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Ryan Johnson, Published October 31 2012

Bresciani: NDSU didn’t turn away Heitkamp rally

FARGO – Former President Bill Clinton’s appearance here Monday likely would have drawn a bigger crowd if it had been held at the Bison Sports Arena as organizers initially hoped, a spokesman for Democratic Senate candidate Heidi Heitkamp said Wednesday.

Brandon Lorenz said organizers of the Heitkamp rally headlined by Clinton, announced on Sunday and held on Monday, wanted to use the 5,000-capacity BSA on the North Dakota State University campus.

“We had a couple calls with folks in the president’s office and initially were told that they were not able to host a partisan rally on campus grounds,” he said.

Instead, the rally at the Fargo Civic Center downtown drew a capacity crowd of about 3,500, as well as several hundred more who watched from an overflow room and others who were turned away when the building filled up.

But NDSU President Dean Bresciani said his staff didn’t deny the request to use the BSA.

“We pointed out the potential issues, and they chose to move it, so I have to admit I’ve been surprised and disappointed to have it portrayed as a decision that NDSU made,” he said.

Bresciani said NDSU staff brought up state law about the use of public buildings for political purposes. The Century Code forbids using “any property belonging to or leased by” the state, governmental agencies and political subdivisions for such political events.

He said it’s a conversation the university has had with several candidates this year.

“But when we’ve pointed out that liability to every candidate during this campaign season, they have all chosen, as did the Heitkamp campaign, to take their event to a facility where that wasn’t an issue,” he said.

Bresciani said there is an exception – the Century Code says this law doesn’t prohibit a candidate, political party or organization from using a public building for political events if they follow other laws and lease the space.

Lorenz said the campaign discussed that exception with Bresciani’s staff.

“They expressed continuing concern with using the facility for what they called a partisan rally,” he said. “We obviously feel like this was an innocent mistake on their part.”

Secretary of State Al Jaeger said political rallies like this are often held in public buildings and schools across the state.

“They have that right to lease that space and use it for that just like anyone else might have that same right,” he said.

Bresciani said there were also logistical problems with preparing the BSA for Clinton’s visit on short notice, including the fact that the building already was scheduled for use on Monday. There’s also a “gray area,” he said – the facility has not been rented out since the Fargodome opened in 1992.

But the arena has hosted political events since then, including visits from then-President George W. Bush in 2001 and 2005. Bresciani said those events were different because Bush was speaking as a sitting president, not stumping for a political candidate.

Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards also spoke on the campus during a campaign rally in 2004. But Bresciani said that was an outdoor venue – a dorm courtyard – and not a building, which means it’s not covered by the state law.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587

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