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Mike Jacobs: Remembering Gov. Chicken Little

Like everybody else who watched North Dakota politics in the '80s, I spent the weekend remembering Bud Sinner. Sinner was elected governor in 1984; he served until 1992. He died Friday, a couple of months short of his 90th birthday.

Much of what I remember about Bud Sinner makes me smile, including the sound of his name, which was George, even though everybody called him Bud.

Sinner was a funny guy. His jokes made me laugh. Jim Fuglie, who was state tourism director in Sinner's administration, printed a collection of them on The Prairie Blog, which you can find at Area Voices on Forum Company websites. Fuglie says the jokes were bad; the governor thought they were risqué.

This is important to understanding Sinner, because his jokes went right up to the line, but they didn't cross it. Bud Sinner was a man who respected limits. That stems from his Catholic education. Sinner was a Johnny, a student at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., a Benedictine school. You don't need to be a Catholic to know what that means. Benedictines take life seriously, including the spiritual part. One of the important points of Catholic theology is that human beings are free agents, but that good humans know that there are limits.

That's the philosophy that Sinner exemplified.

To me the best example involves his election as governor. Sinner ran against Allen Olson, the incumbent; the campaign was tough and the result was uncertain. I was about four months into my job as editor of the Herald when I got a tip that Olson hadn't paid his state income taxes, and that the state tax commissioner would verify that if I asked. The fact that a candidate — the incumbent governor, no less — had not paid taxes seemed like news. We printed the story before the election.

The Legislature later closed the loophole that allowed the tax commissioner to answer the question. Sinner signed the bill, even though the revelation might have had an impact on the election. Sinner didn't think so. He figured that an advertising blitz in the state's weekly newspapers made the difference, a fact that Fuglie reports in his blog. That might be true — but in either case, news or advertising, the story points out the power of the press.

Olson was the last North Dakota governor defeated for re-election. He took the loss in good grace; in our many encounters since the loss, he's never asked me about the tip, and I've never told.

The story illustrates Sinner's character, too. The leak was unfair, he thought, and he didn't want other candidates caught by it, so he set limits.

Here's another example. Sinner vetoed a bill that would have given North Dakota the strictest anti-abortion laws in the nation. This troubled his Catholic conscience, as described in his memoir "Turning Points." It came down to limits.

In his veto message, he wrote, "Government must not overstep its limits. It must not play God."

Sinner's notion about limits had other consequences. He brokered a compromise insisting on "no-net loss" of wetlands to water development, clearing the way for several projects while protecting wildlife habitat. He also reset policies at the state-owned Bank of North Dakota and helped to make it a powerhouse in the state's economy.

The '80s were not good to North Dakota. Oil prices collapsed, leaving the state broke. Drought struck hard and many farms failed. Young people left. Sinner fretted about all of this, so much so that journalists began calling him Gov. Chicken Little. He didn't actually say that the sky is falling. Instead he talked frequently about "the frightening rise of Devils Lake."

Pessimism encourages setting limits; it fits with the world view.

Today's politicians forced deep cuts in government programs, especially higher education, refusing to consider any tax increases and leaving the state's billion-dollar reserve funds intact. In his day, Sinner asked North Dakotans to pay more. Voters rejected tax increases in a special election near the end of his term in office. A struggle erupted in his party, including a divisive primary fight.

Republicans regained the governorship, launching the longest period of one-party control of the governor's office in North Dakota history.

North Dakota Democrats open their state convention in Grand Forks this week. Their ticket will be led by an incumbent U.S. senator; the party has a contest among candidates for the U.S. House, and several individuals have expressed interest in statewide offices. Today's Democrats would do well to remember Sinner's legacy. In politics you can't have everything. You've got to set some limits.

Sinner's funeral, a Catholic Mass, will be Friday in Fargo.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald. His email is