Lowe, Wismer and the SDDP

Cory Heidelberger sees the South Dakota Democratic Party lining up behind Susan Wismer’s gubernatorial campaign over rival Joe Lowe’s.

The party insists it’s neutral and welcomes the competition.

A few notes for people trying to make up their minds.

First, here’s how the party responded to each candidate’s entrance to the race.

Executive director Zach Crago on Lowe:

Democrats are very excited to have a good, well-qualified candidate to run against Gov. Dennis Daugaard.

(When asked whether more candidates might enter the race:) 

I think it’s possible. I don’t speak for all the Democrats who have expressed an interest in the race. I’m sure as more and more people learn about Gov. Daugaard’s agenda and his history of slashing education funding and pushing corporate welfare projects, more and more Democrats are going to be interested in running for that race as well

Party chair Deb Knecht on Wismer:

A small town businesswoman and senior appropriations member, Rep. Susan Wismer understands that the governor’s budget is a moral document with real impacts across the state. She’ll see to it that our state’s policies reflect our values of opportunity, equality, and community.

We look forward to a spirited primary between Joe Lowe and Rep. Susan Wismer with all attention on the future of our state.

Now, to a certain extent, that’s apples and oranges. It’s a statement in an interview vs. a prepared statement. It’s not surprising that a prepared statement would be more effusive than an off-the-cuff remark. But that in and of itself says something — the SDDP released a statement on Wismer’s entry into the race but not, that I can find, on Lowe’s.

The tone also seems pretty clearly more positive for Wismer, praising her in specific terms vs. generalities.

Parsing statements aside, Wismer got explicit support from just about the entire Democratic legislative caucus. House Democratic Leader Bernie Hunhoff said he and many other lawmakers backed Wismer because they’ve known and respected her for years.

"Susan, she’s earned our support," Hunhoff said. "She’s earned it through her years of just tirelessly fighting the fight for South Dakotans… She’s just an exceptional candidate. Certainly no disrespect to Mr. Lowe, but just a profound respect for Susan."

Of course, one key difference between Wismer and Lowe is that Wismer is a longtime Democrat who has worked with party leaders both in and out of the Legislature. Lowe is a former Republican who registered as a Democrat only recently, though no one of either party has anything bad to say about Lowe’s work as state wildfire chief.

This next bit is an unsubstantiated comparison, but potentially interesting. In 2010, after Rep. Kristi Noem won the Republican primary over then-Secretary of State Chris Nelson, Nelson talked to me about one reason (aside from his awful fundraising) why voters rejected him in favor of Noem:

“The last three weeks of the campaign, I just heard repeatedly from Republicans that they really felt we needed a female candidate,” said Nelson.

And some experts have argued Republicans were right to feel that way, that Noem, as a woman, was a stronger candidate against Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin.

Do Democrats feel the same way? Or are they just more comfortable with and excited about Wismer, someone with long experience working with the party and its leaders?

Wage hike will be on the ballot as IM 18

South Dakota Democrats and labor unions easily turned in enough signatures to put a minimum wage hike on the ballot next year.

Their measure, raising the minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $8.50, along with a comparable rise in the tip wage, and indexing both to inflation, will be 2014’s Initiated Measure 18.

Secretary of State Jason Gant made the announcement this afternoon after examining a sample of the 25,658 signatures turned in by supporters. They validated 1,044 out of 1,283 in the random sample, which — if extrapolated to the full set of signatures — would mean around 20,878 valid signatures.

That’s far more than the 15,855 needed to make the ballot.

Previously, the “Any Willing Provider” initiated measure was certified with a projected 22,895 signatures as Initiated Measure 17. (Though for some reason I didn’t get an email announcement of that.)

Lowe and the Democrats

Joe Lowe, the former wildfire chief now running for South Dakota governor, is a “solid Democrat” who wants to help increase teacher pay and worker wages.

But he wasn’t always a Democrat. In fact, his partisan affiliation has shifted several times over the years, reflecting both his evolving values and the changing political landscape.

Lowe was born into a “solid Democratic family” in Joplin, Missouri. But as he grew up, he drifted to the right, ultimately becoming a Republican sometime around 1991 (though Lowe said he was hazy on the dates).

That’s about the time Lowe entered politics in Orange County, California — a conservative stronghold in a liberal state. When he ran for the Mission Viejo city council in 1992, he espoused a generally center-right platform: “ensure that the city doesn’t overspend… more business growth within the city… (study) an increase in the police force to address major crimes such as homicide and rape.”

But by the middle of the 1990s, as the Newt Gingrich Republicans gained power in Washington, D.C. and clashed repeatedly with President Bill Clinton, Lowe saw the Republican Party “getting to extremes” and became an independent.

He stayed an independent for around a decade, during which time he accepted Gov. Bill Janklow’s offer to come to South Dakota and lead the state’s anti-wildfire efforts. But in the first part of the 2000s, Lowe shifted back to the Republican Party. He remained in the GOP for a number of years before in 2008, having a similar reaction as he did in 1995.

"I felt the (Republican) Party left me and it wasn’t what I wanted to be," Lowe said.

That’s when he became a Democrat. At the time, he was still working for Republican Gov. Mike Rounds, and stayed on working for Rounds’ GOP successor Dennis Daugaard, all as a Democrat.

In addition to believing the Republican Party had drifted to the right, Lowe said he was also partially inspired by meeting and working with prominent South Dakota Democrats through his anti-wildfire work.

"I admired Stephanie Herseth. I admired Tom Daschle, when he’d come to the fires and he’d really try to help," Lowe said. "I admired some of the other folks, like Tim Johnson. I found myself, at that point, starting to move into the Democratic camp."

Now Lowe is trying to become a Democratic standard-bearer like Herseth, Daschle and Johnson. The state Democratic Party was measured in its support for Lowe, with executive director Zach Crago praising him as a “good, well-qualified candidate” but also arguing that Daugaard’s record might inspire other Democrats to run, too.

Lowe had stronger support from some West River Democrats. Among the people who urged him to run was former Rapid City Mayor Don Barnett, he said.

Democrats stick with interim Knecht as chair

South Dakota’s Democrats on Saturday chose to keep interim chair Deb Knecht on the job.

Knecht, of Houghton, was vice chair until earlier this year, when Democratic chairman Ben Nesselhuf resigned to work for a campaign in Iowa.

The central committee of the South Dakota Democratic Party also elected Darrell Raschke of Huron as its vice-chair Saturday.

Tags: SDDP

Democrats’ minimum wage hike approved for petitioning

The attempt by Democrats to raise South Dakota’s minimum wage by initiated measure passed its first hurdle today.

Secretary of State Jason Gant approved the initiative petition, letting advocates begin gathering signatures. They probably don’t want to waste time — they need 15,855 signatures of valid voters by Nov. 4 of this year.

Its official title is “An initiated measure to increase the state minimum wage.” It won’t get a number until it reaches the threshold; what number it gets will depend on whether it’s the first initiative to turn in petitions.

Here’s Attorney General Marty Jackley’s official explanation

The initiated measure amends state law to raise South Dakota’s hourly minimum wage for non-tipped employees from $7.25 to $8.50 per hour, effective January 1, 2015. Thereafter, this minimum wage will be annually adjusted by any increase in the cost of living. The cost of living increase is measured by the change in the Consumer Price Index published by the U.S. Department of Labor. In no case may the minimum wage be decreased.

In addition, the hourly minimum wage for tipped employees will be half the minimum wage for non-tipped employees as adjusted by any cost of living increase described above.

These increases would apply to all employers in South Dakota, with limited exceptions.

Dems planning initiated measure to raise minimum wage (updated)

South Dakota voters may get to decide whether to raise the state’s minimum wage next year.

If several labor unions and the South Dakota Democratic Party succeed in gathering more than 15,000 signatures by November, then the 2014 ballot will include a proposal to increase the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $8.50.

The proposed initiated measure would also index the minimum wage to inflation, giving automatic cost-of-living increases to the minimum wage every year.

"South Dakota’s one of the lowest-wage states in the country," said Mark Anderson, president of the South Dakota AFL-CIO. "We’ve made every attempt we could possibly do to make it friendly for businesses. Now I think it’s time we make it friendly for workers. And this is a good start."

People who work for tips would also benefit from the proposed change, which would fix the tip wage at 50 percent of regular minimum wage. At $4.25 to start, that would be double the current $2.13 minimum wage for tipped workers.

Statistics compiled by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics estimate that around 6,000 South Dakotans earn exactly minimum wage, out of 253,000 workers who are paid hourly. Another 6,000 earn less than minimum wage.

It’s unclear how many people earn more than the current minimum wage but less than the $8.50 proposal. In some fields, such as food preparation, more than one-third of employees earn below $8.50 per hour on a national basis, according to the BLS.

Business groups are traditionally skeptical of minimum wage increases, and the leader of the South Dakota Chamber of Commerce and Industry predicted his group would oppose the SDDP proposal.

"Very few people stay at minimum wage for very long. And most of the people who are at minimum wage are non-breadwinners, although there are people who are," said David Owen, president and CEO of the South Dakota Chamber. "But the vast majority are students, people early on in their working career. Given the labor shortages in South Dakota, I think the marketplace has done a good job of keeping wages in fast food restaurants and similar places slightly above the minimum wage."

Gov. Dennis Daugaard, a Republican, also responded negatively to the proposal.

"This issue should be based on economics, not politics," Daugaard said in a statement. "There needs to be an analysis of how many jobs would be lost."

But Zach Crago, the interim executive director of the South Dakota Democratic Party, predicted a minimum wage increase would help the economy.

"It’s common knowledge that people with more money in their pockets will spend that at businesses across South Dakota," Crago said. "That’s money that will ripple through our economy and create opportunities for all people."

The proposed initiated measure is now in the hands of Attorney General Marty Jackley, who has two months to write an official explanation of the proposal. Advocates will then have until Nov. 4, 2013, to gather 15,855 valid signatures. If they succeed, the initiated measure will be placed on the November 2014 ballot.

Dems talk past, future at state party dinner

Democrats had a split focus at their state party dinner Saturday night — celebrating the past service of retiring Sen. Tim Johnson and the recently deceased George McGovern, and hope for the upcoming 2014 elections.

The annual McGovern Day Dinner in Sioux Falls included a video tribute to McGovern, the former senator and presidential candidate and namesake of the dinner who died last October. Party chair Ben Nesselhuf termed him the “founder of our party” for his work rebuilding an almost non-existent Democratic Party in the 1950s, while Sioux Falls Mayor Mike Huether discussed lessons he had learned from McGovern.

There was also a valedictory speech from Johnson, who announced his retirement from the Senate last month. Johnson shied away from politics but thanked his friends and supporters in the audience.

"Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for making us feel like the luckiest people in America," Johnson said.

Other speakers focused on the politics. In an unscheduled speech, Democratic strategist Steve Jarding gave a fiery speech blasting Gov. Dennis Daugaard and other state Republican leaders for their policies with regard to education, economic development and the environment.

"Let’s take this thing back, let’s win the governor’s race next year, and let’s make South Dakota strong again," said Jarding.

With the party looking to defend Johnson’s U.S. Senate seat, the dinner’s keynote speaker was a senator many South Dakota Democrats hope to emulate — Heidi Heitkamp, who won an upset victory in North Dakota last year.

Heitkamp told attendees that a combination of hard work and passion was the key to winning in a Republican state.

"No stone was left unturned, because we knew it was going to be that close," she said.

So far Democrats have no announced candidates for Senate, governor or U.S. House in 2014, though several names are rumored and Heitkamp told the crowd “you know who they are.”

U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, a rumored Senate candidate, was not present. Former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin introduced Heitkamp, but didn’t discuss the 2014 race in her remarks.

Democrats launch ‘smart safety’ website against HB 1087

A new website, smartschoolsafety.org, seeks to galvanize public opinion against House Bill 1087, the so-called “school sentinels” bill to allow districts to arm volunteer defenders.

"Guns in school may be coming to your community if radical Republicans have their way. The South Dakota House passed a bill to put more guns in the hands of school teachers, janitors, or other school personnel," the website declares.

Is this a grassroots backlash against House Republican overreach?


The bottom of the website declares it’s paid for by “The Majority Project.”

If you visit South Dakota’s campaign finance website, you’ll find that’s a political action committee run by Ben Nesselhuf, who just happens to be the chairman of the South Dakota Democratic Party.

FTEs in Daugaard’s budget

Late tonight, the South Dakota Democratic Party opened a new line of assault on Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s budget:

I snarked a bit about the “getting word” phrasing — I had not yet noticed this particular detail, but staffing information is included in the full budget book released every year — and which had been released earlier today.

So I opened up the budget book summary and found my answer on page 45:

The source of the SDDP’s complaint is at the bottom: 60.7 extra FTEs in the executive branch. Above, that breaks down into 14.5 for Corrections, 21.4 for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, eight for Health, nine for Public Safety, five for Information and Telecommunications, and a smattering for other departments.

The Democrats are right that these FTE increases are in the budget and that Daugaard did not mention them in his speech. I’ll reach out to the governor’s staff tomorrow for a fuller accounting, but here’s my hunches:

The 14.5 staff for Corrections and nine for Public Safety may have something to do with the new criminal justice initiative the governor is working on. (Or they may not, or may only in part.)

No clue what the Department of Health workers are for.

By far the most interesting bit of information are the 21.4 extra FTEs for GOED. A little bit more information can be found on page 34 of the budget summary book, which notes that all this extra FTE growth is for the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority, the authority that oversees the Sanford Underground Research Facility at Homestake.

The Homestake Mine got several mentions in Daugaard’s budget — $2 million to improve the Ross Shaft at the underground lab, and $1.9 million (buried inside the $5.3 million increase for the Board of Regents) to start a PhD program in physics at USD and the School of Mines, to tie in to the underground lab.

Neither of those appear to be the cause of the 21.4 extra Science and Technology Authority FTEs. From page 34:

"Increases of 21.4 FTE and $3,125,988 in other fund expenditure authority are to reflect anticipated expenses.” (Emphasis mine)

"Anticipated expenses" is as vague as it gets; other explanations of funding increases on the same page include "changes in bureau billings," "due to no longer spending Health Insurance Exchange planning grant funds," "increased health insurance costs" and "to align the budgets with anticipated expenditures."

My guess is that the Homestake Mine is at the center of one of those initiatives Daugaard said he was going to discuss in detail in the State of the State address.

The mention of “other fund expenditure authority” means it won’t be South Dakota taxpayers who foot the bill for these 21.4 positions, if I’m reading it correctly. There is probably a grant from the feds or a university or a nonprofit from which South Dakota is going to benefit.

Hopefully tomorrow I’ll have fuller information about all these proposed new FTEs.

Nesselhuf blasts Rounds

No honeymoons in politics these days. Twenty-six minutes after Rounds’ campaign announcement comes this release from South Dakota Democratic Party chair Ben Nesselhuf:

Governor Mike Rounds is a nice guy with the wrong priorities for the U.S. Senate. Rounds clamored for hundreds of millions in stimulus dollars to mask his record of deficit spending, oversaw explosive growth in state government, and abused state resources for personal gain. What legacy did he leave for the state of South Dakota? A broken corporate giveaway program, a new Governor’s mansion, and a $127 million budget deficit in 2011. Senator Tim Johnson has delivered for the state of South Dakota. Governor Mike Rounds has not.


Governor Mike Rounds is challenging Senator Tim Johnson for his Senate seat in 2014. Senator Tim Johnson has never lost an election in his political career starting in the South Dakota state house in 1979. He has defeated Republican titans, including Senators Larry Pressler and John Thune.

Johnson has yet to declare whether he’s seeking reelection.

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