The move to campaign against House Appropriations Chairman Jeff Delzer in the June primary has drawn criticism that the first-term Republican governor and wealthy former software executive is crossing the separation-of-powers-line by reaching deep into his own pockets to buy a Legislature more obliging to his wishes. Political and election law experts say such a move by a governor to oust a member of his own party is unusual.
Burgum turned down interview requests from The Associated Press to discuss the contributions. There is nothing in state law that prohibits such contributions, said John Bjornson, director of the Legislative Council, the Legislature’s nonpartisan research arm.
Burgum’s relationship with the Legislature was rocky even before he took office. The former Microsoft executive largely self-funded his campaign and ran as an outsider, angering legislators from both parties with TV ads that said they had squandered much of the state’s oil bounty and criticizing what he called the “good old boy” establishment.
“He’s forming his own good old boys club,” said Republican state Rep. Rick Becker, of Bismarck, an ultraconservative and former gubernatorial candidate who has taken to social media criticizing Burgum and his political maneuvering. “He’s being very ‘handsy’ in trying to get a Legislature which will abide by his desires politically.”
The GOP-led Legislature has clashed with Burgum over the governor’s veto powers in the past two legislative sessions, and with many of his spending priorities. One of his main foes has been Delzer, a bachelor farmer with a reputation for tight-fisted budgeting, who has served in the Legislature for parts of four decades from a sprawling rural district north of the capital city.
Delzer was a big part of an effort last year that amended longstanding rules to essentially disregard Burgum's budget proposal and use the Legislature’s previous budget as a starting point instead. He also was an outspoken critic of Burgum's top priority, a proposed Theodore Roosevelt presidential library in western North Dakota, though that ultimately was approved by the Legislature.
Campaign filings show the governor contributed $195,000 to the Dakota Leadership PAC, headed by two of his former policy advisers. With Burgum’s money, the PAC has raised about $400,000, much of it from out-of-state donors and two of the governor’s relatives, filings show.
Robbie Lauf, Burgum’s former policy adviser and the head of his first election campaign, said in emails that the PAC was formed to “help elect conservative Republicans who share the governor's vision.” Lauf said it's supporting candidates in six campaigns and one for state treasurer. Lauf declined to name the legislative candidates, but the PAC has supported a pair of Delzer's challengers, David Andahl and Dave Nehring, with mailers and a flurry of TV ads.
GOP House Majority Leader Chet Pollert called it “pretty obvious” the PAC’s primary purpose is to get rid of Delzer. “This is a conflict between two very strong-willed folks,” Pollert said of Burgum and Delzer. “The governor has overstepped his boundaries by funding a campaign against (an incumbent) House member. The primary should be decided by voters and not influenced by another branch of government.”
Dina Butcher, a Republican who was one of the main sponsors of a successful citizen-led ethics reform measure in 2018 that Republicans fought, called Burgum's involvement in the primary race “horrendous for North Dakota and ill-conceived.”
It’s not the first time Burgum has been criticized for pulling out his wallet in a perceived attempt to curry favor with lawmakers. In 2016 and just ahead of the Republican nominating convention, Burgum sent checks to several legislators, and many of them returned the money.
Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who got the party nod but lost to Burgum in the general election, called the move “tacky.” Burgum’s PAC contributions probably aren’t illegal but they are highly unusual, said David Schultz, a professor of political science and legal studies at Hamline University, and Richard Briffault, a professor at Columbia University Law School who specializes in state and local government law.
It’s relatively common for “executive branch people” to raise money to lobby for legislation “but not to oust members of the Legislature, particularly in their own party,” Briffault said. “I can’t think of anything like this in modern times,” Schultz said. “It doesn’t respect the separation of power and checks and balances.”