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Q&A: District 14 GOP candidates

By Staff | Jul 15, 2016

Continuing with coverage of the District 14 general election in November, Tribune Reporter Bryce Berginski sat down last week with incumbents, Rep. Jon Nelson, Sen. Jerry Klein and Rep. Robin Weisz.

What are your qualifications?

JK: I served in the Legislature for 20 years, first elected in 1996; small-town businessman; I spent 35 years in the grocery business in Fessenden, where my wife and I ran the old Jack & Jill store; certainly been involved in our communities, I’ve been a 37-year member of the fire department; I’ve been the past president of the Chamber (of Commerce), Jaycees, Kiwanis; I currently serve on the county Job Development Authority; active in our church and active in the Knights of Columbus in Harvey. I think just being community-minded, community-spirited, people-person suited me for this job and I’d like to continue those efforts.

RW: I’ve also been in the Legislature for 20 years, came in with Jerry, in fact, in 1996; I’ve farmed south of Hurdsfield my whole life, a third-generation farmer; been in the community my whole life, I’ve run a couple businesses in that time: I’ve been very active in economic development; chaired the South Central Regional Council Loan Committee, chaired the Wells County JDA for a period of time; I’ve chaired the Transportation Committee for four sessions; currently I’m chair of the Human Services Committee, I’ve chaired that for four sessions. So I have a broad array of experience in the Legislature, and also the ability to be a chair in a rural district has become very important as we’ve become a minority. I’ve received township legislator of the year award twice and also the EMS systems legislative award twice, if that does show my qualifications and performance the last 20 years.

JN: First of all, how I got started was my family has always been involved politically. We were always very in-tune with political events and active in political events. My first elected position was local school board and working on school funding issues it propelled me into running for the Legislature, and I was elected in 1996, coincidentally. And since then I’ve served on the Education Committee-that was my first assignment in the House-and I served on the Ag Committee and moved over to Natural Resources, and I chaired the Natural Resources Committee for two sessions, and then I went to the Appropriations Committee, on which I currently serve in the Human Resource Section. And in that capacity we have the Human Service budget, the Health Department budget, the Department of Corrections budget-three of the major budgets. So it’s a different experience, but the programs that help people are all funded through that committee. It’s been a good fit for me in the areas I’ve dealt in. Since I’ve been elected, I’ve been elected to the Heart of America Hospital Board-which I’ve served for I believe 13 years now- and so I’ve got an understanding of rural hospitals. And also I’m a member of the All Seasons Rural Water Users board and currently serve as the president of North Dakota Rural Water. And I’ve served on a township board.

So all three of us are very active in our communities, which gives us a background to understand practical application of bills back at home. We set ourselves apart from our opponents in that regard, because we talk the talk but we also walk the walk in the application of what we’re doing. And our ideas don’t come from a template or a leadership room, it comes from what we know from back home and what the needs are in rural North Dakota.

This election you all are not only facing a challenge from the left, but during the primary you were also challenged from the right. What is one thing you learned from being challenged in the primary?

RW: I consider myself “conservative”, I think my voting record shows that I’m conservative, but at the same time I don’t believe in labels, per se, and I think all three of us have always worked to move forward what we consider the interests of our district, whatever that may be. There’s always going to be disagreement, or someone who doesn’t like your position on something, I understand that, but I don’t think from our perspective that I would do anything different.

We made our case in the primary that we were doing things that helped our townships, our counties make sure the infrastructure was taken care of. Some of those issues I’m not going to apologize for that, or say “Well maybe I do it different.” long-term care for an aging population, particularly in our rural districts-money that was spent on long-term care, and making sure nursing homes are viable are very important. So, lessons learned, I’d say I wouldn’t do anything different. We ran what we thought was important, the people responded and I think they agreed with what we had done in Bismarck.

JK: I would only comment that I’m probably one of the most conservative senators, or a handful of the most conservative senators in the North Dakota Legislature. When we’re accused of certainly looking at special interest groups I have to agree with Rep. Weisz, if supporting our nursing homes is a special interest, I’m guilty. If supporting our rural hospitals is a special interest, I’m guilty. If supporting our counties and their roads, and townships and their roads, we’re guilty. If putting money back in people’s pockets by giving them income tax relief is a special interest, yes, we’re guilty, because I think we represent the special interest that we call District 14.

JN: The one thing that I learned in the primary is that it’s easier to find a sound bite to create an issue where there isn’t one. And I think that’s exactly what we went through in the primary with our Republican opponents. They misrepresented our record, and the people, in my opinion, saw through that. We’re the three candidates that have a record; none of the other candidates that are running against us, either in the primary or now in the general election have a record.

So it’s easy to say anything, and in this election year I don’t think there’s much left not to say nationally, from a state standpoint and locally. Because we spend a lot of effort making sure what we put in a newspaper ad is absolutely true because we have our names on the legislation, our vote is on the board as to what we’ve done, and I’m quite proud of the things that Jerry and Robin just talked about. But you look at North Dakota as a state we have one of the highest rates of popularity for the Legislature out of any state in the Union, because we’ve been responsible, and that’s what you’re going to get from us. They tout the “establishment” as a bad thing, but if you look at any profession, let’s pick in the medical field, when you’re trying to recruit a doctor into a community if somebody’s got 20 years of service and has a reputation of being a good doctor, isn’t that a good thing? It is in every profession, if you have a reputation behind you, with the exception of politics it seems like in this political year. And I think we need to not only not run away from what we are, our tenure in a citizen Legislature-which North Dakota’s is-we do come back home and we live with the laws that we pass. And I think that’s one of the reasons for our popularity. But also it makes us more responsive to the people that we represent because we’re representing ourselves in that process.

What would you say are some of the biggest issues concerning DIstrict 14?

RW: Certainly the biggest issue we’ll be facing is the drop in revenue. It’ll certainly have an affect on our district as it pertains to long-term care, infrastructure projects, education potentially, so from a standpoint of Bismarck it’s going to be our duty to make sure that the interests of our district are taken care of as far as funding. Priorities for me would be Human Services, and I see that long-term care is critical. It’s going to be important that they’re viable, and our rural hospitals and some of those issues. And again, roads-you can’t move that ag product (without them) and we’re an ag district.

JK: I think Robin has summed it up, but I think in Bismarck the issue will be to continue to fund our priorities. Funding our priorities is imperative but we’re going to have to look at downsizing government. Government has grown, I readily admit that, but if we look back and see the amount of money we spent on one-time spending, one-time infrastructure projects-a new medical school-there’s a lot of things we did with one-time spending-we didn’t borrow any money.

So going back to Bismarck now we’re going to have to look hard at continuing some of the things we’ve started and doing it with less government. I think, in general, once again as it comes to the district we’re going to have continued concerns with long-term care, continued concerns with our roads. North Dakota, as far as I’m concerned, is still considered an ag state, and agriculture is still going to be number one. We served in the Legislature when we didn’t have any revenue, we served in the Legislature when state employees got no raise, and so we got the experience to figure out a way to get our budget balanced and we’re going to do it without raising taxes.

JN: In addition to the budgetary challenges that we know we are going to have, we are also going to have a new governor. And to be quite honest with you, we don’t know what that relationship is going to look like yet. I don’t know how this is going to shake out, what I do know is there’s going to be changes. One of the first things we have to do is develop a relationship with the executive office because it’s important that we have that trust between the two branches of government to get things done, get a bill signed, and go home and live with it.

I think the priorities that have been mentioned are all very important to rural North Dakota, but there are a number of other possibilities of priorities that we may or may not share as a priority. So developing that relationship with the executive office is going to be a little bit more time consuming than any of us have devoted to that in the past, because we’ve transitioned from when we all three were elected Gov. (Ed) Schafer was in office. We went from Gov. Schafer to Gov. (now U.S. Sen. John) Hoeven to Gov. (Jack) Dalrymple pretty seemlessly. But it seems to me that this is whether it’s Doug Burgum, who campaigned on a totally different policy of doing something new, and I don’t know how it’s going to work, or Rep. (Marvin) Nelson, the Democratic candidate-none of us has ever served under a Democratic governor, and quite honestly I don’t think we will in this next election-the fact is it’s going to take some time to build those relationships.

If re-elected, how do you intend to work (and continue working) across the aisle (i.e. with members of the Democrat-NPL Party)?

JN: I have never sponsored a bill without getting a minority member of both the House and Senate to sign on the bill. And I think I have a strong reputation as being fair, middle of the road I guess would be where they would put me politically. But I think I’ve got a good rapport with minority members and I don’t, whether it’s in sponsoring legislation, in committee work or on the floor, every legislator once they’re elected are in the same position and their opinions are important as is everyone else’s and I don’t think any idea is necessarily or anyone’s got a grasp of the right solution to every problem just because you happen to be a Republican or Democrat. I think it’s individual legislators and I would put my reputation up and ask a number of Democrats I’ve served with, and I think they’d all say that they like working with me.

JK: I’d probably say a lot of the same things Jon has. I work across the aisle all the time, but as elected to my position as Assistant Majority Leader I have to work with the Assistant Minority Leader constantly. We are in-tune with making sure we’re all in agreement, which way we’re going, we consult each other quite often. As Jon mentioned we work together, bills I’ve introduced that have come from home you look across the aisle to make sure that you’ve got people who can be spokespersons for the Democrats because a lot of times if you just load up with your Republican colleagues it, we certainly want buy-in from everyone. That’s always been what I’ve tried to do.

RW: I guess I would agree with what they said. I think being from a rural district, rural issues take precedence over whether it’s a Republican or Democrat. And frankly, rural districts are in the minority so we need our Democratic colleagues from the rural areas. So I don’t care who I work with, when there’s an issue that’s important to our district whether they have an R or D doesn’t matter, what matters is you have support. And sometimes there’s more support from some of my Democratic colleagues on rural issues than maybe from some of the Republicans. So certainly we’re in the majority but that doesn’t determine who I want to work with, necessarily, or need to to get a bill passed. We work with everyone because you need the votes to pass something.

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