The ‘sort of locked in’ adviser

One of the areas of my feature on Daugaard’s advisers that I’ve seen a lot of people talking about is the little vignette about Tony Venhuizen’s, Daugaard’s director of policy and communications who seems to be a lightning rod for criticism. In it, Daugaard talks about being initially reluctant to give Venhuizen a job in his administration because Venhuizen is Daugaard’s son-in-law and he was worried about appearances:

Gov. Dennis Daugaard almost refused to give Tony Venhuizen, his director of policy and communications, a job in his administration. 

Venhuizen’s near-fatal flaw was the same fact that had helped him rise to become Daugaard’s campaign manager years before his 30th birthday: his marriage to Sara Daugaard, the governor’s daughter. 

That marriage helped Venhuizen, a lawyer who served as a student representative on the state Board of Regents for five years and helped elect Mike Rounds to two terms as governor, enter Daugaard’s inner circle. By late 2010, Venhuizen was the man managing Daugaard’s campaign, and he was hoping to keep working for Daugaard after his boss won. 

But Daugaard worried about appearances. 

“Linda and I talked about it, and I changed my mind,” Daugaard said. “I’m very glad I did, because Tony’s been outstanding.” 

As director of policy and communications, Venhuizen is Daugaard’s chief spokesman and oversees the Department of Education and the Bureau of Information and Telecommunications, along with sitting on Daugaard’s executive committee. 

Fellow members of the executive committee praised Venhuizen, with Lt. Gov. Matt Michels calling him “the most gifted writer that I have ever met.” 

During meetings of the governor’s advisers, Venhuizen tends to listen thoroughly before contributing. As Daugaard’s spokesman, Venhuizen’s input frequently concerns how policies will be perceived in the public arena.

When Daugaard told me that story, I initially thought it was shedding a new level of light on his decision to give Venhuizen a job. But after revisiting some old clips, Daugaard had said basically the same thing at the time, in November 2010:

Before his new position was announced Monday, Venhuizen served on Daugaard’s transition committee and was the manager of Daugaard’s election campaign.

Announcing Venhuizen’s hiring, Daugaard said he had considered that it might prompt accusations of nepotism but decided he was the right man for the job, anyway.

"We talked about the possibility that he not join the governor’s office because of that," Daugaard said. "You don’t want to consider or exclude from consideration someone because of something that is not related to qualifications for the job."

But Daugaard did go into much greater detail than he has ever done publicly before, to my knowledge. For example, he didn’t just “consider” not offering Venhuizen a job — he told him he wouldn’t, at an event either right before or right after Daugaard won a landslide victory in November 2010.

"I told Tony I would not offer him a place in the governor’s office because I felt that people would say that the only reason he got it was because of being married to my daughter. He was surprised, but accepting of that, I thought," Daugaard said when I interviewed him last month.

After that event, Daugaard said Venhuizen and Sara Daugaard Venhuizen asked he and Linda Daugaard to go out for a snack.

"We thought they were going to tell us that Sara was pregnant," Daugaard said.

(In actuality, that conversation the governor expected would have occurred closer to November 2011, doing quick back-of-the-envelope math after Tony and Sara became parents this weekend.)

Instead, the Venhuizens, having talked things over, asked Daugaard to reconsider and made the case that Venhuizen would be good at the job, would enjoy it and had earned it by hard work helping to get the governor elected.

After that conversation, Daugaard talked it over with Linda and changed his mind.

But Daugaard wasn’t totally off base. A year and a half in to Daugaard’s term in office, Venhuizen still gets hit on the issue of alleged nepotism, and along with Dusty Johnson (more on the two of them later) seems to come in for more criticism than any of Daugaard’s other advisers. Whether or not Venhuizen is good at his job — and I’d argue he’s the most helpful and available press spokesman I’ve yet worked with — his family ties to the governor continue to draw fire.

(I’ve also seen Venhuizen criticized for being young and lacking social skills, but this awkward 26-year-old reporter isn’t going to throw any stones there.)

So how did this whole angle come up? I was talking with Daugaard about how long he expects his advisers will stick around. (More on that later, too.)

"Tony’s sort of locked in since he’s married to my daughter, although I guess I shouldn’t highlight that," Daugaard said, before quickly launching into his story.