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Marvin Nelson returns to Rugby for governor campaign

By Staff | Jul 22, 2016

With election season just around the corner, Tribune Reporter Carissa Mavec sat down with Democratic candidate for governor Marvin Nelson to discuss his campaign. He addresses pertinent North Dakota issues, his hometown of Rugby, and why his campaign ventured into the world of social media during a Facebook live-stream last week.

What is your campaign about? What are the issues that you are most focused on?

The big thing was when faced with the fact that our First Responders in this state are not protected when they go out to protect us. I was talking to Jeremy Olsen, and he was a volunteer firefighter who was severely injured, with four young children, and had to relearn to walk. He talked about sitting in his house plumb full of toys from the community and he was losing the house because $200/week didn’t cover his expenses. Well this last legislative session, the Republicans took away the $200. So here we are rural North Dakota, particularly we’re suffering. We’re having trouble getting people on ambulance crews, on fire departments, and right now, today, a self-employed firefighter or ambulance worker has no disability coverage in North Dakota, unless they bought a private policy, and that’s just wrong. They’re the people who come to save us, to rescue us and our property, and they just aren’t treated properly. There would also be the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder thing there, where strangely enough the Chamber of Commerce took away points from my ratings when I voted for PTSD coverage for First Responders. That seemed really strange for me because as a child, growing up in Rugby, when the alarms went off, it was the Chamber of Commerce that came running down the streets to the fire department. It risks people’s lives to have people suffering that way, and it ruins their families. So, there’s no reason not to have that coverage.

I’m also concerned about the land and agriculture in this state. We’ve had a real problem with improper regulation of the oil industry. We’re destroying thousands of acres of prime farmland in this state that shouldn’t be destroyed. With proper regulation, we could do the oil development without destroying the land.

The other thing is, in our budget the budget is in the news a lot, right now we really have misplaced priorities in our budget. When the cuts came, the first thing that was cut was help with paying for daycare for workers. When you look at the state, the economy of the state is suffering right now because we don’t have enough workers. So there are all of these unfilled positions, and there are all these people across the state who can’t find quality, affordable daycare for their children. Daycare has become necessary infrastructure. People won’t come to a town if there is not daycare, employers can’t hire people if there is not daycare, and yet, here we are cutting the very things that we need to get our economy diversified. Everyone talks [that] we need to diversify our economy, but when it comes down to spending the state money where we actually can, oh no same old, same old.

Other priorities it’s finally getting out there that we should handle our prison system differently. Well, we had all the reports and everything to get started on that when we had a lot of money, but we didn’t. Instead, we cut taxes which, obviously we cut them too much and left town. We didn’t fix that. Now every county, every city in the state is in potential problems because the law is that you’ll provide healthcare for prisoners. It’s not just physical healthcare, it’s mental healthcare. When are we going to have someone who commits suicide or who gets out of prison without even being evaluated, who needed suicide prevention or something, the cities and the counties are just waiting for that million dollar lawsuit to come. As frustrating as it is that we don’t have mental health services for our prisoners, we really in most of North Dakota don’t have mental health services for anybody because it’s been so neglected for so many years. You go across the state, and so many of the problems we have drugs, domestic violence, all those things go back to not having the proper mental health services in the state. So that’s a big part of my campaign.

Part of your campaign is to support working families. What will you do to help support them?

It’s frustrating. On Mother’s Day, the one group put out a report, and mothers in North Dakota get 58 percent of what fathers earn. That is a problem. It’s just a real problem that basically we have a culture that’s set up to make women dependent, and it takes advantage of them. If we’re going to grow our economy and grow our state, we need to treat women properly economically. Families young families, in particular, in this state just end up getting so far in the hole, and then they just can’t seem to get out of the hole. Then they’re frustrated, and what happens is they get opportunity someplace else, and they leave and don’t come back. Family leave, again, has really become a part of the necessary infrastructure. Particularly, women have, for so long, performed those functions and tried to continue to do them while they work. We need to do it in a way that doesn’t say to an employer, “Oh, you just have to let everyone off, and you just have to keep paying them.” We need to do it through some shared insurance program where the costs are relatively low, but where we all as a state benefit from the effects of having that.

You want to fight discrimination. What does that mean to you and how do you plan on doing that?

It concerns me. Look at all the discussion now about transgender [people] in bathrooms. I’m 58 years old, I have yet to read the story in the paper about the transgender people in North Dakota attacking people in the bathroom. This is a non-issue. This is what these hate groups do in order to win politically. They take get people worked-up about things that aren’t issues, and then they slide through the things that are really the issues. They manipulate the process, and this time around, it’s been the transgender people. No one less wants conflict in the bathrooms than the transgender people. No one is more susceptible to being attacked than the transgender people, yet (hate groups) vilify them and make them to be some sort of evil thing. They’re using lack of knowledge, that maybe a lot of people don’t know a lot. Part of it that comes in is just plain and flat out hatred for President Obama. As soon as he said something, all those people were against it. It’s really sad, but it’s a reflection of what has been such a large part of our political realm. Look at the gay marriage thing, it’s been a year now looks about the same out there. We found out, once it got here, how little of an issue it’s actually been. As a government, why would we not promote stable, life-long family relationships so those people can help each other and can nurture each other? Yes, maybe their family looks a little different from my family, but it’s their family. Why shouldn’t they have that? It’s an advantage to the state to have that.

You touched a little on the oil issue in North Dakota. How do you plan on fixing it?

Some people say we should just get rid of the oil. Well, absolutely not. If we shut down the oil wells and the oil fields of North Dakota, we’re just sending money to the Middle East, and we’re going to be fighting another war in the Middle East. We are going to pump the oil out here, and then we need the proper regulations so that while we’re getting the oil, we don’t destroy the land and we don’t destroy the people. I’m very frustrated. Finally, the Health Department got a FLIR camera, so they can see the gas emissions. That one camera is having a big effect on what’s happening in Western North Dakota. They’re looking at some of the regulations that really should have been done a long time ago. I, as an [agricultural] consultant, have an electromagnetic machine it’s not that expensive that I can walk along the ground and I can tell you exactly where the salt is. The state doesn’t use one of those. Injection wells are a concern. Every five years, they could be injecting ten to 20 thousand barrels of water a day. Every five years, they’re required to be pressure tested. That shoves the well down, a wire line truck comes in it’s expensive and then we test the leaks. Now, to pass the standards, they can lose 10 percent of their pressure in 15 minutes and still pass the test. There were many that were much worse, and we couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Finally, our director of oil and gas had an argument with the EPA over what a leak was, and his philosophy was that if the leak was deep enough it wasn’t actually a leak, even though it wasn’t in the zone it was supposed to go. That’s been kind of fixed now. Again, there are electromagnetic machines that we can take two guys, we can do two readings on the site probably in an hour. The machine only cost $20,000, they don’t have to shut down the well, it’s no big cost, and we could tell if we had a leak in the top 2000 feet. Why aren’t we using technology to provide low-cost efficiency? If you let the leak go on too long, it costs the company millions of dollars. This isn’t anti-oil to say let’s catch this before it goes on forever. Our state government, our leaders, and even our health department are almost anti-technology. As we go past the FLIR camera, there’s also LIDAR. We’ve used it in most of the state now to test the elevation, but [with LIDAR] we can go out and map the hydrocarbons down to the parts per billion. It will show us where the leaks are. Let’s go fix the leaks. Nobody wants a leak, let’s go fix the leak.

I have sensitive lungs, and I’ve talked to people who have kids. The kids are having asthma attacks. Well, it’s the sensitivity to breathing these hydrocarbons and the sulfur dioxide. We need, even in the oil patch, to have an environment that people can live in. We don’t have that today.

Being from Rugby, what can you say to this community and what can they expect from you if elected Governor?

One of the things that I’m very frustrated about is the way that rural North Dakota is treated by the state government. We all freaked out a couple years ago when a couple Rutgers professors talked about Buffalo Commons. “Should we just turn North Dakota back into a wildlife preserve?” We were all so offended by that, and yet, the state of North Dakota calls it “regionalization,” but it’s Buffalo Commons. “You don’t need any services in Rugby, you can drive to Minot.” We put all the government jobs in Minot or in Grand Forks or Fargo, and then say, “Oh look, those towns are doing so well. Why isn’t Rugby doing so well?” Well, the amount of jobs that the state government puts in Rugby are as few as possible. Then you see these cutbacks they’re trying to close all the rest areas, we’re closing all the job services. Where was there most job services to do than in New Town? People losing their jobs, people looking for jobs, jobs were available and yet, we closed New Town because they’re out there on a reservation. Rural North Dakota has not been treated very well for a long, long time by the government. It always frustrates me that the people who come to do our driver’s licensing in these rural areas come from Minot. Why couldn’t the crew come from Rugby or Bottineau? It would be a good job for a bunch of people here in Rugby who are trying to get by, and they were having trouble hiring people in Minot. Even when they couldn’t get workers in Minot, they wouldn’t come out here [Rugby] and hire a crew. There’s no reason they couldn’t be located here except mental stuff. People from Fargo, I give them a hard time, because they say, “What’s the difference between here and Rolette County?” Well in Rolette County, people live at the lake and they go to the city on the weekends. The thing is, you look over the long-term and go across North Dakota20, 30 family supporting jobs can make such a huge difference over the years. Yet, we sit there. We have a lot of workers in government, but we continue to concentrate them in the cities. I’d really like to look at that, and I’d really like to start to pay some attention to rural North Dakota and get them some of the services [mental health services, dentistry, etc.]. It’s really a second class for rural North Dakota, and our reservations probably suffer the worst because they’re really the most rural in many ways, even when they have a population. They’re treated like they’re not part of North Dakota.

You had a live-stream town hall meeting through Facebook [on July 13]. How did that go?

Well, once we got online, it wasn’t too bad! You’re always nervous the first time. It actually was fun, and questions came in fast. They were not cream puff questions, and of course, that’s kind of the difference my opponent spent five million dollars on his campaign, and most people don’t know where he stands on any of the issues. He spent five million dollars on fluff. People said I was so unusual, it was “ask a question, get an answer.” That seems strange to me that that wouldn’t be the normal way. But that’s what happens here. I don’t know if they’re afraid or why they are, but they just don’t want to actually engage the voters. I think the assumption is that everybody is stupid and can’t handle the truth. It’s the “20 second sound bite” problems. We don’t have those anymore.

When we’re talking about the budget of North Dakota, when we’re talking about actually changing the state, these are not sound bite problems. People like to say, “No new taxes, no regulations” it’s kind of funny that my partner, Joan Heckaman and I are portrayed as the spend-thrift Democrats, while the guy who spends the most money ever in North Dakota is supposed to be the “Conservative” and knows how to cut spending. Joan and I are both frugal people. People thought that I would come in with the smallest budget of the three. The thing is, if we spend our money wisely, it doesn’t take so much. We have homeless people across the state, and every place that has gone to shelter first, it costs less money. Yet, we don’t do shelter first because it’s cheaper on the budget to say we’re not doing anything. Then the guy is sick, you scrape him off the street and take him to the emergency room, he sits in Intensive Care for a couple of days you just spent enough that you could have put him in an apartment for years. Shelter first works because people get in, they get warm, they get dry, they start to eat, their health improves and then you can start to work on the actual problems. I almost think people are offended because their idea is that if you’re out on the street, you’re morally responsible and you’re evil or whatever. They’re almost offended when they find out that you can take these homeless people, and through counseling and help, many of them turn into very successful people. I don’t think it fits their portrayal of the world. If we had started spending that money a while back, we’d be spending less money today.

And our prison systems now, I know now we’re short, and it’s going to be [that] now we don’t have the money but we had the reports, and we had the information that we needed to do, and we didn’t do it. We just cut taxes and left town. I think it’s about 800 new cells are being built across the state millions and millions and millions of dollars to build those jails, and millions and millions and millions of dollars to fill and manage those cells, yet somehow we can’t provide mental health services. Just a few years ago, we cut out the state hospital, basically, as a mental health provider, but we didn’t replace it with anything. So, we see domestic violence and addiction. Our kids are dropping dead from drugs, and this is because we took the cheap way. How long are we going to say, “Let the kids die”? As long as it was supposed to be some minority person off in the slum someplace, it was okay. These are not minority slum kids dropping dead; suddenly now people are saying we should do something. But because we haven’t been doing anything for years, we have so little in place. We really, right away, need to do some educational programs for the professionals in our rural areas who are dealing with it, pastors, social workers, doctorsbecause many of them don’t know what we do have available. We really do need to get mental health services out there.

Why do you want to be Governor?

It comes down to North Dakota. (Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug) Burgum was kind of right, in that North Dakota is run by this “good old boys” club. Unfortunately, the day after the primary, he ran right into the arms of the “good old boys” and became one of them. I see where the Governor will trip over himself to speak to certain groups and tell them that the door is open, and then I see groups of North Dakotans huddled outside his door that he won’t meet with, he won’t listen to. I warned some of my supporters, even, because when I campaign that I’m “North Dakota for all North Dakotans” I’ll warn you I’ll listen to you, but that doesn’t mean that I won’t listen the others. I intend to listen to the others because I think we get the best public policies when we listen to people. Then, as Governor, I might have to make the decision. There’s going to be people that I don’t agree with, but I’ll listen. That’s what really is the big change.

One thing that was revealed, like when Governor Schafer endorsed my opponent as present, we had legislators going to threaten higher education funding because this president would endorse somebody other than they had endorsed. That sort of thing is happening all the time in this state. Very seldom does it become public, but that intimidation is a big part of the current government. When I go across the state, I talk to all kinds of people who are afraid it’s mayors, city council members, commissioners, people on the street, people who run non-profits and in person, they’re afraid that the super majority are letting it be known that they might support me or they might be Democrat, or even that they haven’t been treated well. People should not be afraid of their government. People shouldn’t be afraid of their Governor. The Governor and the representatives of North Dakota shouldn’t hold grudges against communities, or people, or individuals. We’re supposed to govern the whole state, not just a small group of our friends. This has happened for so long. We’re supposed to elect a wealthy, Republican businessman to fix what’s wrong in the state, but we had Ed Schafer a wealthy, Republican businessman 24 years of wealthy Republican businessmen, and they have not fixed what’s wrong in the state. We don’t have the daycare available, we don’t have the family leave, we don’t have all those things. That’s the problem. People of the state, as a whole, are not being represented and are not having the state function for their benefit. We need a state that benefits everybody, not just the few. What’s so strange about it, the same thing happened in the United States, if you start benefiting everybody, it’s going to trickle down. Like one guy said, “That stuff trickling down ain’t money.” It’s percolating up, and if you raise everybody across the state, then everybody is going to do better. I’ve been so tired, my whole life, of how we’ve just kicked our children and our young people. They leave here to go somewhere where there’s an opportunity, and North Dakota has been run as a low-wage state. Somehow we’re supposed to get wealthy by paying nothing. People work two jobs, they’re scrambling, they’re doing all this and they’re fighting. At some point, they get tired and leave. Fargo got the first wave of immigrants, so they could have all these good workers for low wages that took care of everything. Now they’re starting to not have that wave anymore, and they don’t know how to run the town. We need to make North Dakota a good place to live, and we need to get the infrastructure in place, like the telecommunications, our natural gas those sort of things and then, if we’re a good place to live, if we get North Dakota right, we will grow. The way it is right now, it’s North Dakota wrong, but we need to get North Dakota right. That’s what I’d like to do.

As an [agricultural] consultant, people always wonder what that is, and literally I’m technical guy who’s hired to look out for other people’s interests. It’s not that much different, being Governor it’s just how big the group of people you’re working for is.

What do you plan to do about pulling North Dakota out of debt?

You have to really wonder, those $400 million, or so, in tax breaks that happened this past session were they really necessary? We have this problem with the commodity market that things go up then things come down. Two sessions ago, I had a bill in. We go no discussion about it, but I had a bill in that said to make it legal in the state of North Dakota to give money back to the people. All anybody wanted to talk about what the Alaskan trust fund and how those go; well, we’re not anywhere close. We need thirty billion in the trust fund to do that, we’re only at four billion. My concept was, and I learned it from the ’80s, was that here we come and we get a couple billion dollars extra in the coffers. Well, what happens then it’s really politically proper to go in and cut taxes, and that’s what they do. But then things average out over the long term, and now you’ve gone where your tax rate is actually too low, so then you crash. That’s exactly where we are now. The idea was instead of changing the tax rate kind of like a co-op if we screwed up and we took too much in taxes, here’s your taxes back. It was just like in the ’80s, the rates had gotten too low. When things went south, they tried to raise taxes. There’s always somebody who’s going to go and refer the tax increase, and then you can’t get it passed. I’m not sure that’s the right way, but I wanted the discussionI couldn’t even get a discussion. It wasn’t even on people’s radar. The towns, it’s terrible for the towns with impact money. It’s not impact, it’s production. If you look, production is pretty stable, but the money is very unstable. Most towns in Western North Dakota would be in a much better position today if they got so many dollars per barrel of oil, then the trust fund maybe the amount in there going up or down, based on price of oil. We could be a lot more stable. Some people talk about oil well futures, “Well we’ll hedge our oil for the state.” Not a bad idea, but here’s the reality of it: we effectively tax about a hundred thousand barrels a day of oil, so that’s thirty-six and a half million barrels of oil/year or seventy-three million barrels/biennial. So then, we hedge the whole work so we know where we’re at. First of all, instead of hedging, people will criticize you because you’re not trying to pick the market. But here it is seventy-three million barrels, oil moves a dollar against your hedge, that’s seventy-three million dollars of margin costs. If you look at last biennial, I think oil moved that’s $50 per barrel. We’re talking several billion dollars of hedge. Of course, it’s political suicide. You’re going to have somebody jump and say, “Look, they cost the state billions of dollars for nothing,” and you have got to have the money ready to go. The political reality is that it sounds good, but just knowing the way it is, it’s difficult to do. We’d be hedging oil we don’t actually have, then we’re going to pay the price when it goes the wrong way. It’s really difficult to make changes because everything gets written into the constitution because the legislature will screw with it if you don’t [write it]. Just like we had the oil tax, the people passed a measure and it was set with the rates. Then all these tweaks came into it, and then the legislature cut the rates that was the people’s tax. It’s really just like this corporate farming thing. The day after the election, my opponent is saying, “We need to revisit this.” The reason we don’t have hog barns and chicken barns in North Dakota is not that we don’t have access to capital. It’s that we don’t have access to free and open markets and transportation. They worship capital, everything is money. Then it’s so strange, the state has billions of dollars in trust funds, and we invest in China, but we don’t invest in North Dakota. They have more faith in China than they do in North Dakota. It’s a real problem. I think part of the problem has been that people of the state just have inherently not trusted the guys in office. I think we really have to get to the point where we’re trustworthy, where a guy’s word is his word. Hopefully we can change all that.

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