Hidden History of North Dakota

Hidden History: a lesser-known political party once had a foothold in North Dakota

Local News

On this day in 1915, the first issue of the Leader newspaper was published. It was the official newspaper of North Dakota’s Nonpartisan League.

But, the NPL’s history is little known.

The NPL still lives in some way after it merged with the North Dakota Democratic Party, now, the unique Dem-NPL.

Treasury Candidate Mark Haugen, who’s grandfather was instrumental in the merging of the parties, says most people, even in his party, think of themselves as Democrats. He says they don’t understand the NPL.

But over the span of four decades, the party shaped a lot of North Dakota policy and ideology on both sides of the aisle.

The Nonpartisan League was formed by farmers and merchants. It became the largest political exception in a state otherwise controlled by the Republican Party.

“Farmers in North Dakota were upset with big business: railroads, banks… specifically on how they were treated regarding loan rates, shipping rates through the railroad… they were angry,” shared the Dem-NPL candidate for State Treasurer.

“They were fed up,” added Sarah Vogel, a former North Dakota Commissioner of Agriculture.

Vogel still considers herself a Leaguer. Her father, who was an early member, was a former Manager of the Bank of North Dakota, the only state-owned bank in the country, created by the NPL.

“Some of the stuff I have is like oral history, let’s put it that way,” she laughed.

Although the NPL existed in 17 states and Canada, it began in North Dakota with a man named Arthur C. Townley, a farmer from Beach in 1915.

“He gave speeches that transfixed thousands of people. Within a couple of years, they had a quarter-million members,” Vogel explained.

She showed me a book that lists law after law adopted in the 1919 legislative session, a time where both the legislature and the governor’s office were controlled by the NPL.

Among an extensive list of reforms was born a state-run grain mill & elevator, the bank, the ability to recall state politicians, and they developed a Commissioner of Immigration with a vision of North Dakota as a welcoming place that helps farmers and the working class.

“The newspapers, the editorials were very harsh on the Nonpartisan League and called them ‘Bolsheviks’ or ‘socialists’,” Haugen shared.

“The NPL fought back through its own newspaper called ‘The Leader’…the ‘Nonpartisan Leader.'”

But the NPL never ran on its own party ticket. In the early years, candidates ran as the Republican nominees.

“Because they knew most of the people in the state voted Republican,” shared longtime Republican Susan Wefald, also a former Public Service Commissioner.

“So, I believe it was a very conscious decision on their part, so they could get more of their people elected if they ran as Republican-NPL.”

Then came insurgency–

“It started after the 1947 legislative session. The Republican Party decided to go after the Farmers Union. Between the Farmers Union, the Nonpartisan League, and the Democratic Party, an alliance was struck to try to work on merging the Nonpartisan League with the Democratic Party. My grandfather was one of those insurgents,” Haugen explained.

Wefald tells me, Old Guard members of the NPL joined the Republican organizing committee, creating the North Dakota Republican Party as we know it today.

Mark Haugen says it took about eight years for the Dem-NPL merger to take hold. He considers this a big part of his grandfather, Donnell Haugen’s legacy.

I asked Vogel if the NPL exists at all these days, outside of the Democratic Party.

She responded, “I think less and less so.”

“We didn’t think of ourselves so much as Democrats and NPLers. We thought of ourselves as Dem-NPLers, probably because my grandfather put so much work into creating this merger,” Haugen added.

“Politics were much different back then– yes, they were rough, they were tough, but there was respect, respect that we seem to have lost in today’s politics.”

There’s a lot that the Nonpartisan League brought forth that still makes North Dakota unique today.

The state bank is probably the best example of this, being able to distribute coronavirus relief faster than any other bank in the country.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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