Democrats decline in legislative numbers

As a young man, Sen. Larry Robinson’s father decided to go into the sheep business.

27
NDNA

As a young man, Sen. Larry Robinson’s father decided to go into the sheep business. He and a partner found a place, bought the animals and settled in for the winter. It was a tough one. Each day Father Robinson went out to count the sheep and reported to his partner. One day, the partner said, “At this rate, pretty soon we won’t have any sheep.”

That says Robinson, is how it feels to be a Democrat in the 65th session of North Dakota Legislature.

Robinson entered the Senate in 1987, the 50th session. His election pushed the Democrats to 27 members, a one-seat majority that year. In 1989, the state’s centennial year, Democrats had 32 of 53 seats in the state Senate.  They held onto a majority through 1993. This session, their caucus includes just nine of the 47senators.

That’s not the record low number, though. In 1967 there were five Democrats. As a gimmick they caucused in a phone booth. The next year, there were six Democratic senators.

In the state House, the numbers are grimmer for Democrats. There are 13 Democrats among the 94 House members. In 1965, House Democrats had their only majority in the state’s history; in 1977, they had exactly half the seats.

Rep. Tracy Boe is philosophical about all this. First elected in 2002, he’s never been in the majority. About the only difference it makes, he says, is “you never get to chair a committee.”

In many ways, Boe, who farms near Mylo in the north central part of the state, represents the historic Democratic coalition. He’s a member of both the Farmers Union – a traditional cornerstone of Democratic power in the state – and the Farm Bureau, a more conservative organization. He’s also a board member of a rural electric cooperative. In an interview, he said he’s “probably the most conservative Democrat in the legislature.”

He also concedes that he’s probably lucky. He represents District 9, an odd-numbered district, so he didn’t face re-election in 2016, which brought a tidal wave of Republicans to the Legislature.

District 9 is perhaps the most dependably Democratic in the state. Its second House member is Marvin Nelson, the Democrats’ unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate last year, and its senator is Richard Marcellais, former chair of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.

Nelson and Boe are the only Democrats in the House from districts outside the Red River Valley. They are two of 13 Democratic House members; seven others are from Fargo, two from Grand Forks and one each from Wahpeton and Mayville.

In the Senate, Merrill Piepkorn, elected from a Fargo district in 2016, says he figures it’s a little harder for Democrats to get bills passed. “It’d be good to have a little more balance,” he said.

Democrats in the Senate are more geographically dispersed. Besides Marcellais, two others are from rural districts: James Dotzenrod of Wyndmere in southeastern North Dakota, and the caucus leader, Joan Heckaman from New Rockford, in the center of the state. Others are one each from Bismarck, Jamestown and Valley City and three from Fargo.

The Democrats are a fairly feisty bunch, despite their small numbers. Her goal, Heckaman said, is to hold Republicans accountable. Her response to Republican moves to change the state’s process for initiated measures is an example. She held a news conference to attack the idea and introduced amendments to broaden the membership of a committee that would study the issue.

In the House, Caucus Leader Corey Mock has taken an equally defiant positon. He’s asked Democrats to resist retrenchment in the state codes. “I hate repealers,” he said, because once removed from the law provisions are rarely re-instated.

This is significant because Republicans have introduced bills to repeal a range of laws, ranging from licenses for hay sales to certification for on-line education courses.

Mock jokes about the size of the Democratic caucus. Gesturing at his office off the House chamber, he suggests, “Sure, we could all meet in this room, but I’m holding caucus meetings in our regular place. We’re still the minority party and we have an important role.”