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Democrats bet on ballot issues and slow reconstruction of a diminished party

An SDPB blogger and a friend of SDPB who was the last Democratic speaker of the South Dakota House
Keven Woster
An SDPB blogger and a friend of SDPB who was the last Democratic speaker of the South Dakota House

The interview posted above is from SDPB's daily public affairs show, In the Moment with Lori Walsh.

Come January, it’ll be 50 years since Rapid City lawyer Gene Lebrun became Speaker of the South Dakota House of Representatives.

It hasn’t happened since. At least, not to a Democrat.

Lebrun is one of only three Democrats in South Dakota history to serve as Speaker of the House. The other two were in the 1930s.

“They were back to back,” Lebrun said with a smile the other night, as we talked politics following a gubernatorial debate on SDPB TV that didn’t include the governor.

More on the debate and the troubling absence of Gov. Kristi Noem in a bit. And speaking of governors, we’ll also briefly ponder the passing of former Gov. Harvey Wollman, South Dakota’s most recent Democratic governor.

“Recent” is a relative word for Democratic governors in this state.

Wollman was lieutenant governor in the summer of 1978 when Gov. Dick Kneip was appointed ambassador to Singapore. Wollman served until January of 1979, but had a half year as chief executive that’s worth considering. And we will.

But back to Lebrun. He served two terms in the South Dakota House beginning in 1971, and was elected speaker for his second term in 1973 and 1974.

Those were halcyon times for South Dakota Democrats. Coming off the raucous ‘60s, the early ‘70s were unsettled nationally, with the status quo being questioned just about everywhere. Some of that came to South Dakota, and the state’s stream of cantankerous populism showed itself.

Then along came Dick Kneip, owner of a milking-equipment business and gifted salesman in retail politics. Kneip used the times, a few key issues and his own campaign skills to defeat incumbent Republican Gov. Frank Farrar in 1970.

And the Democratic bounty went far beyond the governor’s office. The Democrats held both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats, with George McGovern and Jim Abourezk. Democrat Frank Denholm held one of the state’s two (we had two back then) U.S. House seats, although Denholm would lose to Republican Larry Pressler in ’74 — with Pressler running as a bit of a populist. Republican Jim Abdnor was the other U.S. House member.

Democrat Lorna Herseth, wife of former Gov. Ralph Herseth, one of only five Democratic governors in state history, was secretary of state for much of the ‘70s. And in 1974, Democrat Norma Klinkel was the first woman to be elected to the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission.

Back then, even the Legislature was in Democratic control, just barely

In the Legislature, the Democrats held the state Senate 18-17 and they were tied with Republicans in the House, 35-35. Because they also held the governor’s chair, Democrats were able to organize — lead — committees and elect the House speaker.

The tie itself and the process to break it was at that time a recent development in South Dakota government.

“In case of a split, the party of the governor organized the committees. That was one of the provisions included when the Legislature decided to have Senate and House districts match — one senator, two representatives,” says my brother, Terry, who was then covering state government for the Associated Press. “That happened after the 1970 census when legislators redistricted. Before that, Senate and House districts often encompassed parts of different counties.

“They had 75 House members when I first started covering the Legislature in ’69,” Terry says. “I remember some legislators joking (after the change to 70 House members was made) about ‘What if there’s a tie someday?’ And somebody said, ‘like that would ever happen.’ And it happened the first election after the change.”

The provision to give the party with the governor’s chair the leadership role was used. And Gene Lebrun was speaker.

“That meant I beat Joe Barnett,” Lebrun said, referring to the Republican lawyer and long-time legislator and GOP leader from Aberdeen. “And Barnett said, ‘It’s OK if Democrats have a speaker every 30 years or so.’”

Lebrun smiled again and thought about that for a while before adding: “We’re overdue.”

Overdue, certainly. But it’s not looking good for the Democrats to have a House speaker anytime soon. There are only eight Democrats in the 70-member House now (three in the 35-member Senate), and the party has in recent years been a, well, super minority in both the Senate and House.

Lebrun left the Legislature following that ’73-74 term as speaker. Barnett was elected and the power cycle moved back to what has been the norm in South Dakota history.

Republicans resumed legislative control and took back the governor’s chair in the 1978 general election, when Republican Attorney General Bill Janklow of Pierre defeated Democratic banker and state legislator Roger McKellips of Alcester.

Some Democrats still look back at 1978 gov’s race and wonder

McKellips had defeated Lieutenant Gov. Wollman in the spring primary. And some Democrats still wonder if Wollman could have done what McKellips couldn’t do and defeated Janklow.

“Maybe, but it’s hard to say,” Lebrun said when I asked him about that. “Bill was really tough.”

Janklow was really tough. And he came along at a time when the political winds were shifting in favor of Republicans and state voters seemed ready for a rabble rouser. They got one in Janklow.

But some Democrats say Wollman, a farmer who was also a teacher and debate coach, would have been better able to confront Janklow in a campaign.

“Roger was a great guy and he had a great family story about providing loans to people when they really needed them,” says Rick Hauffe, who worked for the South Dakota Democratic Party for nine years as executive director and legislation coordinator.“But Harvey was a debater and a debate coach. And Janklow’s weapon was his mouth and ability to speak. I think Harvey would have been tougher to beat.”

Since the zenith of Democratic power in Pierre in the early to mid-1970s, the party has held the majority in just one house — the state Senate — for just one term. That was 1993-1994. Hauffe helped plan strategy for Democratic candidates who won legislative seats for that term. And he helped plan and coordinate the Democratic agenda during the legislative sessions.

They had some fun then, those Democrats, blocking some Republican bills, negotiating to get some of their own ideas approved or incorporated into other legislation and helping the Legislature resemble a place of bipartisan negotiations and compromise.

Crazy, huh?

It was short lived. Janklow made a comeback after his two terms as governor and after working for seven years in the private sector. In the 1994 GOP primary, he defeated Gov. Walter Dale Miller, who had move up from his lieutenant-governor’s spot in April of 1993 after Gov. George S. Mickelson died in an airplane crash.

Janklow then handled Democrat Jim Beddow 55-41 percent (with Libertarian Nathan Barton taking 4 percent) in the general election, showing that he still had clout and coattails on the ballot that benefitted other Republican candidates.

“Janklow returned and swept the Democrats and Walter Dale Miller out of Pierre,” Hauffe said.

And they never managed to claw their way back into power in Pierre. In fact, things got worse. The Democratic delegation in the state Capitol continued to shrink. And shrink.

There was an upside for Democrats for a while. They continued during the 1990s and early 2000s to hold onto spots in the state’s congressional delegation, which had become a bit of a tradition.

But they had a hold on congressional seats, until they didn’t

With the exception of two years, Democrats in South Dakota held at least one congressional seat from 1957. when George McGovern began in the U.S. House, to 2014. And for a time in 2004, they held all three spots. Tom Daschle and Tim Johnson were in the U.S. Senate. And Stephanie Herseth Sandlin defeated Larry Diedrich in a special election to fill the U.S. House seat vacated by Janklow after he was found guilty of manslaughter for driving through a stop sign and killing a motorcyclist.

But Daschle lost to John Thune in November of 2004, Herseth Sandlin lost to Kristi Noem in November of 2010. And Johnson retired because of health problems after completing his third Senate term in January of 2015.

Now Republican Dusty Johnson is in the House seat and Thune and former Gov. Mike Rounds in the Senate seats. Rounds won another six-year term in 2020. Johnson is facing Libertarian Collin Duprel in the Nov. 8 general election. The Democrats don’t have a candidate on the ballot. In the Senate race, Thune is facing Democrat Brian Bengs and Libertarian Tamara Lesnar.

The Republicans are heavy favorites in both races. And presuming they win, the chances of Democrats regaining any of those congressional seats anytime soon seem slim.

It’s no more hopeful for offices in the state Capitol.

In the past, Democrats have managed occasionally to win a seat on the Public Utilities Commission and capture the School and Public Lands Commissioner job, as well as the a few wins for Auditor, Treasurer and Secretary of State.

All are held by Republicans these days. The road back for the Democrats is long and bumpy, with an uncertain destination.

“It’s like a construction project. You’re not going to win majorities in one election,” Hauffe says. “It takes two or three elections to get to the state where you’re competitive.”

That’s two or three successful election cycles, something the Democrats have struggled to string together in recent times. Party ideas have shown up in statewide ballot issues, some of which have been successful.

The trick is how to get the philosophies voters embrace in an initiated measure or referendum to translate into support for candidates for the Legislature and statewide office.

It’s not a formula that Democrats have figured out. So is the party destined to be a party of ballot issues rather than candidates, with a few office holders offering slight resistance to Republican dominance?

Who knows?

“That is the $64,000 question,” says Drey Samuelson, a ballot-issue organizer who served as chief of staff for former Sen. Johnson for 28 years. “What I do know is that it’s not just true for South Dakota. It’s true of all the rural states out here.”

Samuelson, a native of Nebraska, points out that, like South Dakota, North Dakota and Nebraska once had two Democratic senators and Democratic House members.

“And right now we don’t have anything,” he said.

Losing out to the blue-state, red-state divide and identity politics

What caused it?

“I don’t know that I can place blame on any one thing. But I think identity politics, which the Democratic Party, at least some on the national level, have embraced and taken to extremes that I certainly don’t agree with, are not very smart and have had an effect,” Samuelson says.

Samuelson says some of the trade policies promoted by Democrats “have been bad.” Beyond that, there has been a disconnect between the heavily Democratic and densely populated states and rural states that has cost the party its once strong connection with blue-collar America, including farm country.

“Rightly or wrongly, I think people in rural America feel looked down upon by people on the coasts,” he says.

Has all of that come home to South Dakota in ways that make it harder for Democratic candidates to succeed. Maybe. Probably. Almost certainly.

So what’s left? Well, a slow, difficult, uncertain process of reconstruction, as Rick Hauffe notes. And the general-election ballot, which Samuelson believes can continue to help shape South Dakota in positive ways.

“Right now, that’s about the only way we can make change out here,” says Samuelson, who splits his time about evenly between Washington, D.C., and Sioux Falls.

Issues where ballot efforts have made change include increasing the minimum wage, which voters approved 55 percent to 45 percent. And then when the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill to establish a sub-minimum wage for teenagers, Samuelson and others referred the plan to the general-election ballot, where it was killed.

Controlling interest rates on payday loan shops was another issue promoted primarily by Democrats that was taken to the ballot and approved. And state voters in 2020 approved the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes with almost 70 percent of the vote. That law is being implemented now and medicinal pot is being dispensed.

That year state voters voted 54 percent to 46 percent to make marijuana legal for recreational use. But Noem and others challenged that law for the way it was written and won in court. The issue is back on the Nov. 8 ballot, with a hard opposition push by law enforcement and the Catholic Church. It’s behind in most polling.

But win or lose on specific issues, the ballot is the main option for Democrats and their ideas in South Dakota. And it will probably be the main option for some time.

Meanwhile, I give Democrats credit for fighting on, despite the odds. And they take wins that sometimes go beyond individual offices won. Kristi Noem brought out a Democratic idea recently when she promised to repeal the state sales tax on groceries.

How a Democratic idea becomes a Republican promise

Noem, who hadn’t previously voiced her support for such a repeal, can’t keep that promise herself. It takes legislative approval, something the idea — which Jamie Smith has supported — didn’t get from the Republican-controlled state Senate last session.

But Noem’s promise was good campaigning. And it’s ironic that she is using what has traditionally been a Democratic idea against a Democrat. Nonetheless, the idea is in play and likely to come up in the next session.

In the hunt for offices, Billie Sutton gave the Democrats hope in 2018 when he ran a highly competitive race against Kristi Noem for governor. He lost by 3 percentage points, the closest a Democratic candidate has come in a governor’s race since Stephanie Herseth Sandlin’s father, Lars Herseth, lost to George Mickelson in 1986.

This year, some polling has shown Democrat Jamie Smith to be within a few percentage points of Noem, while some shows a wider margin. Better financed with better name ID and a 140,000 edge in registered voters, the Republican incumbent is a solid favorite.

Noem agreed to just one debate, hosted by Dakota News Now in Sioux Falls and its sister TV stations KOTA and KEVN in Rapid City. She declined an invitation from South Dakota Public Broadcasting to attend its debate on Monday.

It’s bad for the voters, who deserve more opportunities to see the incumbent challenged on her record and have to respond in public. But it’s probably smart politics for Noem, the favorite in the race, to avoid taking a chance on making a mistake on statewide TV. She has the money to move voters with commercial-TV advertising. And she has been running some harsh attack ads against Smith, trying to label him as a liberal extremist who will confiscate guns and raise taxes.

Smith denies any plans to take guns or raise taxes and strikes back as best he can with what I’d call attack-ads-light. The ads criticize the governor for things like questionable out-of-state travel, involvement in reworking a social-studies curriculum for public schools and her support for a statewide abortion ban without exceptions for rape and incest.

Is there still hope? Of course, but …

Experienced Democrats like Gene Lebrun are enthusiastically supporting Smith, of course. But they also understand the long odds — long as in stretching back to January of 1979, when Harvey Wollman’s brief term as governor ended and Bill Janklow’s first or four full terms began.

Wollman was a farm boy who attended a one-room school, graduated from Doland High School and Huron College and served in the Army. Then he returned home to farm and, for a few years, teach and coach debate. He established himself as a productive leader in the state Legislature, chairing key committees in the Senate, leading the effort to create a four-year medical school and the South Dakota Investment Council.

As noted in the book The Governors of South Dakota by Tony Venhuizen, Wollman as governor proposed budget cuts to help advance the “elimination of the personal property tax, which Wollman called an ‘honesty tax’ because it encouraged taxpayers to lie.”

After his brief time as governor, Wollman returned to his family farm in Spink County where he lived out the rest of his life productively with wife, Anne, raising their children and remaining active in church and community volunteer work.

Wollman died on Oct. 18 and was eulogized by Democrats and Republicans alike.

In a news release announcing Wollman’s death, Gov. Noem said:

“Harvey Wollman stood up and answered the call of duty, stepping into the role of governor at a difficult time for our state. During his brief tenure as governor, he advanced water development in our state and helped bring about the eventual repeal of the state’s personal property tax. In South Dakota, we honor our leaders. We honor their accomplishments. We honor our history.”

The history of Democratic leadership in the South Dakota Capitol has dimmed with time. And Democrats like Gene Lebrun hope it doesn’t take another 40 or 50 years to brighten up again.

Click here to access the archive of Woster's past work for SDPB.