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Analyzing recent messages from SD's top political leaders

This interview originally aired on "In the Moment" on SDPB Radio.

Gov. Kristi Noem released a message on Tuesday calling for tribes to "banish the cartels" from South Dakota reservations.

The governor says she will speak the truth about drug cartel activity on tribal land. Critics accuse her of using incendiary language and spreading misinformation.

Our Dakota Political Junkies provide their analysis on Gov. Noem's message and what Sen. John Thune has said about his bid for the top Republican leadership spot in the Senate.

Seth Tupper is the editor-in-chief of South Dakota Searchlight. Kevin Woster is a veteran South Dakota journalist.

The following transcript was auto-generated.
Lori Walsh:
Yesterday, Gov. Kristi Noem issued a statement to South Dakota's tribes. She told them to banish Mexican drug cartels from reservation lands. It was a strongly worded statement and it initiated equally strongly worded reactions from tribal leaders across the state.

Our Dakota Political Junkies are here to offer some analysis into what's going on in the state, as well as some other political stories that have caught our eye this week.

Seth Tupper is editor-in-chief of South Dakota Searchlight. Kevin Woster is a veteran South Dakota journalist. And they're both seated around the table in SDPB's Black Hill Surgical Hospital Studio in Rapid City.

Kevin Woster, welcome. Thanks for being here.

Kevin Woster:
Very nice to be here, especially with our buddy Seth.

Lori Walsh:
Seth Tupper, welcome as well.

Seth Tupper:
Thank you. Likewise.

Lori Walsh:
Seth, let's start with you and let's start with this statement that the governor issued. Now another tribe has come out and said she's not allowed to come on their land at all because they're upset at how this was worded, and what they say are lies and misinformation that was in this statement.

We know we could spend a month talking about this, but the context for this statement right now, Seth. What rises to the level of importance to you today?

Seth Tupper:
Well, two things really. One is obviously nobody who lives in South Dakota is under any illusion that there aren't some problems on reservations that need to be dealt with. And tribal members and people who live on reservations are obviously aware of that as well.

But that's been a longstanding issue, and so the question becomes why such intense focus right now at this precise moment that the governor is bringing to this?

I mean, Gov. Noem got elected to Congress in 2010, and got elected governor in 2018. I mean, she's been around. And then there's been issues on reservations that whole time. She hasn't seemed to be as intensely focused on it as she is now until this precise moment.

And so you have to question what's the role of politics in this? Gov. Noem is apparently actively seeking to be Donald Trump's running mate in the presidential race. And we know that Trump has made a lot of the border situation in his campaign, and this is a way that Gov. Noem can tie to that issue and say, "Mexican cartels are sending drugs to our reservations," and things.

So yesterday's news release especially, there was really nothing that triggered it as far as I can tell. It was just she decided to issue a press release and bring this up again. And so what's the motivation, you have to kind of ask.

Lori Walsh:
She cites media reports, and the link leads to an NBC report from Feb. 10 where they did some coverage on Montana and drug cartel activity there.

Kevin, do you see a sense of why now? She certainly says by the end of the release that people are contacting her, they're thanking her.

There was a town hall where she talked about corruption in tribal government, which has been a particularly contentious allegations in the fact that she's implying that somebody in tribal government is benefiting from working with the drug cartel. So there's a lot of incendiary language in that town hall that ABC reported at.

What are you thinking rises to the level of what we need to discuss here first, Kevin?

Kevin Woster:
I just want to say please stop this. I mean, our relationships with the tribes have been so fragile and so difficult over so many years, and some of the governors have made progress. And this is so harmful. To me, any chance of improving things in our relationship and the needs on the reservation, be serious about addressing those as well as the governor of a state can do.

It's like they've got a board in the governor's office, and it's got all these arrows that say, "Okay, now we're going to hit this one. And now we're going to hit this one. And tie this to the border, we're going to do that."

And in the meantime, these people are really suffering because there are terrible problems down there, just as there are problems elsewhere off the reservation with drugs and cartel connections. To me it's ridiculous to say banish cartels from the reservation.

I call today on Gov. Noem to banish cartels from South Dakota. I mean, good luck with both of that. How do you do that, banish cartels from the United States?

I mean, we can be better than this. Our governor can be better than that. And as somebody who's covered governors and known governors and generally respected governors since the early 1970s, it makes me so sad for the damage it does to an important relationship that has been so tortured over the years.

Lori Walsh:
Kevin, talk about what Tim Giago, a long-time newspaper man, might have said. You worked with him a lot over the years. Obviously, he worked with Gov. Mickelson. You've covered this for a long time. What would he have said about how language matters in this scenario?

Kevin Woster:
Well, he would've used some language that would've mattered, I'm pretty sure that, in response. Because Tim could be pretty sharp-tongued, but tended to direct it with a reason for it. And just this general insinuation that anybody, I mean, you leave it wide open that anybody who happens to be a tribal leader in South Dakota could be connected, more than an insinuation, some are, without any proof, without any presentation of specifics. I just have never seen anything like it in this area.

Lori Walsh:
Seth, what happens next? Because certainly we've seen some pushback already, tribes saying that you cannot come onto their land. What is the path forward for this conversation?

Seth Tupper:
Well, when Gov. Noem first brought this up, if you recall, was in the joint speech she gave to the legislature. She convened the House and Senate during the session, and that was kind of the opening salvo in all this. And you wondered at that time, is she going to keep beating this drum or not? And obviously she's going to, as again, yesterday, didn't seem to be any trigger for the news release she put out yesterday. Just seemed to wanted to bring it up again.

So I think what's next is it's incumbent on us as journalists, and we're doing some of this work today. We have a reporter, Rep. Dusty Johnson happens to be down in Wagner with a roundtable of law enforcement officials from the Yankton Sioux Tribe. And he's down there today and we'll ask about this.

And I think it's incumbent on us as journalists to say, okay, if she's going to keep up with this river of rhetoric about this and not offer up any sort of proof or evidence or whatever, it's incumbent on us to get that other side and to talk to people on the reservations, to talk to law enforcement officials, to talk to people in the federal government who prosecute crimes on reservations, et cetera, and try to bring some facts and analysis to the situation that so far has been driven entirely just by the governor's rhetoric on it.

Lori Walsh:
So there was a time, and both of you remember this, when meth was being cooked in rural South Dakota to a level that was terrifying. And now there have been regulations and crackdowns and law enforcement officers have worked really hard to keep the supply. But the demand is still here. The demand for methamphetamines, the demand for fentanyl is still here.

I'm not hearing much from state government or anyone right now about addressing the demand or the addiction or rehabilitation. Has that gone by the wayside as we find the next person who is making the meth and bringing it to us? The supply side, as you were. Have we forgotten about why some people are using this and how we can help them to decrease the demand?

Kevin, anything come to mind there for you?

Kevin Woster:
Well, what comes to mind is when Gov. Noem first ran for governor in the primary, in a panel discussion she talked about the importance of addressing that part of it, the drug issue, the treatment and prevention. And that part of her, if she was elected governor, one of her focuses would be that. And while I think she probably has done some work there, I wish she would turn and focus on that.

And I wish she would, instead of these diatribes, she would ask the tribes, "How can I help? Knowing that there are jurisdictional issues involved with how the state gets involved, how can we help you fight this scourge, this horrible thing on your reservation? How?"

And go in there with a sense of humility. As Gov. Mickelson, when he started to work on reconciliation efforts, one of the greatest things that very large man was, a very small ego. And he went to the tribes in a spirit of concession and said humbly, "How can we do this better? We've failed so many times. How can we do better?" And if she could do that, then we might have the possibility of actually making some progress, hopefully.

Seth Tupper:
I would jump in, Lori. What that makes me think of is just that Gov. Noem, this is a new politics that she believes in. I haven't seen her new book yet, but reading the notes for a new book, which is titled "No Going Back." It's about the fact that she thinks this is the way to do politics, that this is the right way to do it, being brash, being bold, being confrontational, being inflammatory. And so she thinks that's the way to get results, and so that's the way she's going to do it. And we're seeing it in real time right now.

Kevin Woster:
And with Indigenous people and with tribal leaders, that's the absolute worst approach.

Lori Walsh:
All right, let's pivot to a little bit about what normal times might look like and what the future is in the party.

After we pause a moment to just ask, are there an incredible amount of trains happening outside your window?

Seth Tupper:
There were, yes.

Lori Walsh:
The trains are running in Rapid today. That's the sound that you hear if you're listening in headphones right now, which I am.

All right. Seth, you talked to U.S. Sen. John Thune. You did a Q&A that is on South Dakota Searchlight where you really asked him some of these questions, including about Gov. Noem's book and the title, and "No Going Back." So help us understand a little bit about this interview, how it came together, and what you wanted to know about his rise in the national party, as Mitch McConnell says he's not going to run to renew his position as leader in November.

Seth Tupper:
Yeah. Ever since that happened and Sen. Thune was identified obviously immediately as one of the favorites to succeed McConnell in that job, I immediately flashed back to the last election cycle when Sen. Thune told numerous people that he was seriously thinking about not running.

And so yeah, I really want to know, how do you get from thinking you want to just quit and go live a quiet life in Sioux Falls to wanting an even higher job that you might hold for the next 20 years? So that was interesting. In response to that question. He did say that one of the reasons he decided to run last time was the prospect that McConnell might retire and the leader job might be open. And he didn't carry that through, but people always say there are different tracks you can be on in the Senate. Some senators are just running for president constantly, and some senators are there to do major legislation and some are on the leadership track. And Thune has clearly been on the leadership track. He's risen through the ranks. And if you're going to put in all that time in the Senate on the leadership track, you might as well stick it out until you can maybe become the leader.

And so it was interesting that he kind of acknowledged that that was sort of the thing that was the tipping factor in him deciding to run for re-election and stay. And so I thought that was interesting. And he had some interesting things to say about Donald Trump in that interview too.

I did ask him about Noem's book because I'm continually fascinated by the fact that Gov. Noem seems to very openly say and do things that are really derogatory towards the way that Sen. Thune and Rep. Johnson and Sen. Rounds do things. And her books seems like it's going to say that she does things a different way and that's a better way. And so there's that sort of tension there among our top elected officials in the state that I wanted to explore a bit.

And in response, Sen. Thune just said, "Hey, we're in sort of a new day in politics, and this is the reality you have to live with." And he just said that for him, he's just trying to stay who he is and try to do the work that he went to Washington to do. And that was kind of it. He didn't engage in criticism of the governor or President Trump, but he also didn't come to their defense either when I asked those questions.

Lori Walsh:
All right, Kevin. South Dakota has been here before with someone in the Senate leadership with the gentleman that Mr. Thune defeated, which is Senator Tom Daschle. There's a symmetry to this leadership track. Tell us a little bit about that.

Kevin Woster:
Well, there is. It's a little easier for Sen. Thune because Daschle was a Democrat in a Republican state. And even in the years where we made room for Democratic members of Congress, and previous to that, a few in the legislature and in the Capitol, a few more than we have, it's still harder for a Democrat to maintain a democratic leadership position in the Capitol, and also get re-elected in a Republican state back home.

So now that Sen. Thune's challenge is not so much what Daschle had. And they would both say the same thing, that my position as a leader gives me a platform for the state, it gives me an ability to do things for the state. And Tom Daschle did things for South Dakota because of his standing in the Senate and his position there and his power. And John Thune can and likely will if he's elected Republican leader.

But it's not quite as complicated for him. His job now is to try and, as Seth touched on, to try and deal with the Trump side of his party. Well, it's more than the Trump side, it's the Trump party with what I would call a reasonable traditional Republican side that John Thune and Mike Rounds and Dusty Johnson represent, without getting two crossways and getting into a war with the Trump party. And that's complicated in itself.

And it's a very revealing, I think, interview that Seth did with him. One of, what, 165 or something?

Seth Tupper:
Yeah. When I asked for the interview, I think it was a few days after McConnell had announced he was going to quit. And Thune's office told me they had something like 160-some media requests at that point already from across the country for interviews.

Kevin Woster:
But he is smart enough to know, talk to Seth Tupper, talk to some of the local guys too. And I think also cordial enough and has relationship enough with. Because John Thune still believes in those kind of relationships. And he also still believes in trying to answer questions as honestly as a politician in his position can, and I think we all appreciate that.

Lori Walsh:
Let's close with one more topic of the day, and that is that President Joe Biden did not in fact cancel Easter. PolitiFact decided that they need to do some fact checking on this idea that Gov. Noem had put forward, which is that President Biden had said no religious symbols on the Easter eggs. And that was not him at all. Seth, tell me a little bit about what we've learned about Easter in the White House and the egg council.

Seth Tupper:
And this is where we're at, isn't it? This is politics these days. But yeah, Gov. Noem had shared some social media posts claiming that President Biden had basically banned religious symbols from appearing on Easter eggs that were decorated and used in the Easter celebration at the White House. And PolitiFact checked into that. It was kind of funny to read because we know about checkoffs and things like that in South Dakota. There's a national egg checkoff, I guess. And there's a national board that has run this event at the White House for 45 years. And because they are sort of tied to the federal government and they don't allow any one religion to be favored over another, et cetera. And it's been that way for 45 years, PolitiFact reported.

So in fact, President Biden didn't do anything different than has been done for four plus decades, and so they determined that claim was false.

But you just look at these things and this is where we're at with politics, is we have a governor that wants to pick a fight about Easter eggs at the White House. There's no going back, truly, I guess.

Kevin Woster:
She wasn't alone. There were other Republicans across the country doing this, playing the same song. And again, I come back to, I feel it's goofy and it makes you laugh and it also makes you sad, because come on, with all the serious problems we have going on, we play this game?

Lori Walsh:
All right. Well, she's been saying a lot lately "the power of a story". So the power of a story is true, but you have to also include the facts. And hopefully that's what we've done a little bit for you here today.

Seth Tupper with South Dakota Searchlight,, and Kevin Woster, thank you so much for being here with us. We appreciate your time.

Kevin Woster:
Thanks, Lori.

Seth Tupper:

Lori Walsh is the host and senior producer of In the Moment.
Ellen Koester is a producer of In the Moment, SDPB's daily news and culture broadcast.
Ari Jungemann is a producer of In the Moment, SDPB's daily news and culture broadcast.