Editor’s Note: This is part of a series on women candidates running for down-ballot offices in the 2020 election.
Who: Dr. Shelley Lenz (D-NPL)
What: Lenz, a veterinarian with her own practices, as well the founder of an international agriculture nonprofit, is running to become the next governor of North Dakota. She’s going up against incumbent governor and former tech executive Doug Burgum. She advanced from the state’s June 9 Democratic primary largely unchallenged.
Where: North Dakota.
When: Election Day is Nov. 3. Early voting has already begun in North Dakota.
When Lenz first jumped into her state’s gubernatorial race in January, she did so in hopes of seeing the interests of her beloved rural communities in western North Dakota better represented on a state level.
Then March — and the coronavirus crisis — hit.
“I can forgive people making mistakes,” she says of Burgum’s response to the pandemic. But “it was clear within a month, or six weeks, that this wasn’t a mistake. He was out of his depth in this crisis, and wrapped himself around the White House instead of listening to experts.”
As of publication, North Dakota is the record-holding state for the highest number of new cases reported per day. The state has, at most recent count, 39,912 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 493 deaths. Yet just this week, Burgum doubled down on the continued lack of a statewide mask mandate — which now even goes against recommendations put forth by White House officials. Instead, he encourages residents to exercise “personal responsibility.”
If elected — “when,” she corrects me — her first order of business would be to enact the Lenz-Vig Covid-19 Crisis Management Plan (named for herself and Lt. Governor candidate Ben Vig), which involves creating a crisis management structure to more efficiently respond to widespread threats like Covid-19.
Her campaign’s focus on this plan marks quite a journey from where she began — with an emphasis on agricultural issues. It’s even further from the work she had been doing prior to running for office as a veterinarian and nonprofit founder. And though she has some experience winning elections, it’s limited to seats on the school board in Killdeer, North Dakota — a town of about 800 people.
But she asserts that her professional experiences have taught her more about relationship-building than a career in politics ever could. Before she was the owner of two thriving practices, State Avenue Vet Clinic and Killdeer Vet Clinic, she was something of an outsider returning to the area with a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and a doctorate in veterinary medicine from Ohio State University — despite moving onto land her great-grandparents homesteaded.
Getting her clinic up and running was anything but easy, she recalls. In fact, “the first couple of years were probably the darkest of my life.” Her long-time predecessor had strong community ties — not to mention, Lenz embraced new technologies and methodologies. She adds that being the on-call helper of horses in a rural area is an especially serious business.
But, “what I love to do is solve problems,” Lenz says, “it’s what I’m good at.” The solution came from properly diagnosing the problem: here, it was the dynamics of the community, rather than her practices. “What I love about rural life is, relationships are everything. Winning hearts and minds of a group is the hardest thing you can do, but so fulfilling.”
So Lenz did the work to prove herself — and now, she two offices with four veterinarians on staff, and 20 additional employees. Combined, she says she puts $1 million in payroll directly back into her rural region of the state. “My employees that I pay, they’re going to go and buy that steer from that [nearby] rancher. That … brings stability to a community.”
In 2014, Lenz founded a global nonprofit, Sustainable Vets International — bringing similar opportunities to rural parts of Central America and Africa by setting up vet care and farming programs, while also teaching residents vocational skills. This work, she says, also requires a great deal of relationship-building and a nuanced understanding of interpersonal dynamics.
When 2020 began, Lenz was a citizen who knew she was dissatisfied with Burgum — even though she had voted for him in 2016. “He just wasn’t getting the job done,” she summarizes. She sought a candidate from her part of the state who would advocate for rural people — and found that what she was really looking for was herself. “There’s no one more local than me,” she points out.
Though Lenz is on the ticket as a Democrat, she calls her platform “nonpolitical” and “independent,” and points to her endorsement by the Nonpartisan League — which she says was founded by ancestors of hers — as proof. “Even though I’m running for governor, it doesn’t even seem political — it all seems like big, complex problem-solving.”
Her campaign priorities include investments in public education and healthcare (for humans and animals alike). She also talks about bolstering “homegrown prosperity” — supporting small businesses, especially those in energy and agriculture, so that workers can feed their wages back into their own communities.
That’s why, Lenz says, the first priority is to change the course of the coronavirus in North Dakota. “The economy can’t recover because we can’t get the spread under control.” She says she’d begin by gathering elected officials and tribal leaders to collaborate, then appointing a crisis manager to craft informed solutions to leaders’ biggest problems that would then be voted upon.
In the meantime, she wants to invest in initiatives that bring some of regular life outdoors. “We are in this for a couple of years,” she says. “This is going to be the era of the pandemic.”
Despite North Dakota’s current coronavirus spike, most experts predict Burgum will win on Election Day, calling the statewide race “safely,” “solidly” red. Lenz isn’t discouraged — she firmly believes that she is what the state needs at the moment, and that voters will agree. “Right now, there’s a crisis,” she says. “It’s time to call the vet.”
[Related: 100 Years of Power — What the Future Holds]