For Trump, Doug Burgum Emerges as a Safe Option, and a Wild Card

After taking his software company public in 1997, Doug Burgum gathered a few colleagues in his office and swore them to secrecy.

He wanted to uphold the modesty and decorum central to his North Dakota birthright and his chimney-sweeper past, but he was eager to boast about a splashy new purchase. While others splurged on cars or boats, Mr. Burgum’s big reveal was a Bobcat front-end loader — a dirt mover for his ranch near Fargo.

“I remember thinking, ‘Yeah, Doug, you’re not big-timing anyone with that one,’” Jeff Young, the software company’s former operations chief, recalled with a laugh.

Now the governor of North Dakota, Mr. Burgum’s long-held scruples over being seen as an attention-monger have hurled the longtime Republican out of political obscurity and into the limelight as one of a handful of the leading contenders in Donald J. Trump’s search for a running mate.

Mr. Trump’s campaign has requested personal information and other documents from a broad field of potential vice-presidential candidates, including Mr. Burgum, both as part of its vetting process and as a media strategy to build suspense ahead of a formal announcement planned for next month at the Republican National Convention, according to three people briefed on the process who insisted on anonymity to discuss private conversations.

But Mr. Trump appears to have narrowed his focus to contenders with the ability to run a disciplined campaign, the people said. Reducing the potential for unwanted distractions has become increasingly important for a presidential candidate convicted last month on 34 felony charges and still facing multiple other legal problems.

Mr. Burgum has squarely positioned himself as a prime contender, spending months supporting Mr. Trump on the campaign trail and in court, while risking his own political capital back home for a former president who prizes loyalty, demands fealty and considers any attempt to intrude on his spotlight a betrayal of both.

Mr. Burgum has become perhaps the safest option on Mr. Trump’s list — and the biggest wild card.

He is largely untested on a national stage and is not known for thrilling applause lines on the stump. Mr. Burgum has little in the way of a public profile, even among Mr. Trump’s attentive political base, and is not an ideological warrior like others under consideration.

And yet, his ambition in business and politics has set him apart in North Dakota. He has spent millions of his own dollars on political pursuits, including his underdog bid for governor in 2016 and his backing of an aggressive parade of Republican primary challengers against state lawmakers in 2018. His short-lived, long-shot bid for the White House last year cost him $14 million.

A spokesman for Mr. Burgum declined to comment. A Trump campaign spokesman said that only the former president knew whom he would pick for a running mate.

At the age of 67, Mr. Burgum is closer to a generational peer of the 77-year-old former president than most of the other Republicans under serious consideration. He endorsed Mr. Trump in 2016, but won both of his races for governor without relying on help from the former president. His independence, both electorally and financially, has helped ease Mr. Trump, who keeps close track of the political debts he’s owed, according to two people familiar with the former president’s thinking.

Mr. Burgum possesses a Stanford degree, an easy ability to talk sports and a thick head of hair, which he kept in a ponytail as a younger man and is now an object of Mr. Trump ’s admiration. The former president has privately told people that Mr. Burgum has the “central casting” look he favors in public figures.

In some ways, he can be easy to pigeonhole as a mild-mannered Midwesterner. He worked as a chimney sweep in college, wearing a black top hat and tails to evoke Dick Van Dyke’s character in “Mary Poppins.” When he oversaw the construction of a new hotel in downtown Fargo, he ensured it would be shorter than North Dakota’s tallest building — the state capitol in Bismarck — to avoid ruffling feathers.

Mr. Trump has discussed Mr. Burgum for a potential Cabinet post, speculation that allies of other vice-presidential contenders have eagerly pushed in an attempt to diminish him as a possible running mate. The result has been a stream of rumors connecting Mr. Burgum to multiple agencies, which his allies have privately nicknamed “Cabinet bingo.”

“Opportunist isn’t exactly the right word,” said Ed Schafer, a former Republican governor of North Dakota. “But Doug Burgum is very good at identifying opportunities.”

Douglas James Burgum grew up in a tiny North Dakota town, but was born into a giant piece of the state’s history.

His great-grandmother, Linda Slaughter, was among the earliest settlers in the Dakota Territory. She opened the town’s first school, was a close friend of Susan B. Anthony’s and, at the 1892 Populist Party convention in Omaha, became the first American woman to vote in a national convention for a presidential candidate.

Ms. Slaughter’s daughter, Jessamine, was the first woman admitted to North Dakota State University, where a dorm was named after her in 1962.

Jessamine Slaughter — Mr. Burgum’s grandmother — eventually moved to Arthur, N.D., a small town that her father-in-law had helped settle. Her husband, Joseph A. Burgum, managed the local grain elevator that the family founded in 1906. The family still runs the business, which remains central to the local economy.

Ms. Slaughter’s youngest son, Joseph B. Burgum, married Katherine Kilbourne, a college dean. The youngest of their three children, Douglas, was sworn-in as the 33rd governor of North Dakota in December 2016.

As a student at North Dakota State, Mr. Burgum avoided declaring a major and instead asked friends for their most passionate teachers and enrolled in those classes. When a guidance counselor informed him he had enough credits to graduate, the school awarded him a degree in “university studies.”

At Stanford Graduate School of Business, he played intramural football and basketball and befriended Steve Ballmer, the future Microsoft billionaire. Mr. Burgum earned his M.B.A. and left California for a job in Chicago at McKinsey & Company, the global consulting firm.

When a colleague showed off a new Apple II computer that calculated in minutes the numbers Mr. Burgum had spent hours crunching by hand, he decided to shift careers and become a tech entrepreneur.

Somewhat improbably, he moved back to Fargo to do it.

Beau Bateman, a farmer in North Dakota’s Red River Valley, roped and branded cattle with Mr. Burgum when they were ranch hands in college. He was not surprised Mr. Burgum returned home.

“He is just a patriot for us,” Mr. Bateman said as he sat on the back gate of his Ford F-150, his cowboy boots kicking at the gravel road.

Mr. Burgum was 26 when he quite literally bet the family farm.

He mortgaged 160 acres of farmland inherited from his father to finance a $250,000 stake in Great Plains Software, a small Fargo-based start-up. With help from additional family investments, he soon took control of the company and installed himself as chief executive.

To attract talent, he pulled lists of graduates from North Dakota schools and launched his first direct mail campaign, recruiting engineers to return home and work at a company where he was promoting a family-friendly culture. He insisted on a front door for the new office building that would never lock and instead open to an anteroom, so those who forgot their keys could step inside and wait to be let in while sheltered from bitter winter winds.

In 1997, the company became the first tech company in North Dakota to go public.

Four years later, his old college buddy, Mr. Ballmer, came calling.

Mr. Burgum sold the company in 2001 to Microsoft for a $1.1 billion, all-stock deal and joined as a top executive. He left after six years and invested in SuccessFactors, a human-relations software company, where he was board chairman. SAP, the German software giant, bought the business for approximately $3.4 billion in 2010.

In 2012, Mr. Burgum invested in Atlassian, a cloud software company based in Australia that went public in 2015 and is now valued at more than $40 billion. He served as the company’s board chairman until 2016, when he stepped down before he was sworn in as governor.

Mr. Burgum’s previous career as an entrepreneur may help settle concerns from pro-business voters torn between Mr. Trump’s putative trade policies and President Biden’s allegiance to labor unions. But it’s doubtful many even know him.

Asked during an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last summer if he would ever do business with Mr. Trump, Mr. Burgum said, “I don’t think so.”

“I just think it’s important,” Mr. Burgum said, “that you’re judged by the company you keep.”

Mr. Burgum has since reversed that position, telling Fox News last week that he now has a better understanding of Mr. Trump after having “had a chance to travel with him — had a chance to see him, meet the real person.”

That kind of political expediency is something of an art form back in Arthur, N.D.

Shirley Nedrebo, 88, who lived across the street from Mr. Burgum when he was a boy and still resides there, owns a Trump campaign hat, a souvenir from a 2018 rally in Fargo. One side of the red cap is fastened with a Burgum campaign pin. The other has a pin for Ben Carson, a former Cabinet secretary also under consideration as a running mate.

She spoke highly of Mr. Burgum and his family, but hedged when asked whom Mr. Trump should choose.

“Trump,” she added, “will pick the right person.”

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