Kevin Cramer was on a path toward becoming a minister when he was diverted by politics.
As he was studying for his pre-seminary degree at Concordia College, he felt that the Lutheran Church was gravitating too far toward Democratic ideals and began questioning his plans to go into the ministry. Even then, politics were a big part of his life.
After graduating in 1983, Cramer began working on the campaign for Scott Hove, a Republican candidate for tax commissioner who was challenging Democrat Kent Conrad. Hove lost. So did many other North Dakota Republicans on the ballot that year.
But Cramer was hooked. He started working for the state Republican Party under then-Chairman Gary Emineth and eventually became chairman himself in 1992. He later became the founding director of the Harold Schafer Leadership Foundation at the University of Mary, where he worked under John Hoeven.
Cramer then stepped directly into politics when he was appointed to the North Dakota Public Service Commission in 2003 to fill an unexpired term. He was elected to the position a year later and has been serving as a commissioner since then.
Last year, Cramer decided to run for the state’s U.S. House seat. But, after determining that he had a better chance of winning election in a primary vote than at the GOP State Convention, he bypassed the convention, touching off a contentious debate within party circles about the merits of changing a party system that has relied heavily on political insiders to nominate candidates for office.
Now, he’s pitted against fellow Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk in the upcoming Republican primary election. The winner will take on Democratic candidate Pam Gulleson in the general election.
Are you the kind of candidate who wants to work across party lines, or are you more of a party loyalist?
I think it is important to have firm convictions without rigid ideology – at least without a rigid application of that ideology.
You have to have a clear understanding of what you believe and what you are willing to give up to move the ball forward. But one thing I think that is often not exercised properly in politics is the belief that when good compromises with evil, good always loses.
Having said that, many issues aren’t as clear as good versus evil. They may be philosophical. And you have to have the ability to discern between them.
There are some lines I won’t cross. I will never support things like government-funded abortion. I believe life begins at conception.
I believe that freedom is better than bondage. Having said that, I am not a Libertarian. I think there are norms of society that should be encouraged and preserved. A Libertarian would say there shouldn’t be an amendment to the Constitution that defines marriage between a man and a woman because that is an infringement on freedom. I say no. The downside to a homosexual marriage is a society of children that are raised in dysfunction.
So I guess I fall somewhere in the middle.
In the past, you’ve mentioned the need to reverse some things Congress has done. Like what?
Well let’s start with Obamacare. Obamacare is a symptom of what happens when leaders decide that they can make better decisions than you. So that is something that we need to repeal.
I’m really going to pigeonhole myself as a right-wing radical, I suppose, but I have often said that God gave us the Ten Commandments, and since then Congress and the president have been passing hundreds of bills to improve on them, and they haven’t figured out one yet.
For the most part, new laws are an imposition on the natural order of things, which already works pretty well. So, generally speaking, crafting a bunch of new legislation is not high on my priority list, but reversing bad legislation is a legitimate reason to introduce a bill.
Prior to the health care law, do you think we had a need to do something about our health care system?
I’m glad you asked it that way. Because here’s what frustrates me about so many politicians, what frustrates me about so many of my friends. See, there’s nothing like a common enemy to rile people up. So all these good, well-meaning people get up behind the podium and pound their crest and say we need to pull Obamacare out by the root.
And I agree with that – there should never be any confusion. But what frustrates me is that it’s not enough to say you oppose Obamacare, pass the vote and then go out for drinks with the head of Blue Cross Blue Shield and the head of the American Medical Association and the president of the Trial Lawyers Association.
There is a problem. When we abdicate our responsibility to fix things, we don’t have a lot of right to complain when someone else over-fixes it. And so, yes, we have to acknowledge that there is a health care issue, there’s a problem.
So, what is the solution?
My solutions are based on my bedrock principals that freedom works, the markets work, choices work.
I would want to cap damages for malpractice because, frankly, who could blame the doctors and the insurance agencies for covering themselves when the consequences of a lawsuit put you out of business. So I would want to get some serious malpractice tort reforms so we can lower costs.
Secondly, we need market-based solutions that put decisions back in the hands of doctors and their patients. If we had a system of, instead of giving patients a payment only if they go to the doctor, they got a payment if they didn’t go to the doctor.
That’s where things like health savings accounts make so much sense. Because now all of a sudden it is your money, and it does two things: It empowers you to use that money to stay healthy – eat better, exercise better, get enough sleep. It also prevents you from running to the doctor every time you have a running nose.
That empowers consumers to shop. And when there is competition in the marketplace, prices come down.
A lot of the money donated to your campaign has come from energy companies. Should voters be concerned about that?
Most of the money that you are referring to does not come from companies I have direct oversight of as a regulator. The real big money comes from oil companies and oil service companies. And they’re not companies that we regulate, but they are companies certainly that benefit from a good regulatory climate in North Dakota.
Not only do I not apologize for that, I’m prepared to run on it. I think a congressman from North Dakota ought to have both the experience and the relationships that have grown the economy in this state and can create the kinds of jobs that people both want and need in this country. I think that’s a tribute to my work, not anything suspicious.
And a guardian against all that is the fact that you know it. It’s transparent. We are forced appropriately by law to disclose it. As long as there is full disclosure, I don’t think it really matters where the money comes from as long as it’s legal.
You have been accused of a conflict of interest for accepting donations from South Heart Mining, a company seeking the Public Service Commission’s approval for a coal mine. What is your response to that?
The first thing you have to acknowledge is that the reason the Sierra Club and the Dakota Resource Council held a news conference to announce that they’re planning a lawsuit was because two months ago they filed a complaint with the Department of Interior’s ethics office, and the office didn’t even respond to it. That’s how frivolous it was.
So, then they announce intention to file a lawsuit just before the primary.
These are organizations dealing with donor dollars who have been charged to oppose the coal mine. And, instead of using those resources to build a case, they’ve chosen to attack the judges of the case, the Public Service Commission, before the case even gets to us.
I question whether it’s a legal strategy or a political strategy. I suspect it’s political in nature, and I don’t give it much thought.
Do you think there’s a problem accepting donations from companies that you oversee?
If you were to apply that standard, you couldn’t take a contribution from any North Dakotan.
What that says is that some would be barred from expressing their First Amendment rights. And I believe everyone who wants to express themselves in this country ought to be able to do that in a legal and transparent manner.
I could have turned the contribution down, but then I’d be denying someone an opportunity to express themselves. Why should only those who oppose coal mines express themselves when those who make their living with coal mines can’t?
This is what liberal activists do – throw out crazy allegations and a bunch of chaos and try to bully pro-liberty organizations into submission. Not only do I resist that, I rather despise it.
Tell me about your decision to bypass the Republican convention process.
First thing, it was a crowded field with six candidates running. And that creates a much more volatile situation at a convention. There are a lot more things that can happen that might skew a second, third, fourth ballot. And I didn’t want to subject my campaign to that when I already have some obvious advantages in my electability.
I’ve always thought a primary was the way to go. When I was chairman I advocated for a primary over a convention because I think the convention process today, not just this cycle, is under appropriate scrutiny for its exclusivity.
I think we’ve witnessed in the presidential races this year the downside of a smaller, more exclusive group of people choosing candidates. We have a much more vigorous process where there are primaries than where there are caucuses or non-binding conventions.
It’s multi-pronged, but largely it’s because I think we’re at a time when our party has a lot to gain by opening ourselves up and we have a lot to lose by becoming so narrow that people become suspicious of us.
It looks like Congress isn’t going to pass a new Farm Bill this year, so it would be something that you would have to …
It would be my problem.
Yeah, it would.
I think every realistic person has accepted that direct payments will not be part of the new Farm Bill, and I think that is just as well.
It’s the risk-management tools that will have to be shored up. Why is that important? The first thing we have to acknowledge as conservatives is that there are two things that every country protects: their energy and their food supply. North Dakota is rich in both.
The risk management tools are, of course, largely the crop insurance program. But here is where I might step out a little bit: An insurance program that simply pays everything only incents increased cost. It only works if you lose.
So I think we need to think about a market-based insurance program, rather than a government-run insurance program. What if we found way – and now I’m really thinking out loud, which is dangerous – to give our agriculture producers an incentive to buy insurance on the open market and then create an incentive for the market to emerge?
And what if, instead of an insurance program that pays all of the administrative costs first, we had a program that allows farmers to assume more risk on the low end and cover themselves in the case of a catastrophic event?
There’s a lot of dissatisfaction in North Dakota with the EPA – among Republicans and Democrats. Why is that, and what can be done about it at the congressional level?
The EPA has so much oversight in so much of what we do, which gets back to our two big economic engines being energy and agriculture. So we have a lot of exposure to them.
And this EPA is so zealous in their overreach that we see it up close when they come to our farms and tell us how to deal with our fuel tanks, they tell us how to deal with our dust control, how to fertilize our crops. And we see it when they tell our state that our emissions rules aren’t good enough even though they meet their standards.
We enjoy a high quality of living here, and when those things are threatened by the same agency so vigorously, we see a need for a change.
Very little can be done unless we have a new president, a new majority in the Senate and maintain the Republican majority in the House. Personally, I would be so firm on this topic because, even if you only have the majority in one chamber, the one club you have is the budget.
I think you have to say that you will not support a budget that includes the EPA. We are not funding this agency unless they get things under control. I think you have to use the strength of the purse if you don’t have any other tools.
It’s got to be dramatic. It’s got to get their attention.
What other things in Congress do you think you can take a leadership role in?
The biggest thing is my background in energy. I believe that on my first day as a freshman from little old North Dakota, I would become one of the top experts in Congress on energy development and on environmental protection. And those two things are not mutually exclusive.
And that leads to another point: the nation’s economy, putting America back to work. This administration has approached energy just like it approaches everything, with a we-know-best-in-Washington mentality, which is killing the American dream.
Instead of approaching industry and job creators with disdain and suspicion, we need to approach them with a how-can-we-help-make-you-successful attitude, which is what we have done in North Dakota.
It’s a funny thing: When you trust the relationship between a corporate citizen and a regular citizen, and you realize that the guy who farms the land loves it more than you do as a bureaucrat, things work pretty well.
Well, a lot of folks don’t trust corporate America. Our founding fathers said capitalism, a free market is a good thing as long as it’s guided by morals. And not everyone believes morals dictate our free market anymore. So when is it appropriate for government to step in?
Here’s what I tell the oil pipeline companies, the coal companies, the wind farm companies: I am easy to get along with as long as you get along with the citizens of North Dakota and you treat the landowner right. If you are doing that, I’m your best friend. But if you tork off the landowner, I am your worst nightmare. That’s how I think you approach it.
Again, I am not a Libertarian or even necessarily a super-champion of corporate America. George Bush said it: Capitalism without compassion is greed. And if we don’t have some checks and balances for that greed beyond the marketplace, consumers feel a sense of helplessness.
So it’s important to have the backstop, but not to exercise it with such zeal that you shut down an industry.
I am not such an ogre that I don’t believe there needs to be some oversight. I just worry that the pendulum has swung so far that there is such a downright hatred for free enterprise and a lack of trust of it that we are headed straight to the European model.
-Matt Bunk is publisher of the Great Plains Examiner.