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December 7: When Democrats Last Held the House

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North Dakota has not always been a Republican-controlled state, but you have to look far back to find when Democrats were driving the bus – especially in the state House of Representatives.

In 1964, the last time North Dakota voted for a Democrat for president, Democrats won control of the House for the first time, 65 to 44, lasting two years. It would be nearly 20 years until the party won control again.

Democrats won control of the House in 1982, 55 to 51, for the second and most recent time. Republicans controlled the Senate, 32 to 21. Those divides meant the majority parties needed bipartisan support to pass legislation that required a two-thirds vote.

On this date in 1982, those lawmakers took the oath of office. Republicans attributed the Democrats’ victory in 1982 to a poor farm economy and the strength of U-S Senator Quentin Burdick and Congressman Byron Dorgan. Both easily won reelection. Sixty-four percent of eligible voters turned out.

House Republicans, adjusted to their position as the minority. Leader Earl Strinden said House Republicans “provide options, alternatives and constructive criticism of the proposals and programs” Democrats bring forth.

Republican Governor Allen Olson encouraged a “spirit of cooperation” as the state faced a gloomy economy. He told lawmakers: “You will discover soon enough that all things are not possible. The success of this session will depend on your collective response to that realization.”

House Democrats had little experience running a legislative session and chairing committees. The House Republican leader criticized the Democrats for ending daily floor sessions too early and for not focusing hard enough on House-Senate conference committees, which have the responsibility to resolve differences between bills.

The divided Legislature worked through what was then the longest regular session in North Dakota history, lasting 75 days. It handled 1,408 bills and resolutions, which was also a record.

The unique session saw plenty of partisanship, with votes along party lines and House Republicans withholding votes on legislation that needed a two-thirds majority. Major bills included several tax increases and legislation bringing three junior colleges into the state higher education system.

Republicans won back the House in 1984, and have controlled it since.

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura

Sources:

  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1964, December 16. Page 16: Governor says 1965 session could be most monumental one since first one, 75 years ago
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1965, January 5. Pages 1, 2: 39th Legislature convenes
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1966, November 9. Page 1: GOP grabs Legislature
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1982, November 4. Pages 1, 2: Demos control House
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1982, December 6. Page 3: Control of labor committee debated
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1982, December 7. Page 1: Parties almost set for session, Page 3: Demos adopt committee plan, Page 3: Olson welcomes legislators
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1982, December 11. Pages 1, 3: Legislators of ‘65 reconvene in Bismarck
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1983, April 19. Page 1: Leaders peg hopes on Nething’s offer, Page 1: House Republicans hold wild card in final game
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1983, April 21. Pages 1, 2: Spending, tax deals end longest session, Pages 1, 2: Lawmakers increase N.D. taxes
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1983, April 24. Page 2B: New laws may spark referral drive
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1984, November 7. Page 36: Republicans take control of House
  • Summary of North Dakota Election Statistics, 1980-Present, Statistics & Turnout: vip.sos.nd.gov/pdfs/Portals/statistics-turnout.pdf
  • Journal of the Constitutional Convention for North Dakota, 1889: ndcourts.gov/Media/Default/History/journal-of-the-constitutional-convention.pdf (See page 224)
  • Legislative Council staff. (2021). Bills, resolutions, and legislative days 1961-2021. North Dakota Legislative Council: Bismarck, ND
  • Legislative Council staff. (2021). Legislative sessions - Dates of convening and adjourning since statehood. North Dakota Legislative Council: Bismarck, ND

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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