N.D. Dem Aims for 110-Year GOP Office

The same nameplate has adorned the state auditor's desk for 32 years. The foot-and-a-half-long wooden engraving has served two Bob Petersons.

Brent Edison is the latest in a long line of Democratic challengers who want to change the nameplate for the auditor, a job that has been in Republican hands since 1894.

"It's time for a change after 110 years and two generations of officeholders from the same family," said Edison, an attorney and former chief executive of North Dakota's Workforce Safety and Insurance agency.

North Dakota's state auditor, Robert R. Peterson, said the longevity of Republicans in the position is proof of a job well done. "A Republican holding the job for more than a century is an endorsement, not an indictment," Peterson said.

Peterson, 52, succeeded his father, Robert W. Peterson, in 1996. The elder Peterson served 24 years.

The agency inspects the books of government agencies and North Dakota's university system. The office has 55 employees and a two-year budget of $6.7 million.

Auditors also conduct "performance audits," designed to look at how other agencies can operate more efficiently. Peterson initiated the audits during his second term.

Peterson was an accounting and budget officer in the state Land Department before winning the auditor's job. He worked as an accountant for SuperValu Inc., a grocery business, for two years in the late 1970s. He's paid $59,428 annually.

Peterson said the auditor's office has been politically independent under his administration. His office can't be perceived as partisan when scrutinizing an agency's books, he said.

"I've deliberately kept it low-key." Peterson said. "We have to maintain independence. It's counterproductive to become political."

Edison said Peterson has been too low-key.

"He has taken a caretaker approach to an office that had been occupied by his father for 24 years," Edison said.

Edison, 48, promises to be "nonpolitical and nonpartisan," but he said he would make changes, including taking more of a "watchdog approach" to the office.

"I'll make sure the money is being spent where it should," Edison said

Edison wants to set up a Web site to list standards for state agencies to fulfill, and show whether they have met the goals. He also wants to establish a fraud hot line and a code of ethics for state government.

During a Tuesday debate in Bismarck, hosted by the League of Women Voters of Bismarck-Mandan and the Kennedy Memorial Foundation, Edison said he was "concerned that we've had a lack of innovation, a lack of positive change" in the auditor's office.

Peterson wonders where Edison would get the money for his proposals.

"My opponent has suggested a lot of things that will cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars," Peterson said in an interview. "There is only so much you can do with the resources you have."

Edison said his proposals will not cost much money. Much of it can be done by existing staff, he said. "I would make sure people are working on the right things and see if they can work smarter," Edison said.

Edison was fired last October as chief executive of North Dakota's Workforce Safety and Insurance. Agency documents said some employees viewed him as an occasionally temperamental manager, while other workers said Edison was the victim of bureaucratic infighting.

Edison defended his work at the agency.

"I inherited a dysfunctional board and management team," Edison said. "I was proud of the work I did while I was there. The whole experience was a character-building exercise."

While Edison has been perceived by some as being a tough boss, Peterson took criticism in his first term for giving office workers paid time off for outings that included volleyball, bowling and horseshoe-pitching. He stopped the so-called "Bob days" after the practice was disclosed.

Peterson said the agency has experienced lower turnover since he's been in charge. Experience is key in getting the agency's job done, and that goes for the top spot, too, he said.

"There is a learning curve. It takes at least two legislative sessions to learn the job, as far as what's expected," Peterson said.

Edison's most recent campaign disclosure report, filed in May, listed $4,345 in contributions. Peterson reported one contribution of $145 and a total of $6,526 cash on hand. He said more than $6,000 was carried over from his campaign four years ago.

Peterson admits that name recognition, largely due to his father's long tenure, has saved him from having to raise large amounts of campaign cash. Edison said he would probably spend some of his own money in the campaign, but not enough to mean "any kind of substantial debt on my part."