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Mike Nowatzki and Kyle Potter, Forum News Service, Published February 04 2014

ND Farm Bureau says it's 'lost confidence' in ag commissioner, backs challenger Estenson

BISMARCK – The North Dakota Farm Bureau is supporting a challenger for the Republican endorsement for state agriculture commissioner, saying Tuesday it has lost confidence in incumbent Commissioner Doug Goehring – one day after Goehring emailed supporters defending his record and explaining a “politically incorrect” statement he made to his staff.

Judy Estenson announced her candidacy at news conferences in Bismarck and Fargo, and a Farm Bureau official was on hand to distribute a statement explaining why it is supporting her over Goehring, a Farm Bureau member and former vice president of the organization.

Estenson will run as a Republican, setting up an intraparty challenge in the 2014 election as well as Goehring’s fight with an organization that backed his campaign in 2010.

Goehring said in an interview Tuesday that while people have a right to challenge him for the endorsement, “it’s unfortunate that it’s being done … with innuendo and misrepresentation of the facts, untruths and character assassination.”

“It does hurt that there’s a faction in Farm Bureau that I thought were my friends that did this,” he said.

Public records show North Dakota Farm Bureau President Doyle Johannes requested state files involving sexual harassment claims and hostile workplace environment claims against Goehring.

Public records of the investigation show Goehring reportedly introduced one new female employee as a “babe in the woods” and referred to a group of women – some of them employees – as a “harem.” Both incidents happened in the summer of 2012.

In a letter emailed to supporters Monday, Goehring explained that he “spoke and acted in a politically incorrect manner for today’s modern office” but meant no ill will.

Laurie Sterioti Hammeren, director of the state’s Human Resource Management Services, confirmed Tuesday that her office investigated the matter and took no action. She said she suggested some follow-up training, which he ultimately requested.

Sterioti Hammeren forwarded her report to Risk Management and her boss, state Office of Management and Budget Director Pam Sharp, to share with Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley and the governor’s chief of staff.

Jeff Zent, a spokesman for Gov. Jack Dalrymple, said the governor’s office followed standard procedure and immediately notified Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem’s office of the complaint.

Stenehjem met with Goehring on Sept. 12, 2012, pressing home the seriousness of the situation.

Goehring said Tuesday he apologized to employees and that those issues have been addressed through sensitivity training.

Goehring’s letter to supporters tried to head off Farm Bureau’s attacks, including a claim that he has “betrayed the public trust in his management and personal choices.”

Different policy views

During campaign kickoff events in Fargo and Bismarck Tuesday, Estenson cast herself as a fresh face to government with an experienced hand in North Dakota agriculture.

Estenson lives in Warwick, where she and her husband farm and ranch and where the pair raised five children, one of whom she said works for the Farm Bureau. Estenson has also worked as a registered nurse at Mercy Hospital in Devils Lake for 30-plus years.

“I’m tired of the government growing in size and regulatory authority,” she said in Fargo

Estenson said she holds some different policy views from Goehring, most notably on animal cruelty legislation passed by last year’s Legislature.

“I think my policy will always be to look seriously at how we can protect the ag business and keep government at bay if it’s in the best interest for the farmer,” she said.

Farm Bureau Executive Director Jeffrey Missling said the group asked her to run against Goehring, as did neighbors and friends.

Goehring’s “personal failings,” as Missling called the complaints against the commissioner, were just the latest example that he said highlights the need for a new agricultural commissioner.

“There have been a plethora of issues that have come forward where our members have felt they would be better served by another candidate,” he said.

The Farm Bureau accused Goehring of refusing to confront the Humane Society, which funded a failed initiated animal abuse measure in 2012. Missling said Goehring should have taken more of a “hard line” against the Humane Society.

Goehring said he was prohibited by law from campaigning for or against the measure.

Chad Oban, executive director of the Democratic-NPL Party, said even before Tuesday’s developments, the party felt confident in its chances of taking back the agriculture commissioner’s office.

Given Goehring’s history with the North Dakota Farm Bureau, “To lose their support really makes you wonder, you know, where’s his support at within the party?” Oban said.

Estenson said she will seek the party’s endorsement, after which she will decide whether or not to run in a primary.