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That escalated quickly: North Dakota politics get nasty, and may get nastier

by Mike McFeely

To quote our guy Ron Burgundy, that escalated quickly.

The campaign for North Dakota agriculture commissioner is on like Donkey Kong and we have the North Dakota Farm Bureau to thank. So, as a talk-show host on a North Dakota radio station that is heavy on ag listeners, I say, "Thank you, North Dakota Farm Bureau." Nothing better than some good, old-fashioned political mudslinging between Republicans to keep people interested.

To summarize political newcomer Judy Estenson's campaign against current ag commish Doug Goehring: 

He's a spineless toady who harasses women.

Let's get it on!

First things first. Here is the boiled-down backstory, as gleaned from various sources: A faction of extremely conservative Farm Bureau members, led by former president Eric Aasmundstad of Devils Lake, is unhappy with Goehring. They don't believe the twice-elected Goehring, himself a former leader of the NDFB, has been properly doing the organization's bidding. 

Doug Goehring

So NDFB recruited Warwick farmer/rancher Judy Estenson to challenge Goehring for the Republican nomination and a place on the November ballot.

When I describe Aasmundstad and his legion as "extremely conservative," what do I mean? It means the NDFB under Aasmundstad came out against a federal Farm Bill. Supported its elimination. Which, even in an deeply red state like North Dakota, is conservative. Wacky, almost.

Estenson made her announcement to challenge Goehring on Tuesday in Bismarck and Fargo. While lacking in important aspects such as straightforwardness and details, Estenson was heavy on innuendo and evasiveness. She didn't take questions from the media in Bismarck, and her spokesperson declined multiple radio interview requests on Estenson's behalf.

While Estenson gave the usual yada-yada about her dislike of growing government and the erosion of private property rights -- yawn, she is upset with how Goehring has handled a couple of issues -- she and a Farm Bureau spokesman also referenced things like Goehring's "personal choices regarding the management of his office and staff."

They were referring to an investigation into some comments and actions involving Goehring's conduct in 2012, which the commissioner admits occurred. In an e-mail to some Farm Bureau members Monday -- a.k.a., a pre-emptive strike to Estenson's announcement -- Goehring acknowledged, "I spoke and acted in a politically incorrect manner for today’s modern office."

An open-records request by KFGO News showed a complaint was filed to the North Dakota Human Resources Department that accused Goehring of sexual harrassment and creating a hostile workplace environment. Records show Goehring referred to one female worker as a "babe in the woods" and a group of employees as his "harem." Goehring also asked a female employee to walk on his back in order to alleviate pain.

Goehring appeared as a guest on my radio show Tuesday afternoon and said he meant no ill-will by his comments. He said the use of the word "harem" was meant as a joke. "I didn't even think about it at the time," he said.

He said he asked an employee to "crack his back" because he was suffering from a bad back ache that was causing a severe headache. "I asked a staff member to crack my back. And they did," he said.

The Human Resources Department deemed no action against Goehring was necessary. "They wanted me to be aware it was inappropriate. I agree. I fully agree and understand," said 

Goehring, who apologized to his staff and voluntarily went through what he deems "appropriate training."

Politics is a nasty business and, one way or another, dirty laundry usually ends up in the media. Even in little ol' North Dakota. But the Farm Bureau's and Estenson's frontal attack is unusual, maybe unprecedented, in this state. Candidates normally use their first announcment to introduce themselves to the public and media, usually highlighting their strengths and why they want to hold whatever office for which they are running.

Farm Bureau/Aasmundstad/Estenson avoided the niceties and went straight for Goehring's jugular. It will be interesting to see whether their approach, and their unusual shunning of the media, is effective. It seems the campaign has started in the gutter and can only get worse.

Or better, depending on how you look at it.

"I don't know how else to see it," Goehring said on my show yesterday. "I'm hoping my entire record gets reviewed and looked at. ... It's going to be a long (campaign) season."

There are already rumors Farm Bureau/Aasmundstad/Estenson have more mud it is going to let fly.

And remember: This is Republican-on-Republican political violence. Remember, too, today's date: Feb. 5.

Which brings us right back to the beginning and this statement:

 

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