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Dale Wetzel, Associated Press, Published May 23 2011

In new memoir, former North Dakota Gov. Sinner recalls punching legislator, giving hitchhikers a lift

BISMARCK – When George Sinner served as North Dakota’s governor in the 1980s, not all the secrets he kept were political.

He once punched a state legislator. He rousted a teenage beer party at the governor’s residence. And as governor, Sinner continued a habit of giving rides to strangers he saw along the highway.

“I knew that I would be in trouble if anybody ever found out that I was a governor who picked up hitchhikers,” Sinner writes in his new book, “Turning Points,” which he is rolling out this week with appearances in Casselton and Fargo.

His first book signing is scheduled for 5 p.m. Tuesday at the Governors’ Inn in Casselton. Sinner, who turns 83 this month, grew up near Casselton, where he later ran a farming operation with his brother and brother-in-law.

The wide-ranging memoir, which Sinner wrote with his former press secretary, Bob Jansen, includes a number of personal anecdotes as well as recollections of Sinner’s public career.

It included an unsuccessful run for Congress, stints in the North Dakota Legislature and a term on North Dakota’s Board of Higher Education before Sinner was elected to the first of his two terms as governor in 1984.

He writes of giving $50 to two “decently dressed” male hitchhikers whom Sinner picked up on a trip to Fargo, who told him they were broke and didn’t have a destination in mind.

The incident later got Sinner a scolding from his appointed Highway Patrol commander, Brian Berg, who told Sinner he needed to “use a little sense.”

“My own experience many years earlier taught me that when you need a ride, you learn to hate people who drive on by and look the other way,” he wrote. “I didn’t enjoy that feeling as a hitchhiker, and I didn’t want to be looked at that way.”

Sinner writes of punching a state legislator, former Devils Lake Democratic state Rep. Gordon Berg, when Berg turned up at the governor’s residence while Sinner was still recuperating from a July 1991 heart bypass operation.

At the time, Devils Lake was 30 feet lower than it is today, and residents were worried that a continued decline would cause a massive fish kill. Berg wanted to talk about what the state would do about the problem.

After what seemed like a half-hour, “I was getting more and more irritated,” Sinner wrote. Finally, he said, he grabbed Berg by the shirt, told him to shut up and punched him in the neck.

“I was shocked that I had done it, because I had never hit anybody in my life,” Sinner said.

He discussed the incident with his doctor, who told Sinner that mood swings were common among people who had undergone heart bypass surgery. The punch contributed to Sinner’s decision not to run for a third term in 1992, he said.

Sinner tells of finding a teenage beer party in full swing at the governor’s residence – his youngest son, Eric, was a high school freshman at the time, during the 1988-89 school year – and ordering the young people to leave before the police showed up.

According to the governor’s account, Eric Sinner had invited two friends to the residence, and one of them mentioned to another friend that he was going there to play pool.

A rumor quickly spread that there was a party at the governor’s place, and George Sinner, who had been asleep in the residence’s living quarters shortly before midnight, recalls discovering at least 30 young people and “cases of beer everywhere.”

“The Highway Patrol officers told me afterward that they actually sat in their car and watched those kids come running out of the house,” Sinner wrote. “Eric was completely innocent. I think he appreciated having it over with.”

Sinner, a Democrat, recounts his struggle to take office in early 1985 after the incumbent he defeated, Republican Allen Olson, insisted he was entitled to stay in office five days longer than Sinner thought was proper. At stake was whether Sinner or Olson got to make two appointments to the North Dakota Supreme Court.

Olson, who had taken office Jan. 6, 1980, had argued his four-year term ended Jan. 6, 1984. However, the Supreme Court ruled that Sinner, who contended his term began Jan. 1, 1984, was right.

Sinner writes that he believes the dispute arose because “somebody was trying to fix the court” and that Olson himself knew his argument was futile. “It appeared there was some hellish pressure on him from someplace,” Sinner wrote. He does not elaborate.

Sinner and Olson did not respond to telephone messages left to ask for additional comment. Jansen said the material on the dispute that is included in the memoir is “all that the governor was willing to say” on the subject. Sinner’s legal counsel at the time, Richard Gross, declined comment.

Jansen, who served as Sinner’s press secretary during the governor’s entire eight-year administration, said the book has been in the works since 2005, in part at the instigation of Sinner family members who wanted George Sinner to publish his recollections.

Jansen said he would periodically interview the governor and then organize the material. Sinner and Jansen decided to write the book as a first-person account, and its tone is conversational.

The memoir includes Sinner’s memories of his parents and growing up in rural North Dakota, his studies to become a Roman Catholic priest and his eventual decision not to enter the priesthood, his love of machinery and repairing things, and a great deal of material about his spiritual influences.

“There is much more to the story of his life than his public service,” Jansen said in an interview. “It’s very interesting and inspirational ... just to see how involved he’s been in different ways, in different things, throughout his entire life.”

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