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SD Dems Resist Change, While SD GOP Promotes Openness In Ramkota Rendezvous

Lee Strubinger

High-profile political speakers grabbed headlines this weekend, and politicos followed potential drama at two competing events.

A Bernie Sanders-style Democrat, Keith Ellison, talked to Democrats. Right-wing author David Horowitz offered the keynote to Republicans.

The Best Western Ramkota Hotel complex in Sioux Falls hosted the annual McGovern Day fundraiser for Democrats and the GOP's Freedom Rally. Both events signal a shift in state politics.

It’s Saturday morning, and South Dakota Democrats are debating changes to the party’s constitution. They sit in a hotel conference room. At stake is how the party functions.

Former US House candidate Paula Hawks says there’s a riff between two factions.

“Folks who are in that older subset who are comfortable with the way things have always been going and they’re comfortable with the way they’ve always done things and they want to move on in such a fashion," Hawks says. "Then you have that faction of people who are younger, that 20 to 35 year old group who really want to see movement and who want to see action. They don’t want to talk about things ad infinum.”

About half of the crowd wants to make dozens of changes with one goal in mind.

“We need to get more people involved.”

That’s Rachelle Norberg. She’s president of the South Dakota Young Democrats. Norberg wants committee members to approve the changes for the party. She says after Election Day, she was frustrated with their performance.

“The number of democrats that were elected to office decreased across the Midwest," Norberg says. "When you do have a decrease like that, and we’ve kind of seen a decrease since 2010 each election cycle, at least here in South Dakota, and how do we get more people elected and how do we get more people involved in the process and how do we engage those people and keep them engaged from election cycle to election cycle. The goal of the constitutional amendments was to do that.”

After several hours of debate, changes to the party’s constitution were tabled even though it appeared they had the numbers to pass them.

One proposed change made the party chair’s term two years instead of four. Some speculated that the move was part of a plan to oust current chair Ann Tornberg. It would have shortened her leadership by two years… and would have required a party chair election the same weekend.

It didn’t happen.

Larry Lucas is a former Democratic state legislator.

"If we would have passed those, [we would be] having to have an election on the 29th or the 30th. I didn’t feel, and I don’t think anyone in the room really felt that that would be appropriate to have a shotgun election like that," Lucas says. 

Earlier in the year, the Republican Party voted for its own shift in leadership.

Former state senator Dan Lederman won more votes than incumbent Pam Roberts, so he became head of the state GOP.

Members are riding the momentum of a Donald Trump presidency and a super-majority in the statehouse.

Following his election to party chair, Lederman says the GOP’s focus turns to attracting younger voters.

“The millennial generation believes in community and they believe in inclusiveness. That’s what the Republican Party is about," Lederman says. "It’s about allowing people to have the freedoms of religion, and allowing people to keep more of their tax dollars. We promote free speech and being able to speak your mind. I think that that will resonate with young people. The question is how, or what medium do we use to get that message to them.”

South Dakota Republicans are embracing a message of freedom. Leaders say that’s how they can heal the ideological divide within the party. During the 2017 legislative session several bills were either stalled or died because Republicans disagreed with other Republicans.

The weekend’s GOP Freedom Rally hosted three speakers. State Representative Greg Jamison from Sioux Falls is one of them.

“Myself, coming from the east side of the state, I think some of the more conservative Republicans might see us as more of a moderate type. Some of the people from the far west might be seen as the ultra conservatives of the group," Jamison says. "What we really need to focus on is trying to come together with all of our ideas and not putting barriers between us and stop talking. We need to come together and start talking about the issues and trying to make our best decisions together and trying to stop some of the infighting. We need to heal as a party—as a country.”

The Republican’s Freedom Rally and the Democrats’ McGovern Day happened at the same time on the same date in the same place. Yet the objectives differ.

McGovern Day is the Democrats’ flagship statewide fundraiser. The Freedom Rally targets the GOP base. Politicians from both sides used the competing events against one another. Democrats criticized the Republican’s guest, and Republican’s criticized the Democrats for closing off McGovern Day activities to the press.

Former state lawmaker Democrat Frank Kloucek says change is inevitable but leaders don’t need to rush it.

“The folks who were in favor of change were very gracious in their efforts in trying to do the right thing and make people amicable. In the legislature a gentleman told me ‘Frank, it doesn’t matter if you’re right or wrong, it matters if you’ve got the votes,'" Kloucek says. "I terribly disagreed with that, but that’s how it’s been run in Pierre and it’s not been a good situation. Here, the folks that were making the changes had the votes and still yielded to the minority to listen to their wishes and make the process more fair to them.”

GOP Party Chairman Dan Lederman represents a new style of leadership to an already dominant Republican Party. Future leadership for Democrats remains in question, but in place.

The next Democrat central committee meeting is set for July at the Fort Randall Casino in Lake Andes.

Lee Strubinger is SDPB’s Rapid City-based news and political reporter. A former reporter for Fort Lupton Press (CO) and Colorado Public Radio, Lee holds a master’s in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.