Gov. Burgum: Pandemic at forefront of second term
BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Republican Doug Burgum won the governorship for the second time Tuesday in a lopsided victory, even as he faced increased criticism from party faithful for his handling of the pandemic that has pummeled the state.
Burgum heads into his second term against the backdrop of a state that is among the nation’s hotspots for COVID-19 and where deaths are soaring and active cases and hospitalizations are at record levels.
Burgum, in an interview with The Associated Press Wednesday, said the pandemic is something on his mind every hour of the day, “seven days a week.” Yet the wealthy former software executive has refused to require masks or enforce limits on social gatherings and business occupancies, and instead promoted individual responsibility, which he said is beginning to take hold.
“Some people don’t take something seriously until it directly affects them, and now with the rising caseloads, rising hospitalizations, more and more people know somebody who’s been seriously ill or affected by this,” he said.
Burgum thumped Democrat Shelley Lenz on Tuesday in the state that has not had a Democratic governor since 1992. The wealthy former software executive got almost 70% of the vote in the election that Lenz focused on Burgum’s leadership during the pandemic, hammering on a message that he didn’t do enough to slow the spread of the coronavirus, including mandating face coverings.
Lenz, a veterinarian running her first statewide campaign said she believed the race would be closer even in ultra-conservative North Dakota due to the dissatisfaction she heard even among Republicans with Burgum’s handling of the virus.
“The numbers that came out didn’t come up as the same numbers I saw on the ground,” Lenz said. “It makes me sad that we didn’t break through that red wall. He has put politics ahead of human lives and I thought that would break through.”
For his part, Burgum largely continued themes carried over from his first successful campaign four years ago of “reinventing government” through budget discipline, job creation and running the state like a business while treating residents “like customers.”
Burgum took office in 2016, inheriting the issue of the Dakota Access pipeline protests. In a video Burgum released shortly after winning re-election Tuesday, he thanked voters and recounted other challenges that marked his first four years in office.
“Together we’ve overcome historic droughts, unprecedented fall blizzards and floods, survived two oil price crashes and successfully overcome a billion-dollar budget shortfall,” he said in the video, standing alongside first lady Kathryn Helgaas Burgum. “Now together we are thoughtfully and carefully navigating the uncharted waters of a global pandemic.”
While Burgum touts a good relationship with the Legislature, many at the state Capitol would call it rocky at best, with major disagreements over policy and spending decisions, even within his own party.
He also hasn’t been shy about helping to bankroll campaigns for to install allies at the state Capitol and target at least one within his own party who wasn’t on board with his priorities, including a presidential library for Theodore Roosevelt in western North Dakota. Burgum personally dipped into his pocketbook for more than $1 million to build the proposed facility.
State Rep. Josh Boschee, a Fargo Democrat who is the North Dakota House minority leader, gives Burgum much credit for working with Democrats and their priorities to boost education funding, and expanding mental and behavioral health programs.
“I think he’s tried to be a good partner but there continues to be growing friction between the legislative branch and the executive branch,” Boschee said.
Boschee said those turf battles don’t appear to be ending anytime soon.
“He’s used to working as a CEO, and he continues to do so, but the Legislature is the board of directors,” Boschee said.
Burgum makes no apologies for his outsider approach to state government.
“I had a chance to do very purposeful work when I was in the private sector,” Burgum told the AP. “And you look at the big problems facing us today, whether it is addiction or criminal justice reform or education or health care – I mean, there are big issues that touch on every person.
“This is a job where you can get up every day and make a difference in people’s lives. that purpose, being able to make a difference, that I think is the real motivating factor.”