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Zaleski: ND Republicans confront stupid, insulting stunt

North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger always expects a re-election challenge. The Democratic-NPL party endorses a hapless candidate. Jaeger wins, usually in a landslide.

This year, a Republican challenger is trying to wrest the endorsement and nomination from the incumbent when the party meets in convention this week in Grand Forks. Got that? A Republican wants to knock off the most successful (at the polls) and competent (in his job) Republican office holder in the state. The secretary of state's slot is not an open seat. It is held by a tested public servant who has dispatched every Democratic hopeful since 1992. His service to state and party has been exemplary.

Therefore, the move to dump the secretary by Mandan businessman Will Gardner is stupid and insulting. Gardner, a former District 34 chairman, has rolled out misrepresentations that sound like boilerplate from the Democratic candidate, Fargo Realtor and legislator Joshua Boschee. Gardner's campaign could be the creation of a Democratic mouthpiece, not a Republican candidate.

Jaeger is credentialed for another term. He's the most focused and hardest-working secretary of state in North Dakota history. Within the strictures of the Legislature's stingy budgets, he has modernized the office as quickly as possible, even catching up with his responsibilities when he and his staff (and everyone else in the state) were overwhelmed by an unprecedented workload during the Bakken oil boom.

Gardner, who fancies himself a tech expert, has dismissed progress made by Jaeger in employing the latest IT equipment for processing business-related documents. Lawmakers funded the upgrades unevenly over several biennia, but the system will be operational this summer. It takes time and a heap of public money to do it right.

Jaeger's work on elections is recognized as among the best in the nation. His productive collaborations with county election officials are legendary.

Despite a politically motivated lawsuit regarding voter ID, North Dakota has one of the best records for ease of voting access and lack of voter fraud. Gardner said he would meet with North Dakotans who brought the lawsuit against Jaeger in order to settle the matter. He apparently is unaware that an out-of-state interest group that specializes in such actions against states is behind the North Dakota lawsuit, and that bunch won't talk to anyone.

Finally, Gardner's ageism ploy, a noxious weed seed if there ever was one. He talks about "changing times" and "new energy," conveniently ignoring Jaeger's history of readily adapting to change. New energy? I defy Gardner to keep up with Jaeger, 74, who puts in long days, travels the state in pursuit of improving elections, and touts North Dakota's story at national forums.

Gardner's campaign is offensive. It can't be the GOP's much-ballyhooed "big tent" if there is no room for a reliable, honorable incumbent. Gardner's version is a small tent where public service, party loyalty, ballot success and tempered experience don't count.

Gardner, a callow 41-year-old, has a lot to learn about decency and respect. So, be kind, convention delegates. Gently but firmly, send him back to Mandan for some soul-searching.

Zaleski retired in 2017 after nearly 30 years as The Forum’s editorial page editor. He continues to write a Sunday column. Contact him at jzaleski@forumcomm.com or (701) 241-5521.

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