North Dakota Kicks Bankers In the Teeth

By K.W. Simons

"Bankers are just like everybody else &emdash; except richer." &emdash; Ogden Nash

The result of the June 11 North Dakota state-wide referendum on "the bankers' bill" would have gladdened the cockles of Ogden Nash's populist heart.

Held in conjunction with the state's primary election, no fewer than 73% of the voters said they want their bank and credit union records to remain private until and unless the depositor gives signed permission for the financial institution to sell, trade, or exchange his data.

Background: In 1999, Congress passed &emdash; and President Clinton signed into law &emdash; the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, also known as it "The Bankers' Dream Bill" because the legislation was notoriously pro-banker and anti-consumer.

North Dakota's legislature meets only in each odd-numbered year for 75 days. In preparation for the 2001 session, the North Dakota Bankers Association, aided and abetted by the North Dakota Credit Union League, poured money into legislative campaigns and were hardly bashful when it came to putting "the heat" on their local state senators and state representatives.

Under the North Dakota Constitution, a bill normally becomes law on Aug. 1 of each odd-numbered year. But if the bill is introduced with the "emergency clause" attached, then it can pass only with the votes of two-thirds of the total membership of each branch, plus the governor's signature. It then becomes effective 30 days after it is filed with the Secretary of State.

Senate Bill 2191 was introduced into the 2001 session with the emergency clause attached and everything greased for quick approval. North Dakota's banker-governor, Republican John Hoeven, spoke out strongly in support, saying SB 2191 was necessary to comply with Gramm-Leach-Bliley "if we want economic development" (the new Holy Grail in each and every one of these small, rural states).

The word "bi-partisan" all too often has a nasty connotations meaning "the fix is in." That's the way it was with SB 2191, because in a legislature controlled by Republicans SB 2191 drew the kind of support from Democratic legislators that made the necessary two-thirds margin easily achievable.

When Governor Hoeven signed SB 2191 and sent it to the Secretary of State's office to be enrolled, the bankers smiled and congratulated each other. To borrow Martin Luther King's famous words, "Free at last, free at last" &emdash; or so they thought.

The Consumers' Champ

Enter a wholly improbable champion of the consumer, North Dakota's hardline, right-wing Constitution Party. (For the record, the Constitution Party, whose 2000 presidential candidate was Howard Phillips, believes the graduated income tax, Social Security, and a woman's right to choose are all at best "socialistic" and at worst "commie plots." )

In time for the 2000 election, the Constitution Party, by filing 7,000 signatures with the Secretary of State, had become a legal North Dakota political party co-equal with the Democrats and the Republicans.

Then disaster struck. They had nominated legally qualified candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general and waxed their hands in anticipation as they looked forward to the general election in November. The Republicans, of course, looked upon all this with dismay and unease, since the Constitutioners" clearly were eating into their pie.

"Dem Pooblicans" (that's how my mother's Austrian-born cleaning lady, Mrs. Schwartz, always referred to them) ... "Dem Pooblicans" need not have worried. In the June 2000 Primary, not one of the three Constitution Party candidates could muster the mere 300 state-wide votes each needed to be listed on the fall ballot. For the Constitutioners, it was humiliation in its most humiliating form.

With nary a single Constitution Party candidate on the 2000 fall ballot, they lost their precious official party status they had worked and petitioned so hard to obtain.

But, to give the Devil his due, this is an indefatigable, hard-working, imaginative bunch &emdash; say what you will about their political philosophy.

Seeing that both the North Dakota Democrats and the North Dakota Republicans had deserted the consumer, the Constitution Party people were smart enough to pick up the pieces.

The Numbers Change

Not so many years ago, when the famed Non-Partisan League absolutely dominated North Dakota politics, it took a mere 7,000 signatures to block an act of the Legislature and refer it to the people. If it had been passed with the emergency clause attached and signed by the governor, it could still be referred but in the meantime became law. If it passed without the emergency clause, then the act was suspended from going into effect until the voters had an opportunity to pass judgment on it.

Today, the rules remain the same but it takes a number of signatures on a referendum petition equal to 2% of the entire population of the state at the most recent federal census. Currently, after the 2000 census, 2% is 12,844.

To assign blame where blame should be fixed, the North Dakota Democratic Party and the North Dakota Republicans didn't lift a finger when it came to getting the 12,844 sigs required to be filed within 90 days of the Secretary of State's receipt of the paperwork from the governor's office. The "Constitutioners" were forced to carry the load alone. On top of that, they got a late start and all of the usual political observers, myself included, were unanimous in guessing they'd never make the deadline. Fortunately, we all were wrong.

Politics makes strange bedfellows, and in the run-up to this year's June 11 vote, the Constitutioners picked up valuable support from three wholly unlikely sources: The American Civil Liberties Union's national office in New York; Jim Kasper, a maverick Republican state House member from North Dakota's largest city, Fargo; and former attorney general Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat.

The ACLU gave $25,000 for last-minute radio ads. (With a campaign fund of only $3,500, prior to the ACLU's last-minute contribution, the "No" vote forces &emdash; calling themselves the ad hoc "Protect Our Privacy" or POP committee &emdash; never were able to spend a dime on what every politician seems to think is utterly indispensable, television.)

The bankers are believed to have poured something like $800,000, much of it out-of-state money, into a professionally managed multi-media campaign, even though publicly they admit to receiving only $130,000, That's what you call "low-balling with a vengeance."

Enter Heidi Heitkamp.

In the final two weeks of the campaign, the "No" vote spokesman (opposing the new law) predominately was middle-of-the-roader Heidi Heitkamp, not anyone from the Constitution Party, which, understandably, Heitkamp has no use for.

In particular, in a debate on statewide public broadcasting radio and television, the "No" forces were represented by the former attorney general, who everyone concedes is a forceful, convincing, talented debater.

The bankers were represented in the debate by Republican State Rep. Bob Martinson of Bismarck, who was hopelessly outclassed by the dazzling Heitkamp. (Note: If there were any pre-election polls on this issue, the results were kept from the public.)

The state's newspapers were split on endorsements, but most called for a "Yes" vote. (Banks and credit unions are important advertisers in North Dakota.)


Will the repercussions of this stunning result reverberate beyond the borders of the state that is 16th in land area but only 47th in population?

Yes. The New York Times picked up the story. The Associated Press quotes Evan Hendricks, publisher of Privacy Times, a Washington, D.C., newsletter, as saying, " I think this is a huge result. Politically, this is a shot that is going to be heard around the world."

Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, an organization based in San Diego, said the effects of the North Dakota vote could ripple to other states and to Congress.

Said Givens: "It sends an encouraging message to other citizen organizers and consumer advocates around the country, now that the people of North Dakota have so resoundingly spoken their mind."

K. W. ("Bill" ) Simons, a 74-year-old retired journalism instructor, is a former reporter for the Bismarck Tribune and Associated Press, and was editor of The Leader &emdash; the Official Newspaper of the Non-Partisan League of North Dakota. When Democrats and the Non-Partisan League merged in 1960, the first thing the Democrats did was kill The Leader. North Dakota has not had an independent political voice since.

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