A decade ago, then-Microsoft executive Doug Burgum stood before a cheering crowd at a technology conference in Dallas and introduced his boss, company co-founder Bill Gates, by describing what makes entrepreneurs successful.
“Innovators are people who go against the grain” by taking risks and chasing dreams, said Burgum, who’d become a tech star in his own right after selling his North Dakota software company to Microsoft (MSFT) for more than $1 billion. “They’ve got the ability to think in a counterintuitive way.”
Now Burgum is pursuing his most unlikely venture yet: becoming governor of North Dakota in his first shot at elected office and against his party’s wishes.
It’s not unusual anymore for wealthy business people to try to leap from the boardroom to the governor’s office. Rick Snyder and Bruce Rauner did it in Michigan and Illinois, respectively, in recent years.
But Burgum’s quest might be the biggest stretch yet: a player in a glitzy, fast-paced industry becoming leader of a state where the cattle outnumber people, only about a dozen towns have a population bigger than 6,000 and many families make their livelihood in agriculture and oil.
Though Burgum is a big name in tech hubs like Silicon Valley and Seattle, he isn’t well known in North Dakota outside of Fargo, the state’s largest city, where he lives. His opponent in the June 14 GOP primary election is a more typical fit for the job: low-key, longtime state legislator and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who’s patiently climbed the political ladder and has the party’s endorsement.
“I’ve been involved in the Legislature for 24 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said House Speaker Al Carlson, one of many Republicans lined up against the technology titan who wants to run the nation’s 47th-largest state. He said Burgum “is a smart guy” but doesn’t really understand how North Dakota works.
Burgum has infuriated the GOP-controlled Legislature with television ads that claim lawmakers squandered the state’s oil bounty before the bust hit two years ago. He claims he’s a proven job-creator who’s uniquely qualified to help diversify the state economy.
Gauging the race is difficult because there’s no independent polling. Mark Jendrysik, a political science professor at the University of North Dakota, said most believe Stenehjem will win but Burgum’s wealth and fundraising clout — Gates kicked in $100,000 for his campaign — have made him a viable candidate.
In recent weeks, Burgum has been crisscrossing North Dakota to talk to mayors, farmers, ranchers and energy producers, hoping to convince voters they need someone with his background and big ideas.
“I want to know what’s working, what’s not working, what could be better,” said the 59-year-old Burgum, a trim man whose physique hasn’t changed much since he was a college football cheerleader.
Eighty-five-year-old Wally Bolte, a retired Bismarck businessman and lifelong Republican, said he’d never heard of Burgum before the race, but might give him a chance.
“I’m a conservative but I don’t like conservatives who spend too much money,” Bolte said. “There has been bad money that we wasted.”
Stenehjem, 63, who did not respond to interview requests, claims in his own TV ads that Burgum “will say or pay anything to become governor,” and insists that nothing is wrong with how the state has been run.
The race reflects the conflicting moods in North Dakota since the boom ended: Things are either pretty good or not so good depending on how you look at it. The six-year oil spree lured tens of thousands of workers and their families, and drove pay for even menial jobs to unprecedented levels.
After it ended, the state saw a $1 billion budget shortfall, which required cutting government spending and raiding a rainy day fund. Still, the fund has a healthy surplus, and North Dakota’s 3.2% unemployment rate would be the envy of most other states.
It’s half-full vs. half-empty.
Both candidates are products of North Dakota, where the GOP controls all statewide offices and conservative small-government ideals are a way of life. With Democratic candidate Marvin Nelson a longshot, the GOP primary winner is expected to win the general election.
Stenehjem, 63, a lawyer who grew up in the oil town of Williston, has been in state elected office since 1976, first as a legislator and, since 2000, as the attorney general. He’s reminding voters that rebounds in oil and crop prices are inevitable, and not to worry.
Burgum grew up on a farm near Arthur, population 350. His great-grandmother, a school superintendent and postmistress in what’s now Bismarck, once tangled with Gen. George Custer over mail delivery.
Burgum got an MBA from Stanford and worked as a business consultant before moving back to Fargo in 1983 to buy into a company that specialized in business accounting software. Eighteen years later, Burgum sold Great Plains Software to Microsoft for $1.1 billion, then ran Microsoft’s business software division from Fargo. Since quitting in 2007, he’s been involved in other startups and restoring downtown Fargo buildings.
Despite his wealth, he says he’s a regular guy. He was long known for wearing white tennis shoes, and donned a Carhartt work jacket for campaign photos. Since he hit the campaign trail, his usually long, floppy hair is combed back and trimmed at the collar.
Even so, money has played a big role in the governor’s race, which Stenehjem predicted “will easily be the most expensive primary election in state history.” Burgum reported raising $966,000, not including what he might have donated himself. Stenehjem says he raised about $752,000,
Burgum is “very competitive, but he competes with a smile while beating the crap out of you,” says Scott McNealy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems and a Stanford classmate of Burgum’s. “And he’s the greatest networker out there.”
But Lloyd Omdahl, a former lieutenant governor, said Stenehjem is a better-known quantity.
“We don’t usually kick somebody out of office until they’ve done something wrong,” said Omdahl.
Williston Mayor Howard Klug says Burgum doesn’t know enough about the state’s western region, where the influx of oil workers overwhelmed roads, schools and law enforcement.
“He says maybe too much money was spent (here), but … If he’d been out here in the last six years and saw what was happening, he wouldn’t have made that comment,'” said Klug.
Loretta Boehm, who has worked at the state Capitol as a cafe cashier for 46 years, said she likes Burgum’s message about reining in spending and his business success. But she’s not sure how well that would translate as the state’s top executive.
“You can’t run the state like a business — this is government,” she said. “You’re not selling anything.”