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Lloyd Omdahl, Published February 16 2009

Courage shows up at Capitol

If a new “Profiles in Courage” were going to be written featuring courageous folks in the North Dakota Legislature, the first few chapters would have to acknowledge the bravery of Rep. Ed Gruchalla, D-Fargo, Rep. Joyce Kingsbury, R-Grafton, Sen. Art Behm, D-Niagara and Rep. Lawrence Klemin, R-Bismarck. All of them walked out on the thin ice this session by sponsoring legislation that flew in the face of the state’s political culture.

One of the primary characteristics of the North Dakota political culture is individualism – individualism raised to the level of a non-negotiable religious principle. Translated into ordinary language, it means that you’d better not mess with my independence for any reason because that will put you on the fighting side of me.

Gruchalla, a former highway patrol trooper who has seen his share of blood on the highway, introduced legislation to tighten everybody’s seat belt. In defense of his encroachment on North Dakota libertarianism, he pointed out that three-fourths of the highway fatalities could be avoided if everyone would buckle up.

But his argument fell on deaf ears. After all, none of the legislators present had been killed while not wearing seat belts. Opponents argued that adults “don’t need to be told what to eat or whether to wear their seat belts.” Meanwhile, adults who don’t need to be told are getting killed every week.

Kingsbury encroached on North Dakota individualism by proposing that the smoking ban be extended to hotels and bars. In response to her proposal, those who profit from spreading first- and secondhand smoke balked. “The bottom line is freedom,” one claimed. “It’s my tavern.” Maybe Rep. Kingsbury should try a bill requiring smoky hotels and bars to carry a special insurance to pay the medical bills of cancer victims.

Behm introduced a bill that would require motorists to keep their headlights on when driving outside of cities. Apparently, auto manufacturers see the value in continuous headlights since most new models are so equipped. Current law requires headlights in the night hours and in low visibility, both requirements subject to individual judgment that can be flawed. In this case, freedom is driving in the dark.

Then there was Klemin’s bill to outlaw text messaging while driving. It was such a 100 percent common-sense proposal that passage should have been a slam dunk. But, no, compelling logic killed the bill. Drivers already have so many distractions that one more doesn’t hurt, opponents argued. And with straight faces.

Bills that run contrary to North Dakota’s tradition of individualism are roadside bombs. Sponsors invite scorn, threats and vilification. The Patrick Henry call for “liberty or death” trumps all questions of safety and health. It would take a

20-car pileup in the fog caused by texting, unbelted drivers to force a serious legislative hearing. Until then, drivers must remain alert unless, of course, they are chatting on their cell phones.


Omdahl is former N.D. lieutenant governor and retired University of North Dakota political science teacher. E-mail ndmatters@q.com