Opinion: George Sinner's optimism and faith distinguished his life of public service
George A. Sinner's two terms as North Dakota's governor spanned years that were the most difficult for the state since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Elected in 1984 and re-elected in 1988, he was the state's last Democratic governor, and was unfairly tagged with the moniker "Governor Gloom and Doom."
Sinner died last week. He was 89.
Gloom and doom were not in Sinner. The sense of disaster was a reflection of the times as the state struggled through a farm crisis and prolonged drought. The double-whammy saw the state's economy and state budgets spiral downward. But the economic collapse was no more Gov. Sinner's doing than good times brought about by an oil boom were the doing of recent governors. If anything, Sinner's faith in his state was demonstrated by his commitment to compromise and consensus on visionary programs that were designed to ease the economic pain—programs that are still in place today. It's relatively easy to govern in good times. Sinner led his state through bad times. In taking on the challenge, he excelled.
Sinner, who liked to be called "Bud," brought elements to his leadership not often found in politicians. He certainly was a politician in that politics is necessary in order to be elected to serve. But unlike many politicians, Sinner was introspective, witty, intelligent and spiritual. Having once considered entering the Catholic priesthood, his education and faith informed a life of public service. Among his important legacies: He understood the precarious balance between personal faith and secular public office. As governor, he lived it. He found the balance.
One of Sinner's vetoes underlined his proper understanding of the role of a governor. He was reviled when he said "no" to what would have been the strictest anti-abortion bill in the nation. Criticized by many on the pro-life side, including leaders of his Catholic church, Sinner said the bill was an overreach of government and a violation of the law of the land. Government must not play God, he said. Since then, federal courts have struck down similar bills that passed in North Dakota and other states. Moreover, during the bitter and angry debate over the bill, the governor commented to a group of reporters: "They want me to be bishop of North Dakota, not governor of North Dakota. I can't do that." He had the courage and conviction to do the right thing, knowing it would cost him politically.
Sinner decided against running for a third term. He'd had some health problems. He'd suffered a personal and political defeat when tax measures he championed were turned down by the voters. Political observers then and analysts looking back to that era believe he could have been re-elected. Had he run and won, the political landscape would not have changed as it did.
Gov. Sinner's life—personal and public—showcased the best of North Dakota. He got into elected office early, capped his career in the governor's office, and remained active in civic and private life until just a few years ago. He expressed his love for his state, not with merely lip service, but with a lifetime of selfless work to make North Dakota a better place in which to live. His record as governor was an affirmation of optimism during a time when optimism was needed.
We join his family, friends and admirers in celebrating a life well-lived.