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Doug Burgum vetoed anti-LGBTQ measures while governor. Then he started running for president

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — For most of North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum’s two terms in office, he approached the job like a CEO running a business.

The wealthy former software executive, now on a shortlist to be Donald Trump’s running mate, was laser-focused on priorities like strengthening the state’s economy and cutting taxes. He mostly steered clear of social issues that animated many fellow Republicans, and he sometimes pushed back on them.

In 2020, Burgum criticized an anti-LGBTQ resolution of the state GOP as “hurtful and divisive rhetoric.” He vetoed a 2021 measure to ban transgender girls from playing on girls’ teams in public schools, saying it “would unnecessarily inject the state into a local issue by creating a ban with myriad unforeseen consequences.” In 2023, Burgum vetoed a bill he said would make teachers into “pronoun police.”

But as Burgum prepared a bid for the presidency that spring, he also signed a sheaf of bills that imposed restrictions on transgender people — including two that were nearly identical to the sports ban he vetoed in 2021. Another bill banned gender-affirming medical treatments for kids, and he signed a measure that had provisions nearly identical to parts of the pronoun bill he had vetoed earlier in 2023. Burgum also signed a book ban bill, though he did veto a second, further-reaching one. Opponents decried both bills for targeting LGBTQ themes.

While conservatives cheered, others close to Burgum — who applaud what they call his independent streak and inclusivity as a leader — said the 2023 bill signings were disappointing and marked a shift as the governor entered the national stage. Some saw Burgum’s willingness to support the measures as an attempt to gain traction among Republicans as he eyed a presidential campaign, or as a response to action in other GOP-led states.

State Rep. Emily O’Brien, a moderate Republican who opposed the bills but supported Burgum’s presidential bid, said it was shocking Burgum signed them because of his business mentality of “trying to move the needle” and improve government, not drive social issues.

“Social issues aren’t helping move the needle — economic development, quality of life … in his words, ‘treating the taxpayers like customers,’” she said. “I think it’s, you know, that business-model mentality of ‘No matter who comes through the door, you treat them with respect.’”

Burgum, through a spokesman, declined an interview request for this story. He told The Bismarck Tribune after the 2023 session — Burgum’s last regular legislative session as governor — that with Republicans holding enough seats in the state Legislature to override his vetoes, he had to “pick his spots.” He also bemoaned the time and energy spent on social issues as “a missed opportunity.”

“I talk to real people, creating real jobs, building real companies and hiring people, and some of the things the Legislature is focused on is not what the citizens are focused on,” Burgum said.

Caedmon Marx, of Bismarck, repeatedly testified against the anti-trans bills when they were before the Legislature. Marx previously viewed Burgum as someone in the political middle, who had North Dakota’s best interests in mind.

“After last session, it was kind of someone with his own interests in mind and his own political gain,” said Marx, whose boyfriend, a transgender man, moved to Minnesota earlier this year due to the new laws.

Who is Doug Burgum?

Burgum, 67, grew up in tiny Arthur, North Dakota. After earning a master’s of business administration from the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, Burgum went on to lead Great Plains Software. In 2001, Microsoft acquired the company for $1.1 billion, and Burgum stayed on as a vice president until 2007. He’s led other companies in real estate development and venture capital.

When he launched his 2016 bid for governor, Burgum’s announcement — like other speeches he gives — felt like a TED Talk, complete with a slideshow and lacking a lectern. Burgum ran on a vision of “reinventing” government as the state faced a $1 billion revenue shortfall that drained reserves. He defeated North Dakota’s longtime attorney general in the GOP primary, a major upset.

Burgum is a policy wonk who can speak at length about subjects important to him — his recent State of the State address was two hours long — such as advancing carbon capture or reducing regulations. Sometimes he visibly chokes up when discussing serious topics, such as his wife Kathryn’s recovery from addiction.

He’s a huge fan of North Dakota State University football and might sprinkle a so-called dad joke into a speech. But people who have worked with him as governor say he’s also extremely inquisitive and works long hours.

When former policy adviser Sean Cleary was dating his now-wife in 2019, he sometimes returned to the Capitol after their dates to work for a few hours until as late as 11 p.m. or midnight, he said.

Former Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford recalled a late-night meeting where Burgum looked at him and others in the room at 1 a.m. and said enthusiastically, “Isn’t this fun, doing the work for North Dakota?”

Business focus shifts

Most often, Burgum was advocating business-oriented priorities: income tax cuts, updates to state government websites, cybersecurity enhancements, attracting capital to the state and rejiggering the early budgeting process with state agencies.

He’s touted a data-driven approach to problems and frequently talks about “innovation over regulation.”

Burgum entered office during the often-chaotic protests of the Dakota Access oil pipeline, the controversial project long opposed by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Sanford said Burgum displayed courage and listening amid the controversy, inviting the tribal chairman to his office, and hosting a listening session on the tribe’s reservation. In 2019, he announced the display of tribal flags near the entrance to the governor’s state Capitol office, a legislative push for years.

Today, North Dakota’s finances are in healthy shape. The 2020 census found the state as one of the fastest-growing. North Dakota was tied with South Dakota for the lowest unemployment rate in the U.S., at 2% in May.

Burgum has had to work with a Legislature that in recent years has focused more on social-issue legislation, and has approved more of those types of bills than in previous sessions. The North Dakota Legislature meets for regular session only in odd-numbered years.

Two book ban bills passed the Legislature last year. He signed one that targeted “explicit sexual material” in public libraries’ children’s collections and required those libraries to have policies for reviewing their collections, with a “compliance report” for lawmakers. But he vetoed the other bill, which he said went too far in “criminalizing potential disagreements” over certain content, and had no money for libraries to review their materials.

In 2023, Burgum also signed one of the strictest abortion bans in the U.S. The bill largely revised or reorganized North Dakota’s myriad abortion laws after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 decision that overturned Roe v. Wade. North Dakota’s ban outlaws abortion with few exceptions: in cases of rape or incest up to six weeks gestation, or to prevent the death of or “a serious health risk” to the mother.

That law and the ban on gender-affirming care for kids are both the subject of ongoing lawsuits. Burgum has not been outspoken on abortion or transgender issues.

‘Why did you do it?’

After the state GOP’s anti-LGBTQ resolution gained attention in 2020, Burgum telephoned the state’s first openly gay lawmaker, then the House minority leader, to say he disagreed with it.

Democratic state Rep. Josh Boschee said Burgum told him he would work to keep the resolution out of policy and to ensure North Dakota remained “an open and inclusive state, because that’s one of the values that he has,” Boschee said. Burgum also shared personal stories about LGBTQ people he knows who have had a positive impact on him, said Boschee, who called it a good conversation.

But during the 2023 session, as Burgum planned his presidential campaign, Boschee said he sensed “the independence I think many of us admired about him” was going away.

“He had to shore up that base,” Boschee said. “When you are going to the national stage, you know, other people wouldn’t know that nuance. They would see that he signed and he’d be able to say he did these things if he wanted to say it out loud.”

Burgum doesn’t appear to have run for president on those bills or touted them in rallies, “so then it’s why did you do it?” Boschee said. “Was it to get inside the orbit so you didn’t have to worry about it, and now you can stand behind it if you need to?”

The authentic Doug Burgum begins a speech with gratitude before diving into energy and tax policy, he said.

“I have a lot of positive things to say about Gov. Burgum because of the man I know him to be, which makes it extremely disappointing to see the man he has become in the last several months,” in “the way that he has attached himself to Donald Trump now,” Boschee said.

Jack Dura, The Associated Press