Barnstorming the Midwest: Grand Forks

In a few ways, North Dakota confirmed a lot of the cultural characteristics of the Midwest I’d long come to expect. In a few other ways, it was an entirely new world for me.

I had never visited the Peace Garden State. For one, there’s…not a lot there for someone like me, unless a baseball tournament would have drawn me up to Fargo as a kid. South Dakota’s got the monuments, and my dad hails from southern Minnesota, so it figures more prominently in my imagination. For two, I never really wanted to go. The drive from the Twin Cities to Fargo is long, it’s flat, and…well, it’s boring, unless you have Alexandria or Detroit Lakes as your final destination.

A third reason, though, should not only be enough to draw me to North Dakota, but to commit a lot of my energies to the political culture of the state: It has a ton of history with political liberalism and radicalism. For the amazing story of the Nonpartisan League, the populist, often-collectivist movement which transformed the political and economic history of North Dakota, see Augsburg professor Michael Lansing’s Insurgent Democracy: The Nonpartisan League in North American Politics. Lansing contends that rather than forming a third party, the NPL fundamentally transformed North Dakota politics by “transcend[ing] regional, ethnic, and economic interests to vote as a bloc,” which promoted “a program of government competition that set up state-owned enterprises to challenge private corporations in various sectors.”[1]

That difference from the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party–refusing to form a third party, instead trying to set up a controlling faction within the North Dakota Republican (and eventually Democratic) Party–is one worth exploring in my writing more in the future. To keep it short, though, in 1956 the Nonpartisan League voted to officially merge with the Democratic Party of North Dakota after the “Capitol” or “Old” Guard pushed the North Dakota GOP in a markedly anti-union, conservative direction.

This was a moment of great personal anguish and opportunity for my primary subject, by 1988 the last real holdover of the Nonpartisan League: Quentin Burdick. Burdick’s father, Usher, served as a Progressive (NPL) Republican representing North Dakota in the House of Representatives from 1934 to 1944, then failing to unseat incumbent Senator Gerald Nye that year, and finally re-assuming his House seat from 1946 to 1958, when he retired. Quentin had broken from the GOP in 1948, supporting the Progressive candidancy of Henry Wallace for President, and spent the next eight years helping to organize the merger of the Democratic Party with the NPL. When, in 1958, his retiring father was denied the opportunity to address the Republican Party’s state convention after announcing his retirement, he threw his weight behind Quentin’s candidacy as an NPLer running on the Democratic slate for the U.S. House of Representatives. Quentin won. When U.S. Senator and secession enthusiast William (“Wild Bill”) Langer died in office in 1959, Burdick won the special election to Langer’s seat, occupying it until his death in office in September 1992.[2]

Burdick’s reputation as the “Quiet Warrior” came from his ability to roll up obscene amounts of pork-barrel spending in the Senate, bestowing on his home state the largesse of the federal government and endearing himself to voters. North Dakota voters appreciated it: Burdick, along with down-ballot D-NPLers, had a firm grip on statewide offices from 1960 through 1980 (though Republican Milton Young was the senior Senator from 1945 to 1981), even as the state voted Republican for President and Republicans controlled the state legislature. My concern was with Burdick, the D-NPL, and North Dakotan liberalism after the Reagan Revolution. In 1980 North Dakotans swept Republican Allen Olson into the governorship over incumbent Arthur A. Link, and Mark Andrews waxed oil broker Kent Johanneson, though State Tax Commissioner Byron Dorgan began his march toward the Senate, capturing Andrews’ House seat easily.

Liberalism, though, was not an easy concept to nail down in North Dakota. While electing huge numbers of D-NPLers, supposedly direct descendants of the NPL tradition, North Dakotans overwhelmingly identified as conservative in national polling.

The Research


Quentin Burdick Papers (90%)
North Dakota Elections Collection (5%)
New Non-Partisan League (1%)
Prairie Fire Magazine (4%)


Burdick had mighty long coattails. This was pretty simple: when Burdick ran, D-NPL candidates all over the ballot did better. It was true in 1982, and even the staunchly conservative Minot Daily admitted that it would be true again in 1988 if Burdick, not Dorgan, ran.[3]

Those tails didn’t stop when the pocketbook openedThe D-NPL was obviously a minority party in North Dakota, even throughout Burdick’s tenure as Senator. Burdick, however, enabled the state- and local-level D-NPLers to keep their heads above water financially by bankrolling almost all of the party’s polling. The chief focus of the boxes and boxes of polls was always Burdick’s Senate race, but there were also lengthy sections on North Dakota’s political climate. All signs pointed to the D-NPL having a better finger on the pulse of the electorate. For example, a quote from a January 1982 poll:

“Right now, on the basis of numbers, there is little to choose between Democrats and Republicans in North Dakota, with the latter having perhaps a slight edge. More important, though, conservatives outnumber liberals by about 2 to 1. Therefore, if the Republicans are allowed to define this year’s elections in terms of liberals versus conservatives, Burdick could be in trouble. In this context, even among Democrats, nearly 50% think of themselves as conservatives. Thus, it may be that Senator Burdick should run an accomplishment- rather than issue-oriented campaign. The issues that he does stress should be ones that relate primarily to North Dakota.'”[4]

While he can easily be painted as beholden to special interests and concerned only with keeping himself in office, Burdick was not only a holdover of the state’s progressive past but also a large funding boost. These polls and constant feedback for candidates no doubt kept the party informed, even if they disagreed with Burdick and his staffers’ interpretations and proscriptions to the party.

You can see a lot of similarities between Burdick and Rudy Perpich. Neither man believed in his party’s “It’s ____’s turn to run for office” system. This became an issue in 1986-7, when Byron Dorgan began exploring a run for Burdick’s Senate seat, even if it would require a primary. The sentiment, generally, was that Dorgan had long been a loyal party servant and deserved to move from the House to the Senate. However, Burdick’s campaign used its polling data to challenge that idea:

“Dorgan talks a lot about caring about North Dakota, about being a so-called Prairie Populist and about standing up for the little guy, but when you take a hard look, it’s clear that he’s ineffective and an opportunist and that the only one he really cares about looking after is Byron Dorgan. He started out in the House on the Agriculture Committee. North Dakota has only one Congressman and it’s important in a farm state like ours to be represented on that committee. Dorgan quickly switched from that committee because he thought it would benefit him to be on Ways and Means, which is your tax and appropriations committee…”[5]

We’ll come back to the “Prairie Populist” image sometime soon. But it’s worth noting that Burdick and his handlers were not cynical about populism: it was a real form of service and a true marker of the “agrarian manhood” Lansing identifies in Insurgent Democracy (see, moreover, the 80-year old Burdick shaking the hand of his 1988 Republican opponent Earl Strinden so hard after a patronizing remark that Strinden lost his balance).[6] While Burdick can rightly be criticized for the amounts of pork and PAC money he brought to North Dakota, it is undeniable that it was part and parcel of his vision of himself as a servant to the state. However, the servant felt very strongly about deciding when he would end his service. The Burdick-to-Dorgan/Conrad transition was more carefully managed than similar transitions in Minnesota or Wisconsin (1) because the up-and-comers stayed out of damaging primary challenges, and (2) because there was less factional infighting in the D-NPL.

You can see a lot of similarities between Burdick and Rudy Perpich. Neither man believed in his party’s “It’s ____’s turn to run for office” system. Members of the party were begging Burdick to stand down in 1988 and let Dorgan run for his seat so that the D-NPL could firmly consolidate their control of the Senate. It’s a real possibility that Conrad, who had promised in 1986 to be a one-term Senator if he could not balance the budget, or another D-NPLer may have lost in the Republican landslide of 1994 had Conrad not won Burdick’s Senate seat in the December 1992 special election. The hard lessons of waiting their turns and seeing just how masterfully Burdick courted North Dakota may have been a real eye-opened for the future of the D-NPL, Conrad and Dorgan.

Women ascendant in the D-NPLBoth State Agricultural Commissioner Sarah Vogel and eventual Attorney General and still-U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp began to make names for themselves during this period. Vogel won election to the North Dakota Commissioner of Agriculture in 1988, a post she held for eight years. Heitkamp succeeded Conrad as Tax Commissioner in 1986, holding that post until 1982. In the papers I looked into these women were still (mostly) in the background: everyone in the D-NPL and plugged into North Dakota politics knew they’d be making a big(ger) name for themselves later, but in the late ’80s they were symbols of the party’s vitality.

Some goats still couldn’t be got: Progressive, Nonpartisan-style activism didn’t stop with Burdick. While Burdick was referred to as the “last’ of the Nonpartisan League candidates, others within and on the periphery of the D-NPL hierarchy kept the progressive flame alive. One such example was the Prairie Fire magazine, first published in December 1978 as “A People’s newspaper in the traditions of the NPL Leader,” the former voice of the Nonpartisan League.[7] One of the editors of Prairie Fire, Tracy Potter, actually served as D-NPL Governor George Sinner’s chief of staff during his two terms. While Sinner himself was more moderate, Potter was surely a farther-left, more progressive voice in his year during his time in office. In fact, in April 1980 Prairie Fire decried how “D-NPL leadership hasn’t done much to encourage mass participation since passing their democratic by-laws in 1982. Neither have insurgent movements used the open rules to pack the Conventions since Shirley Chisholm’s and McGovern’s people did so in a few urban districts in 1972…”[8]

Seeing how far these connections extend into North Dakota politics demonstrates not only the liberalism of the Sinner administration, but also how the language used by the Nonpartisan League of the 20s and 30s extended into the politics of the 1980s. In fact, the very shift which Prairie Fire perceived in the D-NPL moving away from prairie populism is one which both D-NPLers and Republicans have used throughout North Dakota’s history. It continues to sustain the idiosyncratic reliance on referendum and illuminates “how rural and urban communities have interacted and continue to interact and how a self-consciously egalitarian people understand the proper uses of politics and political power.”[9] This egalitarianism, found so prominently in North Dakota political history, continues to defeat measures like corporate farming and, more amusingly (and appreciated by this visitor to Grand Forks), parking meters.

One more thing on the NPL tradition, at the risk of running too long: This manifested itself in the 1992 “Progressive Coalition” in D-NPL politics. Political commentator Mike Jacobs noted in his North Dakota political newsletter that “Don Morrison, a Tax Department analyst and former Peace Coalition president, is chairman of the gender balanced steering committee. Other members include Sen. Joe Satrom, D-Bismarck; David Kemnitz, president of the AFL-CIO; and abortion rights activist Carol Cass. Tracy Potter, assistant tourism director and Gov. George Sinner’s transition chairman, attended the press conference. All backed Sen. William Heigaard for governor.”[10] It is worth questioning whether this “Progressive Coalition” was representative of the progressivism D-NPLers were used to, or whether it attempted to pull a tenuously left-center coalition farther to the left. I’ll explore that more in future research. Either way, the actual D-NPL nominee for governor, Attorney General Nick Spaeth, was crushed in the general election by businessman Ed Schafer, in what was surely the last time an untested businessman would run for and win election in North Dakota…

One totally unrelated point I found while fact-checking things: Allen Olson endorsed Minnesota Independence Party candidate Tom Horner for governor in 2010, joining (among others) Minnesota (Independent-)Republicans Dave Durenberger, Al Quie, and Arne Carlson, along with former DFLer Tim Penny. There’s a lesson in here somewhere about the centrism of the past informing modern politics…

The City

Grand Forks (and, across the Red River of the North, East Grand Forks, Minnesota)

The Sorlie Bridge, which connects downtown Grand Forks with East Grand Forks.

is a city built originally around a river and railyard which has sprawled out to include over 50,000 people in a suburban arc radiating west through the University of North Dakota campus to I-29.

The Red River, though, is the defining feature of life in Grand Forks.

The south-to-north-flowing river has flooded the city on a number of occasions, the worst of which are commemorated on a large obelisk in a greenway on the Grand Forks side of the river. That Great Grand Forks Greenway was part of a flood control project developed after the devastating 1997 flood, which caused billions of dollars in damages. Seeing the notation for the 1997 flood on the side of the obelisk was stunning. I’ve seen pictures of the flooded Sorlie Bridge (which connects Grand Forks and East Grand Forks and which I used), which is dozens of feet above the water during the summer, but standing next to the obelisk and seeing the line so high above my head was incredible.


Opting to save a little money, I camped at the Red River State Recreation Area on the Minnesota side of the river.

This might still have been when I was kicking the poles on my tent, which were not cooperating. Rest assured I did, in fact, sleep in a tent.

While it definitely was a “rustic” campsite (no electricity or water, etc), there’s something lost when you’re nestled just north of a bridge crossing the Red River and have a clear view of docks and trails on the North Dakota side of the river. So…not as quiet as it could’ve been. But the space was well-sheltered even when it rained, a peaceful place to have a fire and enjoy the sunset, and an easy walk/ride/drive to anywhere in Grand Forks I’d need to go.

I was not as diligent about taking pictures of places I visited. I tried out a couple different bars and two coffeehouses (yes, Blue Moose on the East Grand Forks side was one of them), but apparently I didn’t take pictures of them. So I’ll just hit the highlights.

Urban Stampede Coffeehouse

This was a…former bank? There was definitely a vault. There was also a beautiful wood bar stretching the length of the coffeeshop, and the booths had outlets. It was both where I’d have a coffee or iced tea after a long day in the archives and where I’d charge my devices for the next day’s work.

Rhombus Guys Brewery

I don’t think there’s been a brewery that I literally couldn’t access for five minutes while a train rolled by. But that’s Rhombus Guys! Located just south of the main east-west drag through downtown GF, Rhombus Guys is an established player in the North Dakota craft brewing scene.

The Phantom IPA, along with the very cool RGBC logo.

Their brewery, located in a beautiful brick building that was formerly an opera house, had both sit-down dining and a wide-open bar area with shuffleboard and other games.

I started with their Into the Darkness Porter, which was very much on the chocolate side of porter flavor but had a nice bit of bitterness on the finish. Their Genevieve citrus saison was an interesting touch, as the spiciness was overtaken by a really crisp pineapple flavor, while the Doc’s Orders Wheat was an average wheat ale. The real winner, though, was the highly-recommended Phantom IPA, which they had tapped that day. It had a lot of citrus up front and, for 6.7%, was a very light and crisp, easy-drinking beer. Definitely one I hope to have again soon.

What’s Next?

As you can tell, I’m incredibly behind on posting anything here. Currently I’m in Atlanta, doing research in the Jimmy Carter Papers. Between then and now I took a weekend trip to Winnipeg (just because I could), then personal commitments and some silly funding issues meant I had to postpone a trip to Bismarck. Instead, I went to River Falls, Wisconsin, for a couple days before heading back to the Iron Range to do some more work into the Rudy Perpich Papers. We’ll work on getting those up this week (since Hurricane Irma unfortunately set me back two days of research as the MARTA was shut down, then the archives were closed for a random Tuesday of processing or something).

Past Trips

Iowa City
St. Paul, St. Cloud
Iron Range, Lake Vermilion Edition

[1] Michael Lansing, Insurgent Democracy: The Nonpartisan League in North American Politics (Chciago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 2.

[2] Dan Rylance, Quentin Burdick: The Quiet Warrior (Fargo: North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, North Dakota State University, 2007), 3-5.

[3] Jim Neumann, “Reasons for N.D. Dem gains disputed,” Fargo Forum, November 5, 1982; “North Dakota D-NPL Voter Contact Program,” vol. 2, Box 659, Quentin Burdick Papers, Orin G. Libby Manuscript Collection, Chester Fritz Library, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, ND; Dick Dobson, “Burdick’s coattails can take day,” Minot Daily, August 30, 1987, C8.

[4] Tubby Harrison to David Strauss, “1982 North Dakota Senate Campaign – Poll #1,” January 14, 1982, p. iv. Quentin Burdick Papers, Box 658.

[5] The Communications Company to David Strauss, “Focus Group Transcript,” May 1, 1987, p. 23. Burdick Papers, Box 658.

[6] Lansing, 32.

[7] Prairie Fire, Issue 1, December 31, 1978. The issue also includes a headline which proclaims “New movements sweep across Dakotas,” virtually the same verbage which characterizes other progressive publications like the Minnesota Leader. Prairie Fire, OGLMC 967, Orin G. Libby Manuscript Collection, Chester Fritz Library, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, ND.

[8] Prairie Fire, Issue 4, April 14, 1980.

[9] Mark Stephen Jendrysik and Dana Michael Harsell, “Egalitarian Populism on the High Plains. Or, Why Are There No Parking Meters in North Dakota?” The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 46, No. 2, 2013, 394-410. Quote from p. 395.

[10] Mike Jacobs, “Enter the Progressive Coalition,” The North Dakota Intelligencer: An inside report on people, politics, and power, Vol. 1, No. 9, July 27, 1992, p. 3, in “1992 Election,” Box 1, North Dakota Elections Collection, OGLMC 445.

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