Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D)
A little more than two centuries ago, in late 1804, the Lewis and Clark expedition paddled up the Missouri River and reached what is now North Dakota. The explorers bivouacked for the winter across the river from what is now the state capital of Bismarck. Lewis and Clark, North Dakota proudly proclaims, spent more nights in North Dakota, 146, than in any other state. And on the Lewis and Clark Trail you can still see much of the pristine land that the expeditioners saw—a vast unfenced land where the Indians built a civilization based on the buffalo and, a Spanish import, the horse. The history of North Dakota is short: Theodore Roosevelt did not arrive until nearly 80 years after Lewis and Clark, and bicentennial tourists came just a little more than 120 years after Roosevelt. There are still a few North Dakotans alive today who knew the men and women who settled this land and saw the state enter the Union in 1889. As children, these old-timers walked in the ruts left by the early settlers’ wagon trains. They saw the Indians, recently defeated and herded into reservations by the white settlers’ government covetous of their land. This was some of the best wheat-growing acreage in the world, empty by then of buffalo, connected to markets by rail, ready to become a cog in the industrial world.
In a sudden rush of settlement during the 20 years before World War I, North Dakota filled up to pretty much its present population. There were 632,000 people in 1920 and in counts since then, the number has fluctuated between 617,000 and 680,000. The 2000 census count was 642,000, making it the state with the lowest growth rate since 1950. Wheat—mostly spring wheat but also durum (used to make pasta)—is the biggest crop here but not the only one. North Dakota ranks first in production of sunflowers, barley, dry edible beans, oats, and dry peas; it ranks high in sugar beets and rye. There is also plenty of cattle ranching and livestock grazing on the arid plains in the western half of the state.
Its dependence on agriculture shaped North Dakota’s politics. Farmers, as much as they like to extol their way of life, are seldom content with the workings of the market. When prices are high, it is often because of low production; when they are low, farmers seek protection. The boosterish optimism of the first settlers was soon followed by cries, reverberating with varying intensity, for government protection against market forces. Since commodity prices tend to fall during periods of economic growth, there has been a countercyclical force at work in North Dakota politics, a tendency to vote against the national trends, and a radical strain going back to the 1910s and still lively in recent decades. That strain also owes much to the immigrant origins of so many of North Dakota’s early settlers: Norwegians in the eastern part of the state; Canadians along the northern border; and colonies of Poles, Czechs, Icelanders, and Germans throughout the state. German is still spoken on the streets of some towns, and the state is proud of its Nordic Initiative which welcomed Princess Martha Louise of Norway to Grand Forks in April 2006.
These immigrants produced orderly small towns and grain cooperatives. They also provided support for the Non-Partisan League, which operated as an independent force from its founding in 1915 to its alliance with the Democratic Party in 1956. The league appealed to marginal farmers, cut off in many cases from the wider American culture by language barriers and seemingly at the mercy of the grain millers of Minneapolis, the railroads of St. Paul, the banks of New York, and the commodity traders of Chicago. The NPL’s program was socialist—government ownership of railroads and grain elevators—and its members, like most North Dakota ethnics, opposed going to war with Germany. The NPL often determined the outcome of the usually decisive Republican primary but sometimes swung its support to the otherwise heavily outnumbered Democrats, instituting reforms and creating a state-owned bank and grain elevator. In the 1950s, the NPL more or less melded into the Democratic Party, a merger symbolized by the election of the late Democratic Sen. Quentin Burdick, whose father, Usher Burdick, served 20 years in the House as an NPL-endorsed Republican. North Dakota’s leading Democrats of recent decades, Sens. Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan, have championed a politics clearly of NPL lineage: boosterish of government farm programs, wary if not hostile to American military involvement abroad, and cheerful championing of the little guy from North Dakota against out-of-state corporations.
This is a place where everyone knows everyone else. For years there has been no voter registration because people obviously spot anyone who is not eligible. People live longer here too. The 2000 census reported that North Dakota had the highest proportion of any state of residents age 85 and older, and tiny McIntosh County had the highest proportion of any county. Communal closeness has produced an innate conservatism in North Dakota. Divorce is as uncommon here as anywhere in the United States, the two-parent family is still very much the norm, and abortions are available in just one clinic in the state. Politics is personal, too, in a state where every politician is known to many voters. North Dakota is one of five states with an all-Democratic congressional delegation (Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Mexico, and Rhode Island are the others; the five don’t have much else in common). The two senators and single at-large congressman are all allies who have worked together for decades.
Yet there are signs of change. The land, it seems, is emptying out. Increasing agricultural productivity has meant fewer farmers living directly off the land, and more people living in towns and working in other sectors. People from out of state are buying up farmland for vacation hunting; North Dakota sits below the North American Migration Flyway, which makes for good fowl hunting. Bison have been reintroduced, and the idea circulated two decades ago that North Dakota would become a “buffalo commons” may be coming true.
At the same time, North Dakota’s small cities have grown. Back in 1955, North Dakota-born sociologist Carl Kraenzel predicted in The Great Plains in Transition that “sutland” communities, places on transportation lines, would grow and “yonland” communities, places away from transportation lines, would wane. And so it has happened. North Dakota’s four biggest counties, home to Fargo, Grand Forks, Bismarck, and Minot, grew from 134,000 people in 1930 to 338,000 in 2007, while the state’s other 49 counties dropped from 546,000 people to 301,000 in the same period. In 2008, these four counties cast 54% of the state’s votes. In effect, North Dakota is developing the demographics of the Rocky Mountain states, with population concentrated in a few cities and towns.
Microsoft bought Great Plains Software in 2000 for $1.1 billion, and the company’s Fargo campus is the headquarters of its business systems division, handling all of Microsoft’s U.S. and Canada payroll operations. It is the state’s third-largest employer. Alien Technology’s Fargo plant produces the tiny radio frequency tags used by Wal-Mart and the military. Grand Forks, devastated by flood in 1997, generously provided its “lessons learned” to its sister city, Biloxi, Miss., in 2005 when flood struck there. Grand Forks is the home of the University of North Dakota, with a Center of Excellence in Life Sciences and Advanced Technology starting up. In 2007, the school settled a lawsuit with the NCAA allowing it to keep the nickname Fighting Sioux for its sports teams if the two local Sioux tribes agreed within three years.
North Dakota is making some progress on a problem it has wrestled with for years: how to retain its young people. The government spends more per capita on state colleges than any other state, and a smaller proportion of graduates seem to be heading off to Minneapolis, Denver, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Fargo, Bismarck, Grand Forks, and Minot still have the coldest winters of any American cities, but they are also spouting hip restaurants and Starbucks, industrial parks, and office buildings. The Census Bureau estimates that North Dakota’s population started rising after years of decline in 2003. The state’s unemployment rate lately has been one of the lowest in the nation; its wages and incomes have been rising more than the national average and its farm incomes are among the highest ever. Before the recession of 2008, state government faced the pleasant problem of dealing with budget surpluses.
The state also abounds in something the nation needs: energy. Counting coal, oil, wind, and ethanol, North Dakota is the No. 6 energy-producing state in the nation. The coal country west of Bismarck supports six electric power plants. And with the world’s largest lignite reserves, North Dakota has the potential to build a large coal-gasification industry if oil prices remain high enough. The Bakken Formation’s oil shale is estimated by the U.S. Geological Survey to contain the largest potential oil reserves in the lower 48 states. Only 1% has been commercially recoverable in recent years, but even so, North Dakota surpassed Kansas as the eighth-largest oil-producing state in 2006. Oil production rose from 29.3 million barrels in 2003 to 39.9 million barrels in 2007. North Dakota supports six ethanol and three biodiesel plants and can easily grow vast quantities of switchgrass to make cellulosic ethanol. The state has enough wind power potential to export plenty of energy, provided that electric transmission lines can be financed and built. Republican Gov. John Hoeven’s Empower North Dakota plan sets benchmarks for increasing energy production from oil, natural gas, biofuels, wind, and lignite coal, with a goal of doubling energy production from all sources by 2025.
These developments could alter the state’s political traditions. If the typical elderly North Dakotan is a hardworking retired farmer, with fond memories of NPL agitation and a belief in government programs, the typical young North Dakotan has a family and a college education and is more trusting of markets and the private sector. President George W. Bush won the state 63%-35% in 2004. GOP presidential nominee John McCain’s weaker 53%-45% win in 2008 was largely a result of younger voters’ attraction to Democratic nominee Barack Obama. McCain won about the same percentage among voters over 60 as Bush had, but his percentage among those under 45 was 54%, 15% lower than Bush’s. By contrast, Hoeven swept to a third term with a landslide victory, attracting 79% of the vote from people under 45. Still, the heirs of the NPL tradition continue to do well. The state’s two Democratic senators have been re-elected by wide margins—Byron Dorgan won with 68% in 2004, Kent Conrad won with 69% in 2006, and Democratic Rep. Earl Pomeroy got 62% in 2008. These were consensus elections: In their most recent elections, Dorgan and Conrad carried all 53 counties, Hoeven carried 52, and Pomeroy 45. Republicans hold most of the down-ballot statewide offices and have majorities in both houses of the Legislature. North Dakota prizes frugality in government and values Senate Budget Committee Chairman Conrad’s denunciations of federal budget deficits. But the state was happy to receive some $7.4 billion in farm subsidies from 1995 to 2006, and has fought mightily against Air Force base cutbacks in Grand Forks.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
North Dakota, for the first time since 1964, was a competitive state in the 2008 presidential election. In 2000 and 2004, it cast 61% and 63% of its votes, respectively, for George W. Bush, but by 2008 this historically dovish state was plainly unhappy with the incumbent. And though it has virtually no black residents (and most of them live on military bases), the state was plainly intrigued by Democratic nominee Barack Obama. With North Dakota scheduled to hold caucuses on Super Tuesday, February 5, the Obama campaign moved in early, bought television time, and, more important, set up offices with paid staff and volunteers in Fargo, Grand Forks, Bismarck, and Minot. Conrad, Dorgan, and Pomeroy endorsed Obama.
The effort paid off on caucus day. Altogether, 19,012 North Dakotans participated in the Democratic caucuses and only 9,785 in the Republican caucuses. Obama outpolled Hillary Rodham Clinton 61% to 37% and got more votes than all of the Republicans put together. Mitt Romney was the winner on the Republican side, with 36% of the vote; ahead of McCain, 23%; Ron Paul, 21%; and Mike Huckabee, 20%. A SurveyUSA poll in late February showed Obama ahead of McCain in the state, and the few polls taken from then until the national conventions showed the candidates within the margin of error. McCain’s selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin seemed to have had great appeal in this often-snowbound state, at least judging from two post-convention polls showing the Republican ticket far ahead. But after the financial crisis hit the housing, banking, and insurance markets in mid-September, North Dakota became closely contested again. McCain won 53%-45%, doing a little better than late polls suggested but far below George W. Bush’s percentages. Obama carried Fargo, Grand Forks and the Indian reservations, but McCain carried Bismarck and Minot by wider margins, and most rural counties as well.
North Dakota has had only one congressional district since the reapportionment following the 1980 census and, with negligible population growth, has no prospect of gaining a second in the foreseeable future.
Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D)
Elected: 1992, 9th term.
Born: Sept. 2, 1952, Valley City .
Education: U. of ND, B.A. 1974, J.D., 1979.
Family: Married (Mary Berglund); 2 children.
Elected office: ND House of Reps., 1980–84; ND insurance commissioner, 1984–92.
Professional Career: Practicing atty., 1979–84; Natl. Assn. of Insurance Commissioners., V.P. 1989, Pres. 1990.
Earl Pomeroy, North Dakota’s lone House member, is a Democrat first elected in 1992. Pomeroy grew up in Valley City and after college served as Byron Dorgan’s driver during Dorgan’s unsuccessful bid for a House seat in 1974. After law school, Pomeroy practiced law in Valley City. In 1980, when Dorgan and Kent Conrad won statewide elections, Pomeroy, at age 28, won a seat in the Legislature. In 1984 and 1988, he was elected insurance commissioner. In 1992, he was planning to retire from politics and join the Peace Corps in Russia. But then, the at-large House seat came open; Dorgan was running for Conrad’s seat in the Senate after Conrad decided not to seek re-election. (Conrad came back to the Senate in a special election after Democratic Sen. Quentin Burdick died in office.) Pomeroy put his overseas plans on hold and decided to run for Dorgan’s House seat. Articulate, cheerful and sincere, a critic of insurance companies yet unabrasive, he was nominated unanimously by the state Democratic convention. He won the general election, 57%-39%, almost exactly Dorgan’s margin in the Senate election that year. The three North Dakotans—Pomeroy, Dorgan and Conrad—are good friends and often band together to defend the state’s interests.
|Earl Pomeroy (D)||194,577||(62%)||($1,795,718)|
|Duane Sand (R)||119,388||(38%)||($1,944,099)|
|Earl Pomeroy (D)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (66%), 2004 (60%), 2002 (52%), 2000 (53%), 1998 (56%), 1996 (55%), 1994 (52%), 1992 (57%)
Pomeroy has compiled a moderate to liberal voting record, working with Republicans as well as Democrats on issues. In the Republican-controlled Congress, he strongly supported the adoption tax credit and brought his two-year-old daughter, adopted from Korea, onto the floor for the vote. He also strongly supported normal trade relations with China and has pushed for more exports of North Dakota wheat to China. In 2001, he got a coveted seat on the House Ways and Means Committee, where he is considered an expert on pension and insurance policy. During debate over repeal of the estate tax, Pomeroy supported raising the $1 million exemption to $3 million. In 2003, Pomeroy supported the GOP bill to create a prescription drug bill in the Medicare program; the bill increased the Medicare reimbursement rate for rural and small city hospitals, which was worth $48 million to Bismarck hospitals alone and $183 million statewide. In 2005 and 2006, he co-chaired the House Democrats’ Social Security Task Force. And in 2007, he worked to revive the wind energy production tax credit, enacted in 1992 but allowed to expire in 1999, 2001 and again in 2003.The extended credit, popular in windy North Dakota, was part of the $700 billion financial industry bailout enacted in October 2008.
In 2003, Democratic leaders allowed Pomeroy to regain a seat on the Agriculture Committee while staying on Ways and Means, something not permitted for most other members but viewed as important in keeping Pomeroy safe politically. He is often an ally on the committee of Chairman Collin Peterson, a Democrat from adjoining farm-state Minnesota. As the only House member on both Agriculture and Ways and Means, Pomeroy played a key role in the 2008 farm bill in expanding tax credits, including for cellulosic ethanol production. In 1996, when Republicans controlled the House, Pomeroy opposed the GOP’s Freedom to Farm Act, which phased out farm subsidies, and was a booster of the subsequent annual disaster-relief bills that continued to provide hefty government support for farmers. He backed the 2002 farm act that reversed much of Freedom to Farm. In that bill, Pomeroy pressed successfully for country-of-origin meat labeling.
Many of the biggest agricultural issues are related to trade, over which Ways and Means has jurisdiction. When Special Trade Representative Robert Zoellick negotiated an allowance of sugar imports from the Dominican Republic as part of the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2004, Pomeroy protested vigorously and said that the only way to settle sugar issues was through World Trade Organization negotiations, not regional trade agreements. North Dakota has a thriving sugar-beet industry. He voted against the Australian Free Trade Agreement in 2004, and he led the fight in 2005 against ratification of the Central American-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement, opposed by the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association but backed by the North Dakota Wheat Commission. When Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns sought to allay concerns by saying that the sugar provisions amounted to only two additional small packets of foreign sugar per U.S. consumer, Pomeroy replied, “Those two little packets of sugar cost us $180 million in lost income to farmers.”
During devastating floods in Grand Forks in April 1997, Pomeroy helped man dikes and slept in a nearby Air Force shelter. He later got nearly $500 million in flood relief and has continued to work for a $300 million system of levees and flood walls. Another vital local project for him is federal funding for an emergency outlet for Devils Lake, which has no natural outlet. Water has risen to record levels and flooded more than 100,000 acres. In 2003, the state started work on a channel to connect the lake with the Sheyenne River and through it, the Red River of the North; the first waters started flowing out in 2005.
Pomeroy had a serious challenge in 2002 from Tax Commissioner Rick Clayburgh, who argued that North Dakota would do better with a Republican congressman. He attacked Pomeroy for leaving the Agriculture Committee just before work on that year’s farm bill began. Republicans also hit Pomeroy for voting against estate tax repeal and for backing the partial “privatization” of Social Security. But Pomeroy won 52%-48%, carrying Fargo, Minot and Grand Forks, Clayburgh’s hometown; Clayburgh carried Bismarck.
In 2004, Pomeroy was opposed by Duane Sand, a 15-year Navy officer who in 2000 lost a challenge to Conrad, 62%-38%. Sand was reinforced by a late October appearance by then Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert, who said, “When we’re talking about water policy, when we talk about farm policy, there’s really nobody there to represent North Dakota.” Pomeroy’s campaign shot back that he had delivered on Medicare reimbursement, disaster relief legislation and agricultural policy. The result was Pomeroy’s widest victory yet, 60%-40%, even as Bush carried the state 63%-35%. In 2006, Pomeroy had little serious opposition from political newcomer Matt Mechtel, a Cass County farmer. In a 2008 rematch against Sand, Pomeroy won 62%-38%. He got a dollop of national media attention in August 2007 when, addressing the issue of impeaching Bush, he said: “The people I represent don’t want to impeach this clown.” He got the local media’s attention in 2009, when Pomeroy announced he was going to marry Grand Forks teacher Mary Berglund on July 2. He has two adopted children from his first marriage, which ended in divorce in 2002.