BISMARCK – Between the $100,000 contributions from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and eBay director Robert Kagle, a key sector of North Dakota’s economy is noticeably absent from Fargo businessman Doug Burgum’s campaign finance statements.
Disclosures filed last week show no discernable contributions to Burgum from the state’s energy sector, led by its robust oil and coal industries, since he jumped into the governor’s race in mid-January.
Meanwhile, statements filed by Burgum’s main rival for the Republican nomination in the June 14 primary, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, show his campaign collected at least $50,000 from oil companies’ political action committees, oil executives and others with strong ties to the industry.
Coal PACs and power companies with coal interests also gave at least $97,000 to Stenehjem’s campaign since it began accepting contributions in October, disclosures show.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Burgum said he has met with and is actively seeking support from officials in the oil and coal industries, “but I’m not necessarily seeking their donations, because fundraising hasn’t been a priority for me.”
Stenehjem dismissed that explanation.
“It’s not as if he hasn’t asked (for money), because I know for a fact he has been,” he said. “They aren’t willing to give him any.”
Among the oil industry contributions to Stenehjem was $5,000 in December from ND Oil PAC, the campaign finance arm of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, which advocates for more than 575 member companies.
Petroleum Council President Ron Ness said Stenehjem has been “a strong supporter for a long time and great on these federal issues,” but he added the organization historically has stayed out of primary races.
“We all understand how this thing is kind of shaking out. We’ve got some people on both sides,” he said, adding, “You’ve got to remember that Doug wasn’t really out soliciting contributions, either. I think that makes a difference.”
Given the amount of money being thrown at the governor’s race – Stenehjem has reported more than $780,000 in contributions and Burgum nearly $985,000, not counting his own money spent on an extensive advertising and mailer campaign – Ness said $50,000 from the industry “is kind of a ‘sit back and see what happens.’ ”
Both candidates have campaigned on the need to diversity the state’s economy. Ness said Burgum — who chose Brent Sanford, mayor of oil hub Watford City, as his running mate — has given the industry no reason to believe he’d be unfriendly to oil and gas.
“His comments to us have been very positive and very supportive,” he said.
As for Stenehjem’s contributions, Burgum said he believes a conflict of interest exists when candidates accept donations from those they regulate – especially when Stenehjem will continue to sit on the state Industrial Commission whether he wins or loses, because the elections for governor and attorney general are staggered by two years. Stenehjem serves with the governor and state agriculture commissioner on the three-member commission, which oversees the state’s Oil and Gas Division and also controls its oil and gas and lignite coal research programs.
“If you’re a member of the NDIC and you’re asking for someone’s support and you regulate that industry and they know you’re going to continue to regulate them, think about the power dynamic,” Burgum said.
Stenehjem said he doesn’t see a conflict of interest in accepting contributions from oil and coal interests, saying, “It’s all a matter of doing a job.” He said the industries have backed him for years because they appreciate his efforts as attorney general to fight federal overreach, including the state’s lawsuit against the Clean Power Plan, which he called “a job killer” for coal country.
“What they want really is regulatory predictability, and they know I’ve been supportive of all of those things for years, and they know who they’re getting,” he said.
The largest contribution on Stenehjem’s pre-primary report was $20,000 from the Bismarck-based Lignite Energy Council’s political action committee, which also gave his campaign $5,000 last year.
Lignite Energy Council spokesman Steve Van Dyke said the CoalPAC, which disperses contributions on behalf of member coal mining and utility companies and 300 contractors and suppliers, decided to support Stenehjem “because of the leadership he’s shown the industry,” including the lawsuit with 26 other states that resulted in a stay on the Clean Power Plan’s implementation.
“The attorney general has proven to be a trusted leader in protecting our state’s sovereignty against federal overreach, and some of that overreach has been in our industry,” Van Dyke said Wednesday.
Reach Nowatzki at (701) 255-5607 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.