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I drove from my home in New York to Fargo, ND last week to spend a month as a volunteer on Tracy Potter's campaign to take Bryon Dorgan's place in the US Senate. I call North Dakota "The 50th State" because of all Democratic Senate candidates in the country Tracy Potter is, by all accounts but his own, the least likely to win election this year. His best poll showing to date has been 25% -- but only Rasmussen polls out here, so Tracy might be at 28 or 30.

I think of this work as my personal contribution to sustaining Howard Dean’s winning idea of a fifty-state strategy, but there's more to than that, and I hope you will follow me below the fold to learn more about this progressive politician and what makes him worthy of support.

Tracy is a graduate of the University of North Dakota, an historian. He is the CEO/Executive Director of the Fort Lincoln Foundation which operates a historic site and programs in Mandan, ND. (Custer was alive when he left Fort Lincoln.) He is a State Senator who won election in a traditionally republican district in Bismarck. Tracy's great on the campaign trail.

There aren't a lot of progressives in North Dakota, so if a progressive cause needs support, pretty much every one of them gets involved -- and Tracy has been doing so for 40 years. I worked with Tracy as an anti-war activist in the late '60's. In 1972 we worked together in a successful effort to win support in the North Dakota national convention delegation for Shirley Chisholm's quest for the Democratic Presidential nomination. Tracy was much involved as an environmental advocate when the '70's oil crisis created a rush to exploit North Dakota's coal, which is strip mined, and oil, which is hard to get at, so is only pumped when prices are high.

In the mid-late ‘70’s, with State Insurance Commissioner, Byron Knutson, Tracy undertook an aggressive statewide campaign to create a single payer, State-run health care program akin to what was then in place in North Dakota’s neighbor, Saskatchewan. That effort didn't succeed entirely, but it did result in a State-subsidized, state-wide high-risk insurance program that assured that all who wanted insurance could get it, regardless of pre-existing conditions. North Dakota's sole and long-serving Member of the House, Earl Pomeroy, is in a fight for his political life because he voted for the Health Care Reform legislation. North Dakota seems to hate that legislation even though the State has been capping premiums and guaranteeing and subsidizing coverage for high-risk residents for thirty years. The recent, extended fight for health care reform brought Tracy’s early work to mind and it was to honor that work that I decided to give a month of my fall to Tracy.

In his campaign to date, Tracy has taken a strong stand on Net Neutrality, and has called for a change in Social Security taxation to tax ALL wages rather than only those up to $108K, using the change to permit a decrease in everyone's payroll tax rate. Tracy deserves progressive support, so I’m giving it to him.

Tracy's running against current ND Governor, John Hoeven, who enjoys an 84% approval rating, making him the most popular governor in the Country. Many say Hoeven's popularity is what induced Dorgan to retire after never having faced a serious challenge in any of his five previous US House races nor his three Senate races. Hoeven is the longest sitting current governor in the nation, having been elected in 2000. (He first defeated a popular female Attorney General who was diagnosed with breast cancer at the height of the campaign.) He's a handsome man with a bushy mustache and a picture perfect family. While the rest of the country wants to lynch bankers, North Dakotans are about to send one to the United States Senate. Governor Hoeven is an extraordinarily wealthy man (especially as wealth goes in North Dakota). He was a banker before he entered politics and from 1993 to 2000 he headed the state-owned Bank of North Dakota, a political appointment. He also owns a medical supply company which has enjoyed enormous success in sales to ND nursing homes and hospitals since Hoeven became governor -- those administrators who depend on political support aren't likely to look elsewhere when the governor's sales people come calling. Hoeven made $1.9 million personally from this business last year.  

North Dakota has completely escaped the country's economic woes. It has the lowest unemployment rate in the nation, its State Treasury is overflowing with money because of the discovery and exploitation of oil deposits beneath Western North Dakota far greater than had been earlier estimated to be there. It has enjoyed a more than 75% growth in GDP during Governor Hoeven's tenure – thanks to booming oil development having pretty much nothing to do with anything the Governor did or didn't do.

Hoeven and Potter are debating this Thursday afternoon at 3 p.m. CDT.  The debate, sponsored by the North Dakota Broadcasters Association, will be broadcast on several radio and television stations. You can listen to it on-line here:

In this important and confounding election year most states are dealing with budget crises, economic pain and anger against politicians and bankers; North Dakota, it seems to me, is most confounding of all. It appears, on the surface at least, to have no crisis, no economic pain; and it stands ready to elect a banker, overwhelmingly, to represent it in the US Senate. And a Republican at that – surely to serve in the minority, while the ND congressional delegation has been wholly Democratic for almost two decades.  

I say "appears on the surface" because there are, in fact, several major crises in North Dakota right now. There is no housing for the thousands of new oil field workers in the West. Since I arrived here, I've heard of fast food joints renting out booths as sleeping accommodations and tents going up in farmers' shelter belts. (This won't be so great when the winter sets in; it snowed out there last Saturday night.) The wage inflation caused by the oil boom have made finding workers in lower paying fields virtually impossible. The roads and bridges in the western half of the State, indeed all the infrastructure, is hopelessly inadequate to bear the weight and traffic associated with a boom in exploring for and pumping oil. The Red River Valley, on the State’s eastern border has faced recurring spring flood devastation, and preventing the continuation of that trauma will take billions of dollars, many years and major federal involvement via the Corps of Engineers. Like Alaska, North Dakota receives far more in federal dollars than it pays into the federal treasury, yet it seems to resent every dime that goes to Washington.

One might think voters would consider the Governor’s failure to prepare for and manage western oil development. One might think the State would want to continue its strength in the majority in Congress – Dorgan has been tireless and successful in pushing for flood control solutions and contributions from the federal government. One might think that the governor's accumulation of wealth during his tenure would at least raise a question in the minds of voters. But, no, they seem ready to let go their seat in the majority party and send a likable but do-nothing governor off to the Senate to vote as the Republican leadership directs him to vote, no matter what.

The main problem, of course, is that Tracy's campaign is hugely under-resourced. I'm doing what I can about that, organizing fund raising events and calling on potential donors. But it's daunting.

Tracy has an act blue page and a website. Check 'em out, will you? Send a little money his way.  We're all in this together, and we need each other.

Originally posted to Alice Olson on Mon Sep 20, 2010 at 02:15 PM PDT.

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