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.