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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published December 24 2011

Eriksmoen: Tri-partisan lawmaker behind ‘direct legislation’

The man most responsible for “direct legislation,” giving law-making powers to all the voters in North Dakota also holds the distinction of being elected to the state legislature on three different occasions as a candidate of three different political parties. Lars A. Ueland, an Edgeley farmer, is called “the father of the North Dakota initiative and referendum.” He first introduced these measures to the legislature in 1893. His bills failed, but he was persistent in having them brought up in each session until they finally passed the legislature and were ratified by the voters in 1914. Ueland was elected to the legislature in 1889 as a Republican, in 1892 as a Populist, and in 1906 as a Democrat.

Lars Andreas Ueland was born in 1855 on a farm in Vernon County, Wis., in the southwestern part of the state. He attended Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, graduating in 1871 with a bachelor’s degree. He “spent 10 years in Webster County, Iowa, most of which time he engaged in farming.” In 1887, Ueland took his wife and five children to his new homestead, five miles west of Edgeley in LaMoure County.

Ueland strongly believed in community relations, education, and cultural enrichment. Soon after arriving in Pomona View Township in LaMoure County, he organized what he called “The Lyceum” at a nearby country school. Periodically, neighbors would gather to read poems, play music, put on skits, or deliver special reports. On occasion, a guest speaker would be brought in to give a talk about a pressing issue.

Ueland’s greatest interest was agriculture. He was constantly looking for ways to improve the productivity on his own land as well as measures that would help other farmers in the area. Ueland became an active member of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association and developed close ties with Clare B. Waldron, a horticulturist with the North Dakota Agricultural College (now NDSU) in Fargo. According to NDSU historian David Danbom, “much of Waldron’s attention was devoted to testing crop varieties and experimenting with cultural methods.” In Ueland, Waldron found a participant who would eagerly put his test results to practice on a larger scale.

In 1889, North Dakota became a state, and Ueland was encouraged to run for the house seat representing LaMoure County. Running as a Republican, he was easily elected. The first session was a real eye-opener for Ueland. He realized that the McKenzie machine called all of the shots and that many of the laws they passed were not in the best interest of the farmers. One issue where Ueland drew a line involved the Louisiana Lottery, a device strongly pushed by McKenzie supporters. Ueland vigorously opposed it, going against most of his fellow Republicans in the legislature. He knew he had an uphill battle after it passed the senate by a two-thirds majority. Just as it was to come up in the house, it was revealed by Pinkerton detectives that bribes had been paid to legislators and a vote never occurred in the house. Ueland also introduced legislation to establish an irrigation experiment station at Edgeley so that new crops and methods could be tested. “The bill failed because lottery supporters resented his opposition to the lottery bill.”

Ueland had been an active member of the Farmers’ Alliance, an agrarian movement that fought the abuses of the banks, railroads, and other big-city interests waged against rural America. It sought to unite farmers in an effort to establish a free market. “After his first term of office, Ueland severed his ties with the Republican Party.” In 1890, he won election as the chairman of the central committee of the newly formed Independent-Populist Party of LaMoure County and ran for re-election as a Populist, but was defeated by George K. Loring.

As he began to gear up for the 1892 election, Ueland, in February, started writing an editorial column in the Edgeley Mail titled “Alliance Department.” In July 1892, he attended the National Populist Party Convention in Omaha, Nebraska. At the convention, Ueland was “introduced to the idea of direct legislation – the initiative and the referendum.” In North Dakota, the discontent of farmers increased, and at the state conventions, both the Populists and Democrats endorsed most of the same candidates. The Independent-Populists were elected to every state office, except secretary of state, and the Republicans eked-out a slight majority in the house, taking only 33 of the 62 seats. Ueland was elected back to the house as a Populist.

In the 1893 session, Ueland introduced the initiative and referendum in House Bills 142 and 148. The initiative was based on receiving signed petitions representing 10 percent of the qualified voters and the referendum on 5 percent of the qualified voters. Ueland’s bills caught the attention of Clement Lounsberry, editor of the Bismarck Tribune, who wrote that, “men like Ueland would revolutionize legislation.” However, “Ueland’s bills were lost in a legislative session dominated by debates over the selection of a U.S. Senator, women’s suffrage, and the resubmission of the prohibition clause to the North Dakota Constitution.” Although the bills were not passed, Ueland resolved that they would be reintroduced at the next session.

Ueland was not able to introduce the bills himself because he was persuaded by the Democratic Party to run for the office of lieutenant governor. In the election, he was soundly defeated by Republican John H. Worst. Ueland had a friend in the house who introduced the measures of the initiative and referendum in the 1895 session. The bills were referred to a subcommittee and then indefinitely postponed. In the 1896 election, Ueland was defeated in his attempt to regain his old house seat by Kulm banker James B. Sharpe, the incumbent. Once again Ueland needed to rely on a former house colleague to get his bills introduced. The task became more difficult because the Women’s Christian Temperance Union came out against the bills, fearing that efforts would be made to reintroduce liquor into the state. Again, Ueland’s bills died in a subcommittee.

(Next week we will conclude our article about Ueland and his fight to give North Dakota voters the initiative and referendum. We will also look at his work with NDSU in improving crop varieties and farming techniques in North Dakota.)

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at: cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.