Saturday, May 18, 2013

The wisdom and courage of a North Dakota Governor


(L-R) March, 2012: North Dakota Governor George A. "Bud" Sinner congratulates his son, George B. Sinner, just after young George was nominated as the Democratic-NPL candidate for the North Dakota Senate from Fargo's District #46. He won the seat in the 2012 November election.
(photograph by Larry Gauper)

I can't tell you how many times I wished someone with the wisdom and courage of George "Bud" Sinner had been in the Governor's chair this year (2013). As North Dakotans, we suffered through the most backward, wasteful and non-productive legislative session I've ever witnessed as a life-long resident of the state.

Sinner served as Governor from 1984 until 1992, one of the most difficult periods in modern North Dakota history. The Northern Plains was experiencing a severe and protracted drought, very low tax revenues, high interest rates, and one of the greatest farm foreclosure crises in the nation's history. To say Governor Sinner faced a plateful of problems in a great understatement.

On top of all that, he faced making a decision on whether or not to veto House Bill 1515, a draconian anti-abortion bill passed by a radically conservative legislature. I had the opportunity to personally visit with the former Governor about this bill during a plane ride about a dozen years ago. Despite all of the other problems he had to deal with, he told me HB 1515 was one of the most challenging and emotion-filled episodes during his time in office. He vetoed the bill.

Governor Sinner recounts his decision, made in a volatile atmosphere similar to what the 2013 legislature put us through, in his autobiography entitled Turning Points: a Memoir, published in 2011 by the Dakota Institute Press of the Lewis & Clark Fort Mandan Foundation. A landmark historical volume on North Dakota government, the book was written in collaboration with Bob Jansen, a newspaperman prior to joining Sinner's campaign staff and, later, he served as the Governor's press secretary from 1985 to 1992. Full of both facts and anecdotes, this history is not dry. It's written in an easy-to-understand narrative style, with observations by the former Governor that come from his heart, as well as from a very vivid memory.

In our conversation at about 20,000 feet, the Governor told me that pressure to sign HB 1515 came from members of his own Roman Catholic Church, including his brother, who was a priest: Father Richard Sinner of Casselton.

Unlike the signing of the 2013 legislature-passed radical abortion bills, Governor Sinner told me he could not sign legislation that would make any doctor a felon, if he or she used their medical judgement to save the life of a pregnant woman; some attorney for the "radical right" could easily question the physician's judgement and take him to court. That's an unfair and dangerous scenario, but you'll find it in the legislation our current Governor, Jack Dalrymple, quickly signed.

In his letter to the then Speaker of the House of Representatives, contained as an appendix in Sinner's book, the Governor wrote (italics and bold face are mine):

"The opinions of thoughtful people, religious and secular, on this issue, differ widely throughout history and in the present day.

"Given that unknown, government's role must clearly be restrained. History is full of accounts of misuse of government power, often for a 'good cause.' On this issue abuse can exist on both sides; some even suggest legally requiring abortions for causes of AIDS and to curtail over-population. Such abuse must be resisted vigorously on both sides. Government must not overstep its bound. It must not play God.

"I am a Catholic and, although throughout history Catholic writings on when life begins vary widely, I agree with the current Catholic judgement that abortion is wrong.

"The issue here is the role of law. Government policy must find a balanced way which respects the freedom of women in this difficult area. This bill does not do so. This is why I vetoed HB 1515."

Wiser words were never spoken or written on the dangers of government involving itself in abortion and a woman's right to choose. This kind of clear thinking, despite tremendous personal and legislative pressure, is the kind of wisdom and courage we need in state government, qualities that are sadly lacking today in those that make up the majority of the North Dakota legislature and currently occupy the Governor's office. North Dakotans need to wake-up. We can do better! We certainly did during the administration of George A. "Bud" Sinner!

Governor Sinner's autobiography is available from Amazon. More information and to order, click on the Amazon link below: