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Jack Zaleski, Published January 12 2013

Zaleski: It’s true in ND, too: All politics is local

A friend who admits to being a Democrat (pretty gutsy in North Dakota these days) was opining about the huge political imbalance in the Legislature. She’s right.

As it’s been for the past several sessions, the Democratic caucuses in the House and Senate could meet comfortably in a cloakroom or a walk-in closet. Republicans have an overwhelming majority, which means, of course, they control the agenda and the ultimate shape of legislation.

That’s not to say Democrats have no voice. Several Democratic legislators, new and veteran, can defend their positions on major public policy matters very well, even when they know they won’t have the votes to accomplish much. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for insightful Democratic initiatives – and there are many – to be appropriated by Republicans and sold as Republican ideas. Happens all the time; drives Democrats to distraction.

Among Democrats in the Legislature, two emerge as among the more thoughtful voices, Democratic or Republican. Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider of Grand Forks has to be seen as an up-and-coming potential star in the party. He’s young, articulate and comes from a family that understands the calling of public service. Not a bomb-thrower, Schneider has both the debating and negotiating skills to advance at least portions of his party’s agenda, even as Republicans drive their bulldozer-like majority.

Also in the Senate, veteran Sen. Tim Mathern of Fargo continues to be a passionate champion of programs and policies that will benefit people and can enhance the lives of families. One of the longest-serving legislators – elected in 1987 – he brings to his public life depth and perception that can only be gained from understanding the state’s political, economic and social history. Few members of either house or either party can match that quality in Mathern’s resume.

Having been in the minority most of his time in the Legislature, Mathern has never wavered in challenging majority orthodoxy, and occasionally has won the day, even if Republicans sometimes took credit for his visionary proposals.

Democrats like my friend might decry the majority’s unassailable clout, but they forget a couple of things. First, the Legislature is as good a reflection of the state’s voters as we can get. The voters elect Republican lawmakers. It is that simple.

Second, as an old pol once said, “all politics is local.” North Dakota Democrats have failed time and again to put on the ballot legislative candidates who can win in local districts. The result of that failure over the 40-plus years I’ve been covering the Legislature is a cloakroom/closet Democratic Caucus.

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at jzaleski@forumcomm.com or 701-241-5521.