This is why people hate politics.
The swamp is captive to trickle-down theory, too.
I have a thing for the underdog, which is good, as that may be my next vote.
Picture the scene: A noisy MAGA crowd, tired of business-as-usual, clutching booklet copies of the Constitution in their calloused hands, crashing evening cocktails with slick Mitt Romney and his binders full of women. Romney, of course, wouldn’t be drinking a cocktail, but you get the idea.
This is not what happened, mind you.
But it’s a picture of a growing division within the Republican party. And on that note, the North Dakota District 30 Republican reorganization meeting at the Bismarck Solheim Elementary School was held on Tuesday, May 2, 2023.
My friend and I had been invited to attend and participate. As you know from my book about the pandemic, politics (and Facebook) are not high on my list. But with such an invitation, a warm almost-summer day, and hope springing eternal, we went.
I walked into that meeting happily thinking my friend and I were going to participate in an evening of civic duty.
We didn’t realize it was a war zone.
Despite a sub-surface cacophony of animosity, of which I was blissfully unaware at first, it was expertly muffled by the firm and professional leadership of young Justis Amundson, the current Chair who steered the ship according to Roberts Rules of Order.
Amundson was elected two years earlier during the last reorganization meeting. I was later told that meeting was akin to a bar room brawl in which the police were called. I suspect, considering the source of that information, that hearing the full story from a variety of people who were there would give the truth a fairer shake.
Sometimes reorganization goes badly, I guess. Look at the history of Europe.
When leadership isn’t aware of the frustration that’s brewing (or doesn't care, as you'll see in a bit) its explosion onto the scene is surprising.In 2021, there was plenty of frustration, hence the new leadership.
But initially, I wasn’t aware of all of this backstory.
The meeting began 18 minutes past 7 p.m., with 127 eligible voters present, and the current executive leadership team—all newly elected two years ago and fairly fresh to the political scene—described what they’d accomplished during their terms.
I was impressed by the New Guard.
They’d created a website and had created (or re-written) and published the by-laws so everyone could read them.They’d also had quite a few meet-and-greets with Q&A sessions with various candidates (school board, county, etc.) for past elections, as well as some social and educational events. I was drawn to the repeated statements about the desire for transparency and connecting representatives with constituents as the driving motivation for what they did. I loved the idea of a district information clearinghouse, and who doesn't love classes on the Constitution?
Things seemed to be going well.
That is until I started picking up the strands of discord woven through allusions to the previous leadership team (which I will call the Old Guard) not working with their replacement, the New Guard. Between what was said—no access to the district bank account, no access to a district contact list, the need for an amendment to force district representation to meet with constituents within three months of the legislative session—and the behavior of people I began noticing around me, I was uneasy.
Is there a fight I should know about? I wondered. Why would there need to be such a concerted effort to partner with the previous leadership in the district? Wouldn’t they work together as par for the course?
After all, the transfer of power is part of how our representative republic works. Whoever is fairly elected is transferred the power and all necessary access, and those who were not step down.
Clearly, I’m ridiculously naive.
I did not come prepared for ugly. I came prepared for a community meeting and free cookies. (There were no free cookies. No one said there would be, but I always hope.)
During the counting of the vote for the first round, ND Rep. Kelly Armstrong stood up and gave a strange rally speech about needing unity in the Republican party and how everyone in the room was all on the same team and not enemies.
Why is he here, and why did he have to say that?I thought. Seriously, why would you say that? This was a district meeting, not Capitol Hill.
The first round of elections clarified it, though.
The Old Guard was there to make sure the previous people got back in. The New Guard had to go. There was no doubt.
I really don’t know what went down at that previous meeting when the Old Guard was elected out, but it was evident that some had held onto it tightly, pulling it into their bosom and nursing it for two years. 730 days to keep anger and revenge simmering in the kitchen, waiting to serve it up to your neighbors during a meeting in an elementary school gym. Oh, dream big, America. These are not the scenes that Norman Rockwell painted.
The Republican elephant in the room was well-fed anger, and those feeding it should have had a meeting long ago and swallowed their pride. But that takes real adults.
My view all night was an oddly perfect triangle of one-point perspective that led right up front to where Amundson led the meeting. And in that political Bermuda triangle sat three womenand two men who whispered, smirked, and covered their mouths with their hands as they leaned over and back to whisper conspiratorially whenever one of the New Guard was at the mic.
It was good that we met in an elementary school because it’s the perfect place for childish behavior.
It didn’t take a genius to pick out the people working together around the room. They were a cadre that was quick to nominate people from the floor, using a sheet of paper they’d prepared instead of, for some reason, participating in the district nominating meeting to put those names on the official ballot. Were they unaware of the meeting? Did they refuse to acknowledge the legitimate leadership of the district? Were they denied a chance to get the names in? I don’t know.
But it was clear that there was a methodical message to the New Guard: we’re here to take you down.
I squirmed in my seat a lot, both because the chairs were super hard, and because I just felt tainted being dragged into what felt like an 8-year-old’s mastermind plot.
The New Guard, those upstarts who were elected two years earlier amidst sweaty, untucked-shirt preamble-to-the-Constitution-quoting chaos (I’m just imagining it that way, mind you; shirts may very well have stayed tucked in) were people I understood better.
They weren’t, as some of the new nominees, absent and off fundraising in NYC, possessing a known wealthy family name, didn’t have Harvard on their CV, didn’t have many years of political experience and consulting. They were people Gov. Burgum would have his staff send another dismissive form email in response to a concern (I have quite a collection of those emails). Most were awkward holding a mic, perhaps unpracticed in front of crowds, with rambling unstructured speeches. They were concerned about what was happening in the nation and state, in our culture, and to their kids. They were tired of business-as-usual, doing the same thing with the same people and expecting better results. And that concern and the sense that no one was listening to them had caused them to take a step of courage and try to make a difference.
Revolutions often draw law enforcement, I guess.
But they were people I could relate to.
And as I said, I naturally like the underdog, the guy who pays taxes and provides necessary services and has just as much community value but who has never been allowed to have a seat at the table and is despised for daring to ask for half an hors d’oeuvre. Beanie weenies for you, get thee hence, etc.
But here’s where we get to why I’m thinking of voting for my sister’s dog in the next election: one of those men in that triangle of people in my line of sight who was particularly active in the takedown, the one who nominated more people from the floor off that pre-planned list was District 30 Representative Mike Nathe.
Why in the world would we be given a speech about unity from ND Rep. Armstrong when an elected district representative was going to actively (and unashamedly, frankly) help systematically remove the power from those he and his group apparently thought had no right to it?
Nathe represents the people of the entire district, even those he might not like. To serve the public rightly takes tremendous self-control, empathy, and humility. It requires honest leaders who care about people instead of position, who don’t think some are better than others. He had every right to be at the meeting and vote. He had an obligation to make himself available for people to talk to him (which he did not do, as you’ll see). But feeding the division so openly?
Nathe and Co. should have been pulled aside for a little come-to-Jesus meeting before making us listen to Armstrong’s speech. Nevertheless, they pushed out the New Guard, those grubby Constitution-loving folks with their weirdo God-talk and their status-quo-disrupting desire to confront government encroachment and wokeism.
I watched, one by one, as they got rid of the Average Joes who had, in my opinion, done an incredible job trying to connect people, information, and politicians within the district, using only limited funds (and their own money at times). It’s worth noting that the votes were close—some within just one or two—meaning the Old Guard might not have the groundswell of approval they think they have across the district. This matters, because I think this point was lost on Nathe, as you’ll see.
Had I sat in a different seat, I might have left the meeting a little less enraged. But as it was, I watched those people in the triangle in front of me, smirking and whispering.
This is frickin’ high school all over again, I thought, feeling anger rise inside, wondering if any of these folks would stick around after the meeting to stuff some hoi polloi into a locker. These people never grow up.
The cool kid cliques versus the grubby losers, or, in this case perhaps, the people with the money living along the west portion of the district in the fancy houses near the river and around the fake developer lakes versus the grunts living to the east in the apartment buildings and middle-class replicate housing.
I can't know that for sure about such a broad generalization, though I did see, on the info card we were all given in which we were asked what the most pressing issues were, that the man in the row ahead of me had written "flood protection."
I wrote things like "the Constitution, health freedom, 1st and 2nd amendment issues, religious freedom, ending property tax, pro-life issues" and oh, "Stop going along with everything Burgum does."
It would be one thing to be so aggressive about replacing the New Guard if the past two years had shown that the new leadership was dishonest, lazy, or unproductive.
But that’s not the case. And Representative Nathe knows it because he told me so.
Sen. Larson promised to stick around after to talk to people about her votes in the legislature, but my friend and I had to go and we realized Rep. Nathe was cutting out early, too, after the last ballot had been dropped in the box.
As my friend and I left, we saw Nathe walking briskly to his car. Other than his posse, it appeared no one was going to get to talk to him. I jogged down the dark sidewalk and called out to him.
I told him my name and that I was a writer and also a citizen in his district. I told him I wanted to ask a few questions. He seemed annoyed and kept glancing back at the door of the school. Perhaps he was waiting for someone, or perhaps he was worried people would start pouring out and he wouldn’t make his getaway. I really don’t know.
The conversation was combative. More than once my friend and I repeated that we were voters in his district.
Dude, could you just talk to the people you represent? I thought. We live within a few miles of you. Do you think you’re too important to talk to us?
I asked if I could record him as I didn’t have a notebook. I thought he said he didn’t want to be quoted, but later when I started my recording app, he said he told me he didn’t want to be recorded.He didn’t want to be confronted either, judging by his manner, but we pressed on with our questions.
Why did he and his group with him go all out to take down the leadership? Did they do something wrong or bad or illegal during their tenure? Could he tell me specifically what they did the past two years that made it so urgent they be replaced? What was this new group that was elected that night going to do that was better?
He sputtered about locking up librarians (see the footnotes below) and how awful the last reorganization meeting had been, but when it came right down to it, his reply surprised me in that he blurted out the obvious.
“They took it from us,” he said.
My friend pressed him on what he meant by that, both of us pointing out that the people had been rightfully elected two years ago, and hadn’t taken anything from anyone.
“A hundred angry people wanted the changes, not the people!”Nathe said. “They took it from us, and we took it back.”
Not “we did what was best for the district.” Not “we had concerns over X and couldn’t let it continue.” Not “they didn’t accomplish anything.”
Based on what Nathe said, the motivation was simply to take back the power they believed they deserved. Their group, their people, had that power taken away, and of course, they had to take it back. You only “take back” what you think is rightfully yours.
Except for one little thing.
Nathe is incorrect.
They didn’t take it back, not entirely.
Amundson, the Chair, the most powerful position, won re-election.
The smirking triangle wasn’t smirking then.
When his election came up, that young man went to the microphone and used his two minutes to speak very bluntly in the most direct, honest, and transparent speech of the night.
He called out District 30 legislators for how they’d voted this past legislative session. He pulled no punches about what was going on.When it was over, I heard a guy behind me whisper to another in respect, “That took balls.”
Indeed, a rarity in the world of politics which is filled with nutless wonders.
He was real.
He didn’t grab the mic and fill it with smarmy things, patronizingly gee-whizzing the crowd. He didn’t wax on about his Ivy League education and extensive career getting paid to consult with politicians. He spoke plainly to a crowd assuming at least half were against him, telling them the truth anyway and letting the chips fall where they may.
I was so impressed with that young man.
“I hope he runs for state legislature soon,” I said to my friend. “He should run against Nathe.”
They took it from us. We took it back.
This isn’t Chile, 1973.
It’s District 30 and it’s ours.
All of us, from the river mansions (that I helped sandbag in 2011) to the efficiency apartments. OURS. Each of us deserves a chance to win an election and, if that is the case, be treated as having rightfully taken a seat at the table with a proper transfer of power taking place.
My hope is that the Old Guard and New Guard will be able to get to a place of working together with the new leadership team that includes Amundson as the Chair. Perhaps there will be genuine humility, respect, and understanding going forward. Maybe they will learn to listen to all of the people that make up the district, not just those that are preferred. If not, you just simmer up a new batch of anger and at the next meeting, skip the cookies and just hand out popcorn to watch the show.
The swamp we complain about in Washington has trickled down to the district level, and I have a distressing message for high school graduates: you’re never going to leave high school.
The cliques, crap, pettiness, and bullies you think you’re leaving behind for adulthood will still be there your entire adult life. Quite a few end up in politics, it seems.
So stand tall, clear your throat, hold the mic firmly and directly in front of your mouth, own the room, and speak the caveat-free truth no matter who is in the audience. It’s the best route to go.
UPDATE: You can watch a podcast interview about this blog post on YouTube or Facebook.
For all future elections, in order to be able to look in the mirror and live with myself, I will be writing my sister’s dog Smokey instead of voting for Nathe. I may do a write-in for Bosch as well. District 30, find a few better candidates. Now.
This is why good leadership has to connect with a broader segment of the people they represent and be careful to neither ignore nor dismiss anyone as irrelevant. That feeds anger and frustration and you can’t pretend to be surprised when ignored people come in like a tornado someday.
It wasn’t clear, but it sounded as if there hadn’t been by-laws before, or that the by-laws had been in need of a serious upgrade.
UPDATE (5/9/23): In the comments on Facebook associated with a live podcast video following the publication of this article, the following comment was left by one of the New Guard members who was replaced:
“No access to the bank account, because they didn't want us to know that they had drained almost $10,000, directly and evenly split to the legislators. They wrote checks in the days leading up to the previous re-org, and cashed the checks after they lost their seats.”
I would very much like to talk to the Old Guard folks about this, whether this is true and what their explanation for this is, because this is highly disturbing and reaffirms my disinclination to donate to local political parties.
UPDATE (5/9/23): ND Rep. Armstrong lives in District 30, I learned in the podcast interview that followed the publication of this article.
UPDATE (5/8/23): One of the women in that triangle, Sheri Haugen-Hoffart, behaved in such an off-putting manner during the meeting that my friend noted it then, and even several times in the days following. I could not disagree with his observations. I was made aware of this article, which I present to readers to read and discern in light of this blog post.
My friend stood there for the entire conversation and participated in it. While I was not allowed to record this, I will swear under oath and on a Bible in front of a judge and before God hooked to a lie detector that he did say that quote. It is LITERALLY WHAT HE SAID. Additionally, while writing the book on the pipeline protest, I learned North Dakota is a one-party consent state when it comes to recording conversations. I could’ve walked up to Nathe and recorded him without him knowing and been perfectly within my rights. Though he was not very courteous to me, I extended him the courtesy of asking, even though he’s a public figure on public property walking from a public meeting.
UPDATE (5/17/23): Another person described that meeting much differently than Nathe. According to their account: The police weren’t called because of a rowdy crowd. Instead, the meeting location had been moved without much notification, though the New Guard managed to find out in time to let people know. Someone who knew of the meeting location had asked the police to be on hand. They were called before the meeting had started, and did not intervene at any time as there was no need to. Describing it as so wild that the police had to be called is deceptive.
If 100 angry people showed up:
a) Did their votes and presence not matter? Were the results any less valid? Were they not people?
b) Why were they angry? Wouldn’t that be of interest to you if you’re representing them in the district?
c) With the votes as close as they were in the recent meeting, are you sure it’s just a handful of people that wanted change? Have you actually reached out and made a real effort to find out?
d) After witnessing what happened at that meeting, make it 101.
UPDATE (5/9/23): Amundson was running against Dist. 30 Sen. Diane Larson’s husband, the floor nominee, I learned in a podcast that followed the publication of this article.
In a follow-up email, Amundson provided more detail on those bills and how the representatives had voted. Here is what he sent out to the district email list:
SB 2360 - This bill would have banned public libraries and schools from stocking books that have sexually explicit material that is inappropriate for minors. Reps. Glenn Bosch and Mike Nathe both voted against it twice - once before and once after the governor vetoed it. [My note: any legislator who didn’t like this bill would say “I’m not going to lock up librarians!” so I guess everyone got their talking points memo on that one.]
SB 2231 - This bill would have prohibited schools from requiring teachers to use a child’s “preferred pronouns” without parental consent. Rep. Mike Nathe voted against it twice, once to kill it, and once to sustain the governor’s veto.
HB 1301 - This bill would have provided relief to a minor who was subjected to irreversible damage to their bodies caused by gender reassignment surgery or hormone therapy by allowing them to sue the medical facility and doctor responsible for causing harm. Reps. Glenn Bosch and Mike Nathe both voted against it.
SB 2151 - This bill would have directed $10,000,000 in taxpayer funds to the Bank of North Dakota to create an office of immigration that promotes the resettlement of refugees in North Dakota and would make them eligible for up to $160,000 in forgivable loans. This bill was sponsored by Mike Nathe and killed in the Senate.
HB 1401 - This bill would have prevented the state or any political subdivision from adopting “red flag” laws, which have been used in other states to disarm citizens who have never been convicted of a crime. Reps. Glenn Bosch and Mike Nathe voted against it.
HB 1200 - Originally, this bill would have prohibited colleges from requiring students to be vaccinated for COVID-19, but was unfortunately watered down to no longer include this section. The final version of the bill would have extended the time limit on protections from governmental tyranny relating to COVID-19 vaccinations, including prohibiting political subdivisions from requiring private businesses to impose a COVID-19 vaccine requirement on their employees and prohibiting political subdivisions from sharing information regarding an individual's COVID-19 vaccination status. Senator Diane Larson voted against it.
HB 1403 - Justis mistakenly said Senator Diane Larson voted against this bill. It was killed in the House before ever reaching the Senate. This bill would have cemented into the law the fundamental rights of parents to direct the upbringing of their children and allowed parents to seek appropriate financial relief against governmental entities that violate them. Rep. Mike Nathe and Rep. Glenn Bosch voted against it.