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Published April 21, 2014, 10:08 AM

Ag commissioner challenge rattled membership

BISMARCK — North Dakota Farm Bureau leaders are mulling their next move after their divisive decision to back a challenger who ultimately failed to topple Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring for the Republican endorsement.

By: Mike Nowatzki, Forum News Service

BISMARCK — North Dakota Farm Bureau leaders are mulling their next move after their divisive decision to back a challenger who ultimately failed to topple Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring for the Republican endorsement.

“There’s been a fair amount of discussion one way or another as to how we’re going to proceed,” President Doyle Johannes says. “I think, given time, things will die down.”

The organization raised eyebrows in February when it stood behind rural Warwick farmer and nurse Judy Estenson as she announced her challenge for the GOP endorsement in the June primary election.

NDFB leaders said they had lost confidence in Goehring — a former vice president of the organization — because of policy differences and what Executive Vice President Jeffrey Missling called Goehring’s “personal failings,” including politically incorrect comments and actions Goehring acknowledged making toward female staffers in 2012.

But Goehring’s supporters rallied at the GOP state convention in Minot two weeks ago, easily outnumbering Estenson backers in a 624-245 vote for the endorsement to run in what is expected to be a tough race against Democratic-NPL Party candidate Ryan Taylor.

Johannes, of Underwood, N.D., is hopeful the organization can move past what happened in the race.

“We had some differences of issues and some opinions, and I think there were some misunderstandings on both sides of how this whole thing went and stuff, so I hope we can move on,” he says.

Missling says that with 27,000 member-families in the NDFB rolls, “I don’t care what the issue is, somebody’s mad.” The same goes for the group’s 12-member board of directors, who rarely all agree on an issue, he says.

“I can tell you we’ve probably lost a few members over that ag commissioner race, but we’ve also picked up a few new members as a result of that,” he says, adding he thinks people respect “individuals or leaders or organizations that do take a stand on principle.”

North Dakota Farmer’s Union President Mark Watne says with 40,000 family memberships in the state and renewals rolling in every month, it “would really be hard to measure” whether the organization has picked up any Farm Bureau defectors. NDFU does not endorse political candidates, he says.

Hoping to iron it out

The NDFB’s state political action committee (PAC), on the other hand, does endorse candidates.

It supported Goehring in 2010, when he won his first term as agriculture commissioner with 68 percent of the vote. Goehring, a former NDFB vice president and past president of its affiliated company, Nodak Mutual Insurance, might have seemed like the logical choice for the endorsement again this year before the Estenson challenge.

Johannes signaled interest in repairing that relationship.

“I think we’ll get together here at a point and kind of air some of our differences, and I am hopeful that we can come to an understanding that we can move on together. Because he’s been part of our organization, and we have supported him in the past, big time,” he says.

The PAC typically meets after the June primary to endorse candidates for the November election, and the board usually ratifies those endorsements, Missling says.

Missling says it’s been “frustrating” for NDFB staff trying to run the organization, while fielding questions based on rumor or misinformation.

“We do want to try to protect this organization that’s so wonderful from just being drug through the political mud here, and it’s not fun,” he says.

One rumor is that the organization had cut ties with former president Eric Aasmundstad of Devils Lake, who some have suggested orchestrated the endorsement challenge. Organization member and state Rep. Mike Brandenburg, R-Edgeley, in a letter to the editor just before the GOP convention, expressing his disappointment in “the negative, mean-spirited and personal attacks the Judy Estenson campaign and a small group of NDFB insiders led by Eric Aasmundstad” had launched against Goehring.

Missling says there’s no truth to the rumor, noting Aasmunstad has never been an NDFB employee, but rather was a contracted lobbyist during the 2013 legislative session because the organization had lost its previous lobbyist. Aasmundstad, who served as NDFB president from 1999 to 2011, also researched a proposed ballot measure to reform property taxes — a measure the board ultimately voted to scrap in late January.

“There has been no severing of any ties,” Missling says.

Missling also defended how the decision to back Estenson was made. In addition to the 12-member board and the PAC voting unanimously to put forward a challenger to Goehring, leaders broached the idea to presidents from 31 of the 50 county farm bureaus at a meeting in late January in Bismarck, Missling says.

“We went around the room and just said, ‘Here’s what’s going on, what do you think?’ And they all had a chance to chime in, and there wasn’t one person that said, ‘Boy, I wouldn’t do that,’” he says.

Aasmundstad says he wasn’t the “big push” behind Estenson’s run, despite people suggesting so because they’re from the same area.

“I wish I had as much to do with things as everybody thinks I do. My God, they kind of portrayed me as some sort of a Svengali out there that’s manipulating everything, when no,” he says.

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