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Woster: Searching for compromise from the middle of the road

It was a chilly, breezy Saturday afternoon when Helene Duhamel came to our front door.

“Hi Kevin,” she said from the step. “I’m collecting signatures on my nominating petition and I was wondering if you’d sign.”

I asked if she wanted to come in but she shook her head. “I’ll stay out here and keep everyone safe.”

That’s COVID safe, of course. I’m vaccinated and boosted, and I’m sure she is, too. But there are breakthrough infections. And while the vaccinated are at particularly low risk for complications, who wants to take a chance, or even get mildly sick if you can help it?

But I didn’t want to leave Helene out in the cold for long, So, as the registered Republican in the house, I hustled to sign her petition, and not just because I know and like Helene, who lives with her husband, Steve Duffy, a few blocks away in our West Boulevard neighborhood.

And I wasn’t signing just because she was a journalist, too, having grown up in a well-known broadcasting family in Rapid City and working TV news and anchor jobs for 35 years.

I also signed because she’s a moderate Republican, a self-professed centrist. I like centrists. I wish there were more of us in public office.

So I signed. And as I handed back the petition sheet and board, I mentioned the recent legislative redistricting work, her role in it, and the revised makeup of our legislative District 32. It now includes North Rapid City.

Taking one for the team

“Schoenbeck told me you took one for the team on redistricting,” I said, referring to the Watertown lawyer and Republican state Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, the presiding officer in the state Senate.

Helene grinned. “Oh, did he say that? I was fine with it. We have to compromise, don’t we?”

Yes, I think we do. And I think we should do a lot more of it.

The compromise that affected Helene directly was the consolidations — finally — of North Rapid City into District 32. That consolidation of North Rapid was a long time coming for the heavy population of Native Americans living there.

North Rapid has been split up into multiple districts, diluting the voting potential of the Native voters there. This year, finally, the new district plan kept North Rapid whole and put it in District 32. That came with Helene’s agreement after some other Republicans in the city fought the idea of having it added to their districts.

It would be easy to call that resistance racism. But it’s more complicated than that. Most Native American voters are Democrats. So adding a block of Native voters is adding a block of Democrats who could potentially be decisive in an election.

They might one day return a Democratic member to the state Legislature from Rapid City, something we haven’t had for a while.

Native voters tend not to turn out in high numbers for state elections. But when they do, they can matter in a big way, as they did in the 524-vote victory for Democrat Tim Johnson against Republican John Thune for the U.S. Senate in 2002. Those West River reservation votes were a big deal.

They could be a big deal in District 32, eventually, if they can be inspired to go to the polls in good numbers. If that possibility worries 59-year-old Duhamel, she doesn’t show it. She said the consolidation of North Rapid was a good thing, she’s happy to have North Rapid in her district and she’s ready to reach out to voters there as she has to those in other parts of the district.

“You know, compromise has somehow become a bad word, but it should be part of what we do,” she said. “The Senate worked more closely with the Democrats (on redistricting) and that’s what compromise looks like.”

News experience helps in outreach to other voters

She said her news background with KOTA TV was a valuable experience that makes her more comfortable with different groups in different areas.

“I grew up as part of a broadcasting outlet talking to people all over western South Dakota, part of northeast Wyoming and northwest Nebraska,” she said. “I feel like I represent everyone in Rapid City, western South Dakota, and South Dakota as a whole.”

Duhamel left the TV news business several years ago. Now the mother of three grown children works as a public information officer for the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office. She was appointed to the state Senate in 2019, then elected to a two-year term in 2020.

As she seeks her second full term in the state Senate, this year she does so as a Republican with centrist inclinations that aren’t always easy to promote in a heavily Republican city and a state Legislature where ideology sometimes seems to overpower common sense.

“When you try to walk in the middle of the road, you get hit by cars on both sides,” she says.

Duhamel found herself in a difficult spot during the first week of the 2022 state Legislature when a bill by the governor’s office came before the Senate State Affairs Committee. The bill would ban girls and women from participating in sports that match their gender identity.

Supporters, including Gov. Kristi Noem, say the bill is about simple fairness. Opponents say it’s an insensitive measure aimed at a minority group that already suffers bullying.

Last year Noem vetoed a similar bill and took heat from some conservatives. She said that bill had flaws, including leaving the state open to lawsuits, that have been fixed in this year’s bill. Amendments would have the state cover costs and defend school boards if they are sued over the issue.

Joining other Republicans for the bill, with reservations

Duhamel voted against the bill last year and wishes the bill hadn’t been introduced this year. She said she voted for it in committee, along with all the other Republican members, because it was clear the bill was going to pass and she and others tried to make it as palatable as possible.

“We took an unnecessary bill and did our best to make it less onerous, to make sure all the schools would be covered against probably what’s inevitable litigation,” Duhamel said.

I might have voted differently on that bill. But then, I’m not the one sitting in that Senate seat. And differences on one bill or two, or one issue or two, don’t mean I won’t support a candidate I like overall.

I think narrowly focused litmus tests by voters are bad for democracy.

Duhamel was handling angry responses from opponents of the transgender bill during the weekend. She said she tried to explain the thinking behind her vote.

“We get it out of the Senate and it goes to the House, where they’re not going to like the watered-down version of the bill,” she said. “They’ll fight it. Maybe nothing will pass.”

Or maybe something will. Either way, Duhamel said it’s frustrating to spend time and energy on a divisive issue that hasn’t proven to be a problem in South Dakota and has been well handled by the South Dakota High School Activities Association. It also takes time away from issues most South Dakotans consider priorities.

When we fight over things that aren’t problems here, it sucks all the oxygen out of the Capitol,” she said. “Meanwhile, we have so many important issues to deal with. And instead, we fight over divisive social issues. And this one, it’s really not a problem. So why fight over it?”

Water, wages, workforce housing among key issues that need focus

Priorities like water development and protection, workforce housing, and wages are bipartisan and have broad effects across the state, she said.

She believes the majority of South Dakotans want such issues to be the focus of lawmakers but often don’t speak up like energized advocates on social issues.

“We’ve got a boom area coming with the B-21 bomber coming to Ellsworth Air Force Base,” she said.” And water. We have to look ahead on that. A few years of drought and we could be in trouble.

“Right now everyone’s sucking out of the Madison Aquifer,” Duhamel said. “We have to be smarter about this precious resource, smarter about how we treat water and sewage. Then we have to get working to get Missouri River water to western South Dakota.”

She introduced legislation Friday to provide $10 million for preliminary design and engineering work on a pipeline from the river to the Black Hills region, something she called “a start.” The project would be patterned after the Lewis & Clark project that brought Missouri River water to Sioux Falls and other East River towns and cities.

“Sioux Falls would not be Sioux Falls without water — and a great, clean water supply,” Duhamel said.

The uphill grade from the Missouri to the hills and rocky subsurface in some areas complicate things, she said.

“It’ll be hard, but it’s about fairness,” she said. “We did it for east. Now we have to think about the other part of the state.”

On workforce housing, the biggest demands are in Sioux Falls and Rapid City, although other cities have needs, too. It has to be a blend of various funding sources to work, she said.

“We want everyone to have skin in the game,” she said. “So we’ll have federal money, state match, local match, and developer money.”

Working to provide a living wage in South Dakota is also essential, and something that should cross party lines for the benefit of all state residents, she said.

Along the way, legislators need to be willing to compromise, rather than fight.

“You know, compromise has somehow become a bad word,” Duhamel said. “But it should be part of what we do.”

It should be. And I’ll sign a nominating petition for a lawmaker like that any day.

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