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Published October 28 2012

North Dakota PSC race goes high-profile

FARGO – With allegations of corruption from one side and charges of environmental extremism from the other, the race for North Dakota’s open Public Service Commission seat has taken on an energy and a contentious tone typically reserved for contests for the state’s higher-profile offices.

Democrat Brad Crabtree, a longtime energy policy specialist, is squaring off against Republican Randy Christmann, a Hazen state senator, for an open seat vacated by the appointment of former commissioner Tony Clark earlier this year to a national energy post.

The PSC regulates a host of things ranging from utility rates to coal plants to weights and measures.

Crabtree, who also ran and lost to current commissioner Kevin Cramer in 2010, has sought to frame the race as a referendum on what he calls corrupt campaign finance practices by Christmann and the two sitting Republican commissioners.

Crabtree says taking campaign money from political action committees and executives of companies the PSC regulates is tantamount to bribery.

Cramer, current commissioner Brian Falk and Christmann all have taken such money. At times, Crabtree’s accusations toward the sitting commissioners, who are not in the race, have been more pointed than those leveled at Christmann.

Crabtree has pledged not to accept such money during the race, and challenged Christmann to do the same, saying the PSC can’t operate fairly if its members depend on money from the interests they’re supposed to regulate.

Christmann, who has taken about $13,000 from regulated interests in the campaign, and also is a paid board member of a regulated company, declined to do so. He, Cramer and Kalk all say the money doesn’t influence their decision-making.

Cramer, in particular, has staunchly defended the contributions, saying the idea that regulated individuals and companies can participate fully in the elections of those who regulate them is central to democracy.

The issue has spilled over into Cramer’s U.S. House race with Pam Gulleson, coming up on occasion in his debates with her.

Christmann says Crabtree’s philosophy would shut out certain industries while leaving the door open for pro-Crabtree environmental interests to finance the race.

Crabtree says those interests aren’t among his backers.

Christmann has also sought to paint Crabtree as a radical environmentalist, pointing to support for policies such as cap-and-trade carbon regulation, energy efficiency mandates and public financing for renewable energy projects,

He has pointed in particular to the time Crabtree spent living in a straw bale house a decade ago off the electrical grid as a worrisome sign, suggesting Crabtree wants to tell others how to live according to his own philosophy.

The race has been heated enough to attract advertising spending from third-party groups attacking the candidates, a rarity for a contest that’s typically one of the last listed on the ballot and far from the center of voters’ minds.

Crabtree has said internal polling shows the race is close, though neither side has released polling numbers and no independent polls of the race have been conducted.

Also running for the Public Service Commission seat is Libertarian candidate Joshua Voytek of Fargo.

Voytek, who ran for the post in 2010, says his political affiliation puts him in a unique position to bring balance to the PSC.

Public Service Commissioners serve six-year terms and are paid $95,611 per years.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502

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