By John Hageman
BISMARCK—Phil Riely remembers Watford City as a town where everyone knew each other.
“When you’ve got a town of 1,400 people, you know everybody,” he said. “You know everybody by their vehicle.”
But that small-town atmosphere changed after the recent oil boom. The sudden rush of activity that transformed the western North Dakota city into a bustling hub brought thousands of new residents into town and strained basic services.
It was around the time the boom started to hit the McKenzie County seat that Brent Sanford became its mayor.
“It was an onslaught,” the lieutenant governor said from his new office at the state Capitol.
Sanford and those who have worked with him said his experience managing a chaotic situation in Watford City has helped prepare him for his new duties as North Dakota’s lieutenant governor. He came into office late last year with Republican Gov. Doug Burgum, a former software executive who ran on a message of reinventing government.
Drew Wrigley, North Dakota’s former lieutenant governor whom Sanford leaned on for advice during the transition, said his successor has been exposed to the issues facing the state and has experience at an executive-level position. That gave him confidence he would handle jumping from the mayor’s desk to the state’s executive branch.
“It never even occurred to me that it was going to be a big leap from his responsibilities,” Wrigley said.
Oil has been a part of Watford City’s economy for decades, but Riely, the city’s fire chief and City Council president, said they described it as a “farm and ranch community with an oil supplement.” A lack of job opportunities meant Sanford and most of his classmates left town after graduating.
“The dads in the west were not encouraging you to be a petroleum engineer,” Sanford said.
After earning an accounting degree from the University of North Dakota in 1994, Sanford went to work for an accounting firm in Fargo before spending a short time in Phoenix and then in Denver, where he was an executive for a trucking company.
Sanford decided to return home when his dad and cousin said they had planned to shutter the family car dealership. He moved his family back to Watford City in 2004, a decision some of his friends and business associates said amounted to “career suicide.”
But Sanford’s move wasn’t solely a business decision. He remembered having a realization while at a well-attended funeral in Colorado.
“And I thought, ‘If I live here my whole life, there might be nobody at my funeral because all I do is work for my boss,'” Sanford said.
Not long after coming back to Watford City, he was elected to the City Council. In 2010, he was elected the city’s mayor.
The town that Sanford remembered growing up in, however, rapidly changed during his time in office.
McKenzie County’s monthly oil production topped 1 million barrels for the first time in March 2010, a figure that topped out at almost 1.4 million barrels by the end of 2014, according to the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources.
The 2010 census pegged Watford City as having 1,744 people, but that quickly grew to 6,708 in the bureau’s 2015 estimates. Gene Veeder, the city’s economic development director, said his best guess at the current population was 7,000 people, but there were more during periods of heavy oil activity. The number of temporary residents made it hard to pin down a figure, he said.
Regardless, the rapid growth pushed leaders to seek significant infrastructure improvements, such as a law enforcement center and a new high school building.
Riely said Sanford understood the cyclical nature of the oil industry and the need for long-term planning.
“We wanted to be proactive versus reactive,” he said.
Sanford, who initially backed Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem in his heated primary race against Burgum last year, said his first meeting with Burgum took about two hours, most of which was taken up by Burgum asking questions about the city.. As the campaign wore on, Sanford became more impressed with the wealthy entrepreneur from Fargo and decided he was the right candidate.
In April 2016, Burgum tapped Sanford as his running mate. Watford City will hold a special election Feb. 21 to select Sanford’s replacement.
One of the more visible duties of the lieutenant governor is presiding over the state Senate every day. Sanford acts as something of a traffic director as he guides senators through various procedures and floor votes.
It’s a “foreign language” compared with running city council meetings, but Sanford gave credit to Wrigley and staff who have helped get on his feet. Leadership on both sides of the aisle in the Senate said it appeared Sanford was getting up to speed.
But there are more informal roles that the No. 2 plays, Wrigley said, including being an advisor to the governor and speaking on behalf of the state’s top elected official. In his case, he often spoke publicly about the months-long protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline, or what Wrigley described as being the “emissary for the governor’s message and the communication about his policies.”
“It’s going to take on the characteristics of the governor and the lieutenant governor, what their relationship is like, what are the backgrounds and strengths of the people in those positions,” he said. “It’ll take on a different form in every administration.”
Sanford said Burgum asked him to come on board as a “partnership.” He cited the state’s budget woes, pipeline protests and the new Trump administration as issues that will require significant attention from the governor’s office.
“The governor is going to have a lot of time challenges,” Sanford said. “I want to be able to help out in that way, with being able to step in where needed.”