The 'Badass Grandmas' Who Fought Corruption and Won
These North Dakota women beat the odds, but their work's not done
(Editor's Note: This article was updated and corrected after publication to more accurately reflect the timeline of the "Badass Grandmas" efforts and opposition to the group.)
When Dina Butcher’s 17-year-old grandson Owen and his friend Cole saw early promotional material from a group calling for tough anti-corruption reforms in North Dakota, Cole said: “Is that your Grandma? Wow, she’s a badass!” The "Badass Grandmas" moniker for Butcher’s group of mostly retired, women political activists there, quickly took hold.
The 14-year-old grandson of “badass” Ellen Chaffee expressed concern, however, saying he didn’t think the term was appropriate. But when Chaffee explained that a 17-year old had called them that, he said: “Oh, now I get it. That’s cool!”
It all began as the women’s early morning, small group discussions over cookies and coffee. Early on, Chaffee explained, there was just a lot of complaining about the lack of transparency in state government and no clear objective or game plan on how to fix things.
What United the 'Badass Grandmas'
But they were united by a deep desire to stand up for common sense accountability and end what they believed to be growing evidence of unethical, corrupt practices by state politicians, often associated with the oil and gas boom of recent years.
"There was a lot of frustration...and anger...and we had a hunch that we weren't the only ones tired of this manner of operating."
"There was a lot of frustration...and anger...and we had a hunch that we weren't the only ones tired of this manner of operating," said Chaffee. Although the group had a bank of news stories documenting likely ethics violations by public officials, they opted not to use them in their campaign. "People knew what we were talking about. It just doesn't feel like North Dakota anymore," said Chaffee.
The “Badass Grandmas” disillusionment with government and politics grew as the state government’s higher revenues from the energy boom failed to lead to the increased investment in North Dakota’s infrastructure, schools and the environment that residents expected to see.
Butcher felt that in a deep Red state like North Dakota, even though the Republican party held a supermajority in the legislature, that “was just not good for the good of the people.”
Underlying the women’s focus was a desire to do something positive for their grandkids. No one in the group had a personal or political agenda. They weren’t in it for personal gain.
Led By a North Dakota Republican and Democrat
Butcher and Chaffee, a Republican and a Democrat, had first met back in the 1970s when they were active in the women’s movement, supporting passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. They weren’t close then, but over the years knew of each other. Both went on to pursue highly successful careers: Butcher in state government and Chaffee as president of Valley City State University and Mayville State University.
As a university president, Chaffee had maintained a nonpartisan position and was apolitical. But in 2012, she left her job after being asked by the Democratic candidate for governor to be his running mate three weeks before the convention. (They lost.)
In 2014, Chaffee and Butcher joined in a successful effort to overturn a severe anti-abortion law. Butcher had agreed to be the Republican face of the campaign to overturn it, an effort for which she was later voted Woman of the Year.
Then they joined forces again, leading the "Badass Grandmas," formally known as North Dakotans for Public Integrity. Along with the other 10 women in their group, the "Badass Grandmas" had 200+ combined years of experience and expertise in state government and the private sector.
On a Mission to Overhaul Government Ethics Oversight
Their goal: getting a constitutional amendment approved by voters to overhaul government ethics oversight. For the proposed amendment to become law, however, it first needed enough signatures on the "Badass Grandmas"’ petition to get on the ballot.
As the "Badass Grandmas" started talking to others about their concerns, Butcher said, “we connected with people. A lot of people felt disenfranchised and felt neglected by their elected officials. There was a lot of disgruntlement out there and the ‘Badass Grandmas’ grabbed their attention.”
Still, the odds were long.
A Democratic party proposal to establish an ethics commission had been introduced four times in recent years and was defeated in the legislature each time. Not only did any new initiative need to be multi-partisan to be successful, the women realized, an ethics commission alone was what Chaffee called a “marshmallow” solution. It needed policy measures to give transparency and accountability some teeth.
Following the Lead of South Dakota
At about that time, they became aware that South Dakota had initiated measures that were similar to what they wanted to do and the reforms were approved in the 2016 election. “If they can do it, we can do it too,” Chaffee said her group agreed. “That gave us a lot of energy to put something together.”
The "Badass Grandmas" ultimately got help to draft an amendment to overhaul government ethics oversight, which would be one of the nation’s toughest ethics and transparency laws. It included provisions to ban foreign money from elections, restrict lobbying and create an independent ethics commission.
But Butcher’s support for statewide anti-corruption and accountability measures wasn’t popular with her Republican friends. Some are no longer on speaking terms with her.
Butcher choked up when explaining how her family’s experience influenced her passion for making this country better. Her Jewish father emigrated to the United States in 1939 to escape the Nazis, but several close relatives died at Auschwitz. “‘Government by and for the people’ is something I will always speak up for, even if it ruffles feathers,” she said.
Some Surprising Opposition
Opposition from some of Butcher’s Republican friends wasn’t the only obstacle the "Badass Grandmas" faced.
Oil companies such as ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips, other multinationals, trade associations and even the state's Catholic Conference and the ACLU arrayed against their initiative.
The Catholic Conference and ACLU reportedly opposed the constitutional amendment because they don’t like to reveal who their donors are. The proposed amendment would have required that transparency only with respect to funds used for political purposes. But since some donors to the Catholic Conference and ACLU want to be anonymous, those groups feared losing some contributions.
With mounting opposition from powerful groups, “nobody thought we were going to win, nobody!” said Chaffee.
As the women went door to door canvassing the state, however, they learned that going up against the likes of ExxonMobil actually helped them.
The initiative mushroomed into more than 36,000 signatures supporting a constitutional amendment, which North Dakota voters passed last November.
Help From Savvy Political Reformers
Chaffee and Butcher credit support from four democracy reform organizations (Republican and Democrat) as crucial to their success. RepresentUS coordinated assistance from End Citizens United, Voters Right to Know and Take Back Our Republic.
During weekly phone calls, said Chaffee, those organizations “taught us what we needed to know , without influencing us on what we wanted to do. They were basically our coaches: ‘Here is how the game is played… Here is what needs to happen.’”
Added Butcher: “Those pro-democracy groups have such a wealth of expertise… on how campaigns are won or lost. They recognize that money is not always the overriding factor for success, that it’s the connection with people. They helped us maximize what we already had going. Understanding from the polling what people were most concerned about.”
An Incomplete Victory
Still, victory was not complete. The amendment left many implementation details to either the legislature or the new Ethics Commission. Said Chaffee: “Much of it was self-executing; the legislature could not put its hands on the Ethics Commission itself. But a lot of it wasn’t.”
During the 2019 legislative session, two competing implementing bills were presented. The one that passed was a disappointment to the "Badass Grandmas:" it included language to essentially gut the amendment and contained provisions that some analysts said were unconstitutional.
But five Ethics Commissioners just took office on September 12. Now, said Chaffee, “a lot will depend on whether the Commissioners are able to stand up and ignore the portions of the law which are clearly unconstitutional.”
Was it all worth it, given the fierce legislative opposition to the new ethics rules? Said Chaffee: “These guys are mad, and they’re not used to losing. They are not used to losing to old ladies. So, it’s going to be a long, long battle. The implementation phase is going to be at least ten years, I think.”
And, she noted, “What we have to do is change the culture of state government, because it has really deteriorated. It’s going to take people paying attention.”
Butcher’s view: “If we did anything with the ethics and transparency measures that people voted on, they became awakened.”