Rhoden, 54, is a rancher and longtime Republican state lawmaker. He served in the state House from 2001 to 2008, where he spent four years as majority leader. When he was term-limited, Rhoden won a seat in the state Senate, where he’s in his third term. Rhoden is currently the majority whip, but that’s not where he hoped to be — in 2010 Rhoden ran for Senate Majority Leader and lost to state Sen. Russell Olson in an internal GOP caucus election.
He’s conservative, but isn’t a bomb-thrower. For example, he said repeatedly this year that he “really hate(s) knee-jerk reactions to issues of the day.” As a member of leadership and the chairman of the powerful Senate State Affairs Committee, Rhoden’s preference is to work with his colleagues to get things done rather than to unleash fire and brimstone in defiant floor speeches. In my analysis, I would say he’s not a “movement conservative,” for lack of a better term, but rather a small-c conservative, fired by a rural sense of caution and skepticism.
Among his legislative causes are gun rights — he sponsored a high-profile bill this year, a “legislative finding” that the “Founding Fathers freely and willingly abjured all legislative and executive authority to regulate gun ownership and usage… to individual citizens.” That bill was a bold proclamation in favor of gun rights, but as a legislative finding it didn’t actually do anything, and tactically Rhoden positioned it as a way to defend gun rights without going as far as some other proposals that sought to nullify federal gun laws. (Rhoden’s gun bill was ultimately defeated.) He was also a supporter of South Dakota’s “school sentinels” bill allowing schools to arm volunteer defenders. Rhoden helped shape that measure, championing an amendment giving local citizens the explicit right to refer the creation of a school sentinel program to a vote.
Rhoden has also been active on issues of taxation and school funding. In 2011, when the Legislature was enacting steep 10 percent across-the-board cuts, Rhoden carried a compromise that mitigated some of the impact by freezing local school property taxes instead of letting them be cut automatically along with state funding. The net effect was to save schools money by shifting a bigger percentage of the school funding burden from the state to local taxpayers. In the years since then, as the state’s budget situation has improved, Rhoden has battled unsuccessfully to try to reverse that change by raising the state’s percentage of school funding.
UPDATE: Another important thing I didn’t mention is Rhoden’s interest in agriculture issues. My colleague Josh Verges notes in the comments that he was instrumental in devising South Dakota’s production-based agriculture tax system.
Here is a video interview of Rhoden I conducted this legislative session, talking about gun issues. (I apologize for my stumbling demeanor.)
To read all my coverage of Rhoden over the past year, click here.
And here is a photo of Rhoden taking a free throw in a charity basketball game: