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Omdahl: Governor Guy sealed the two-party system

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‘Where Seldom Was Heard A Discouraging Word’ was the title chosen by Gov. William Guy for his summary of personal experiences during his 12 years as the state’s chief executive.

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Even though there were temporary setbacks for the governor, few discouraging words were spoken during his unprecedented tenure as governor.

Over the past week, thousands of words have been written and spoken in eulogies to summarize the accomplishments of this family farmer from Amenia who became one of North Dakota’s most outstanding governors.

Having served on his staff first as an administrative assistant and then director of administration, I was privileged to get a close up view of Bill Guy as a person, as an administrator, as a policymaker and a reformer.

As a person, he was comfortable with himself. That made him secure and calm, easy to work with. Maybe these qualities were refined when his ship, the U.S.S. William Porter, went down in the Pacific in World War II.

Being self-assured, he was not afraid to tackle a state government that had become dormant through the decades. While his immediate predecessors were honorable and honest, the agencies and policies of government had become obsolete in structure and staff.

Bill’s job was to convert a caretaker government to a system that served the people and interests of North Dakota with new vigor.

In a fragmented government with powers scattered among elected scores of independent officials, agencies, commissions and ex-officio boards, hours and days were consumed in cajoling these units to cooperate in the delivery of public services.

By utilizing his prestige as governor, he was able to get action out of recalcitrant state officials and agencies that were legally beyond his control. In most cases, it worked and he left a long litany of accomplishments.

Governor Guy looked beyond the borders of the state. In 1962, he created the Midwest Governors’ Conference. He also took an active part in the Missouri Basin committees, with a keen eye on the allocation and use of Missouri River water.

As chair of the National Governors’ Conference, he had occasion to tell Nelson Rockefeller that he was out of order because George Romney had the floor. I was aghast.

In that position, he opened the governors’ Washington office so states would have a more effective voice in dealing with national administrations.

One of his major contributions to the well-being of the state had little to do with his official duties. His election affirmed a two-party system in North Dakota politics for the first time in state history. Until his election, the survival of the new Democratic-Nonpartisan League coalition was still a matter of speculation.

Quentin Burdick’s election as Congressman two years earlier gave the coalition its first hope of success but the election and re-election of Bill Guy sealed the marriage of the Democratic Party and the Nonpartisan League.

He was an exceptional governor and would have been an exceptional United States Senator; a position denied him in 1974 by a political conspiracy involving Senator Milton Young, Senator Quentin Burdick and James Jungroth, former chair of the Democratic-NPL.

By running as a third candidate, Jungroth diverted enough votes from Bill Guy to throw the election to Senator Young who ended up getting elected by 178 votes.

Even though this defeat was a bitter experience, it did not prevent Bill from looking over his marvelous career and concluding that “seldom was heard a discouraging word.” His warm memories were published by the North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies in 1992.

Lloyd Omdahl served as North Dakota’s 34th Lieutenant Governor of the state from 1987 to 1992. Previously he was a professor of political science at the University of North Dakota. He continues to write columns for newspapers across the state of North Dakota.

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