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North Dakota Governor's by the numbers

by Curt Eriksmoen

Editor’s note: Historian Curt Eriksmoen provides this look at how new Gov. Doug Burgum compares with several of his 32 predecessors; early governor photos furnished by Eriksmoen.

List of North Dakota's Governors

On Jan. 3, 2017, North Dakota will welcome its 33rd governor when Doug Burgum takes the ceremonial oath of office. He is a Republican, and on that date, he will be 60 years and 5 months old.Burgum was born in Arthur and graduated from Stanford University, becoming a highly successful figure in the business world. He does not have any military experience, and prior to being elected governor, had never served in an elected political capacity. Burgum has three children from a previous marriage and was recently married for the second time. I thought it would be interesting to see where Burgum statistically ranks with his 32 predecessors when he becomes governor. 

Gov. Doug Burgum and Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford
Gov. Doug Burgum and Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford

North Dakota’s first governor was John Miller, Republican, who served from 1889-1890. There have been 26 Republican governors, although one Republican, William Langer, was elected a second time as an Independent. We have elected six Democrats and one Populist, Eli Shortridge to be our governor. Of the Republican governors, five were members of the Nonpartisan League, two with the Independent Voters Association, and two with the Republican Organization Committee. The average length of time each governor served in office was just a shade over four years. William Guy had the longest tenure at 12 years, and Thomas Moodie had the shortest at 10 days.

The average age for a person becoming governor is 48 years and 5.5 months. Two governors were in their 30s, 18 in their 40s, seven in their 50s, and four in their 60s. Frank Briggs, at the age of 38 years and 4 months, was the youngest elected governor to serve, and when he died in office 19 months later, Joseph Devine, his lieutenant governor, took over at the age of 37 years and 5 months, making him the youngest person ever to serve as governor. At the age of 62 years and 9 months, Eli Shortridge was the oldest elected governor to assume office. Walter Welford, Thomas Moodie's lieutenant governor, was 66 years and 9 months old when he became governor after Moodie was removed from office.

Of the 10 North Dakota governors that were born here, three were born in Dakota Territory before statehood, and seven after North Dakota became a state. Four were born abroad - Roger Allin and Walter Welford were born in England, and Ragnvold Nestos and John Moses were born in Norway. Of the 17 North Dakota governors who were born in other states, seven were born in Minnesota.

Twenty-two governors went to college, and 10 of them attended the University of North Dakota, the most, by far, of any institutions of higher education. Three were students at the North Dakota Agricultural College/North Dakota State University. In terms of an occupation, there we 12 farmers, six lawyers, five bankers, five educators and three businessmen.

Only five governors had any military experience. Frank White, John Davis and Allen Olson were all soldiers in the U.S. Army, Bill Guy served in the U.S. Navy, and George Sinner was in the U.S. Air Force.

Four governors were never previously elected to a governmental position, and four others only served at the city or county level. Sixteen governors had been members of the state Legislature, six were lieutenant governors, and three had been attorneys general.

All except one governor, Ragnvold Nestos, were married. Besides Nestos, the only other governors not to have any children were Moodie and Fred Fancher. Ole Olson and George Sinner each had 10 children, and the average number of children for a North Dakota governor is 3.5. Seven governors had been married more than once.

As you can see, Doug Burgum is close to the statistical norm or average in almost all of the illustrated factors for previous North Dakota governors, except that he will be a little older than the average incoming governor and he is not a farmer. However, he was raised on a farm, and he did own considerable farm land that he mortgaged for seed capital to organize his software company.

One of the areas that Burgum appears to be most outside of the gubernatorial norm is governmental experience. Four previous governors had not held elective political offices: Eli Shortridge, Thomas Moodie, Ed Schafer and John Hoeven. All of them except Moodie, who was removed from office after it was discovered that he had voted in Minnesota during the previous election, faced challenges. However, the record appears to indicate that the biggest challenges they faced were external, and their lack of political experience had no bearing on trying to address those challenges.

As I examined the past governors, it appeared evident that Burgum's closest parallel was Eli Shortridge, who served from 1893 to 1894. Both men had roots in the Red River Valley agricultural environment, and both made their fortunes as self-made entrepreneurs. Both Burgum and Shortridge were in their early 60s and had been married twice when they were sworn in. Neither man had run for political office prior to becoming governor, and both ran against the political establishment. Shortridge was a Populist in a heavily Republican state, and Burgum ran as a non-endorsed Republican.

When Shortridge became governor, he was assisted by the state Legislature in providing appropriations for a state-owned elevator, a governor's mansion, a penitentiary, colleges and normal schools, and an addition to the state capitol. Unfortunately, the Panic of 1893 drove down the price of wheat, and the state treasury went bankrupt. Let's hope that Gov. Burgum's administration is met with a kinder fate.