Republican U.S. House incumbent Kelly Armstrong, though she outperformed the Democratic candidates on the ballot by about 10 points. Will she run again?

And the North Dakota Democratic-NPL has lost ground in the legislature, again, turning a super-minority in the state assembly into, what, a super-super-minority?

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376: Lawmaker involved in AG's office space scandal rips auditor for "gotcha audit"
Wed Nov 02 12:38:48 EDT 2022
Minot, N.D. — A controversial decision to move departments of North Dakota's Attorney General's office to a new building started with an informal discussion between a state lawmaker and the director of the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

An audit report has found multiple red flags in that transaction, from questions about billing to licensing to whether the taxpayers really came out on top in the deal.

Now the lawmaker who made the deal in the first place, state Rep. Jason Dockter, a Republican from Bismarck, is blasting the auditor's office for what he says was an incomplete and inaccurate report.

"I think we have a trust issue with the state auditor's office," Dockter said on this episode of Plain Talk, referring to the report auditor Josh Gallion presented to lawmakers last month as a "gotcha audit."

Dockter repeatedly made references to controversial audit reports of the State Library and the Commerce Department which drew criticism for Gallion.

Still, Dockter admits there are reasons for raised eyebrows on this deal.

For one, the more than 800-page report (see below) his attorney sent to state officials and the news media in response to the audit indicates that the "informal conversation" between Dockter and an official from the Attorney General's office happened in the state capitol building during the legislative session in which Dockter was serving.

"I have to make a living," Dockter said when asked if he felt it was appropriate for a lawmaker to do business that way. He also downplayed the access to state government that being an elected legislator gives him, saying that he often does business with people he knows personally. "I'm a lifelong resident of Bismarck," he said.

Another red flag was the nearly $250,000 in overpayments made by the State of North Dakota to Dockter's companies. Dockter, who admits that this was not a typical way of doing business, now says his companies will reimburse the taxpayers for those payments, which he said were based on estimates that came in too high.

Asked if what he would do differently if he could go back to the beginning of this deal, he said he would ensure that the invoicing from his companies to the state was less confusing.

He also said he was open to legislation that would require that lawmakers recuse themselves from votes that impact their private business dealings. "I have no problem" with that sort of legislation, he said.

Also on this episode, Wednesday co-host Chad Oban and I discuss our predictions for next week's midterm elections. Will ballot measures implementing term limits and legal marijuana pass or fail? Can independent candidates Rick Becker and Cara Mund win in the Senate and House races, respectively? Listen to find out our thoughts.

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375: Former California cop speaks in favor of North Dakota marijuana legalization
Mon Oct 31 11:58:27 EDT 2022
A national anti-marijuana group that is organizing the opposition to Measure 2, which, if passed by North Dakota voters, would legalize recreational marijuana, has been touting support from several law enforcement groups.

These organizations say legalizing marijuana will hurt public safety. There will be more crime. More inebriated driving.

But that's not so says Diane Goldstein. She's a 21-year veteran of the Redondo Beach Police Department, who retired as a lieutenant, and has spent her post-law enforcement career researching drug policy and advocating for reforms. She joined this episode of Plain Talk, along with pro-Measure 2 campaigner and Fargo-based defense attorney Mark Friese, to rebut the argument coming from some in North Dakota law enforcement.

Goldstein says it's a mistake to compare North Dakota's measure to what happened in California, which decided to open the legal marijuana market up with little in the way of regulation. She said North Dakota's measure contains prudent protections that California didn't contemplate when that state first legalized marijuana more than two decades ago.

Both Friese and Goldstein also pointed out that legalizing marijuana isn't some social experiment anymore. Many states have legalized marijuana now, and have lived with legalization for years, and the evidence shows little in the way of a crime surge.

That's not to say that legalizing marijuana in North Dakota will be a panacea for public safety, Goldstein warned. "We'll never get rid of the black market," she said. But, legalization can mitigate the public safety threat that comes from the marijuana black market and the criminal gangs who serve it.

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374: North Dakota Senate candidates debate
Wed Oct 26 11:23:11 EDT 2022
North Dakota has three candidates running for the United States Senate.

Incumbent Senator John Hoeven, who was first elected to that office in 2010, is facing a challenge from Democratic-NPL candidate Katrina Christiansen and independent candidate Rick Becker.

On this episode of Plain Talk, all three candidates met for the first time to debate issues ranging from spending and abortion to carbon capture and support for Ukraine.

My Wednesday co-host, former Democratic-NPL executive director Chad Oban, moderated the debate along with me.

The candidates differed sharply on the issues.

Christiansen accused Becker and Hoeven of belittling the importance of the abortion issue for women. Becker accused both Hoeven and Christiansen of being supporters of big government and big spending. Hoeven, for his part, defended his track record in the Senate and argued that both Becker and Christiansen have distorted it.

Click above to listen to the full debate, or subscribe to Plain Talk on your favorite podcast platform to listen on another device.

373: PSC candidates Sheri Haugen-Hoffart and Trygve Hammer debate
Wed Oct 19 13:59:49 EDT 2022
Minot, N.D. — Members of North Dakota's Public Service Commission serve staggered six-year terms, meaning that one of the three members of the commission is on the ballot every two years.

This year, however, there are two PSC seats up for grabs. Commissioner Julie Fedorchak is running for re-election at the end of her six-year term, while Sheri Haugen-Hoffart, a Republican who was appointed by Gov. Doug Burgum to finish an unexpired term, is running per state law to have that appointment confirmed by the voters.

Challenging Haugen-Hoffart is Democratic-NPL candidate Trygve Hammer.

Both Hammer and Haugen-Hoffart joined this episode of Plain Talk to debate the issues in their race, from grid reliability and climate change to rail safety and pipelines. I moderated the debate, and asked the questions, along with my co-host Chad Oban, a former executive director of the Democratic-NPL.

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372: Pro-marijuana campaign responds to emergence of opposition group
Wed Oct 12 12:23:53 EDT 2022
An opposition group has formed with the mission to defeat a ballot measure on North Dakota's ballot which would legalize recreational marijuana.

This group is making a number of claims about the ill that would befall our state if legal pot is the law of the land. They're talking about increased crime. Increased addiction. Easy access to the drug for children.

On this episode of Plain Talk, Fargo-based defense attorney Mark Friese, who is the treasurer for the pro-marijuana campaign, and who had a hand in drafting the measure itself, spoke to some of those criticisms.

Also, guest co-host Jamie Selzler and I talk about a recent incident where Bismarck School Board member Emily Eckroth allegedly urinated in the back of a police car, and what that incident says about how willing the public is to tolerate bad behavior from elected officials. We also discussed the controversy around U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker, and the emerging opposition to a term limits ballot measure that's also on the statewide ballot.

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371: Farmer's Union president opposes term limits for North Dakota
Mon Oct 10 11:41:20 EDT 2022
Last week North Dakota's two largest agriculture groups, the North Dakota Farm Bureau and the North Dakota Farmer's Union, came out against a term limits proposal that's on the statewide ballot.

On this episode of Plain Talk the president of one of those groups, Mark Watne from the North Dakota Farm Bureau, joined to discuss why his group is opposed to the proposal.

Watne argued that it would diminish the amount of experience and seniority in the legislature, leaving the state's law-writing body more susceptible to influence from lobbyists and the bureaucracy. He also noted that, in some complex areas of policy making, arriving at the right decision for the state can be the work of multiple legislative sessions.

An example he cited was the tension between farmers and ranchers and the hunters who want to access their lands. State officials have grappled with that divide between hunting interests and property rights for years, with several key lawmakers working closely with both sides to find an accord.

If we had term limits, some of the lawmakers working on the issue may have left office before they had a chance to see the issue through to the end.

Watne also said his organization has opposed term limits for some time, and that the position comes from the group's rank-and-file membership which includes farmers from around the state.

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370: Pioneer in North Dakota term limits policy says term limits measure is "anti-North Dakota"
Fri Oct 07 11:08:36 EDT 2022
You can't really talk about the history of North Dakota's initiated measure process without talking about Kent French. The Bismarck-based businessman was legendary in the 1980s and 1990s for his many initiated measures and referenda targeting issues like taxes.

And, yes, term limits.

We're debating term limits again this election cycle - there's a ballot measure that would prohibit lawmakers and governors from serving more than 8 years - but you may not realize that North Dakota already has term limits law on the books.

That's thanks to Mr. French, who backed an initiated measure to limit the amount of time North Dakota's congressional delegation could serve in office. That law isn't in force, because the Supreme Court ruled that state-based term limits for members of Congress aren't constitutional, but it was supported by a strong majority of North Dakota voters at the time.

But it may surprise you to learn that French doesn't back this current term limits proposal for state-level elected officials. He joined this episode of Plain Talk to discuss his objections.

"You always want to be on the right side of an issue," he told me. "Not just the winning side, the right side."

He mentioned polling, released by the term limits campaign, which shows a strong majority of North Dakotans backing their proposal, but French thinks the more voters learn about it the less they like it. "They have that until the people of North Dakota learn what this does."

French says he sees a distinction between people who hold state-level elected office, and those who serve in Congress. "We have the right of referral" in North Dakota, French noted, referencing a law that allows voters to collect signatures to put a law the legislature doesn't like on the ballot for a possible veto by the people.

He also noted that voters could recall to the ballot any state-level elected official voters don't like. "I think that's the route people should take," as opposed to term limits.

He described this term limits proposal as "anti-North Dakota" and promoted by people who are just seeking chaos.

"I don't know that this gives the state the stability it has had in the past," French said.

Listen to the full interview. If you'd like to be notified of future episodes of Plain Talk consider subscribing - it's free! - on the podcast platform of your choice.