Beyond the sound of crickets, Huether considered likely U.S. House, governor candidate

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on
Sioux Falls Mayor Mike Huether

Crickets.

OK, OK, not the real insects. Just their literary equivalent.

That’s what I heard when I asked Mike Huether the question: What comes next for your political career?

Chreeep … chreeep … chreep…

When I said during a recent telephone interview that his name continued to be somewhere in the upper reaches of a heap of speculation on potential statewide candidates, the second-term Sioux Falls mayor offered this:

“I think that’s an incredibly fair comment and question. I really do.”

Which was nice. I love it when people think that. I really do. It seems incredibly fair. But I love it even more when they answer the question, which he didn’t.

“Because I"m not running for anything right now,” Huether said.

Fair enough. Neither am I. But my name is not near the top of any heap of speculation, at least not as it pertains to statewide campaigns.

But the consensus among those, like me, who tend to obsess — perhaps more than is good for us — on politicians and their plans is that a statewide campaign waits for the 54-year-old Yankton native in the not-so-distant future. He is prevented by Sioux Falls city rules from running for a third term as mayor but admits to a passion for politics and a desire for a leadership role in public policy decisions, both of which go back to his elementary school days in Yankton.

There, he says, a sixth-grade speech contest helped a deeply troubled child of divorce and son of an alcoholic father find inspiration and direction, and comfort.

“It was a real crappy part of my life for all kinds of reasons and I was feeling really crappy, too,” Huether says. “I entered a speech contest sponsored by Modern Woodmen of America, and my speech was on public service, government, stewardship, leadership and the like.”

He doesn’t still have the speech but he does still display the trophy proudly in his office at home. The real trophy, though, was his elevated self esteem.

“From that moment my confidence grew at a very high level and I knew I wanted to be in public service and leadership,” Huether said.

Childhood pal Chris Hilson, a sportscaster-turned-sales-representative in Yankton who gave his buddy the nickname “Huey” (It’s a play off Huether, of course; no reference to to 1930s Louisiana pol Huey “The Kingfish” Long intended) somewhere around the fifth grade, remembers how Huether came through that difficult time at home.

“I think a lot of his mettle was forged in those years,” says Hilson, whose father was well-known sportscaster Norm Hilson,. “ I think the fact that things didn’t come easy and he had to work for them was important. I don’t think he has forgotten those beginnings. He knows there are people out there who need help. So while he’s been very successful, he’s also very compassionate.”

Hilson credits Huether's strong-and-resilient mother for holding firm to the ties that bound the family together. But he also says his buddy was born with gifts that he relied on to get through tough times and go on to succeed in his career.

“He’s very determined. He’s a hard worker,” Hilson says. “I think he’s got excellent skills at getting out and meeting people and communicating, getting his message out.”

Could that message soon be used in a statewide campaign? No crickets from Hilson.

“If I was a betting man, yes. I have not actually talked to Mike about it, but I could see him running for either the congressional seat or governor,” Hilson said. “And I think being mayor of Sioux Falls has prepared him for that.”

Huether first spent 25 years in the banking business, first with Citbank in New York, Texas and Sioux Falls, then worked for First Premier Bankcard in Sioux Falls. He stood on that foundation in his first run for mayor, and used those first four years — and a generally progressive, prosperous atmosphere in the state’s largest city, by far — to win a second term.

Partisan politics isn’t a huge issue in most municipal elections in South Dakota. And it wasn’t huge in Sioux Falls. Still, Huether’s Democratic registration kept his name in play for something more than the mayor’s job, particularly since the party of McGovern and Daschle had fallen on Dust-Bowl-level hard times here in the land of not-so-infinite political variety.

So the question won’t go away: What’s next?

Chreeep … chreeep … chreep …

For now, at least.

But Huether might have shown his cards a bit in December when he announced that he was leaving the Democratic party to register as an independent. Prior to that announcement, Huether was often the first or second name on a second tier of Democrats discussed when the conversation turned to who the devastated minority party might offer for governor or the U.S. House next year.

Former Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin led the first tier, followed by former U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, youngest son of former U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson, the last dominant Democrat the state has known.

Herseth Sandlin is off the chart now, after taking the job as president of Augustana University in Sioux Falls. And Brendan Johnson seems unlikely to run for anything political anytime soon.

I’ve tended to mention Huether even before the likes of state Sen. Billie Sutton of Burke or state Sen. Troy Heinert as the next Democratic statewide hope, in part because of the mayor’s large media platform in Sioux Falls. So why did he step down from that somewhat dubious platform of expectations that some might call desperate hopes?


Well, the general election that saw Donald Trump upset Hillary Clinton and Democrats fail in an expected return to power in the U.S. Senate seemed to be the ignition point. But Huether said he and his wife, Cindy, had been discussing his departure from the Democratic Party for some time.

“In fact I kind of kicked myself for not doing it when my head, my heart, my gut said I should,” he said. “Ultimately, I really struggle with the extremes. That troubles me. And the voices of the extremes are trying to not only capture the dialogue but also dominate the dialogue.”

Many people — especially Democrats — might consider that a reference to Trump. But Huether is cautious in his comments about the new president, his combative and accusatory tweets and apparent disregard for facts on key issues.

To say nothing of the Access Hollywoood video, which is about all I want to say about it here. Even so, Huether stopped short of berating the new president for anything, showing the kind of caution that a candidate for statewide office as an independent might show.

“One thing about President Trump, he is following through at least with what he said he would try to do,” Huether said. “Now, we all differ in leadership styles and approaches. I’ve been an executive for well over 30, 35 years. My style would be different, my approach different.”

For starters, he appears to be a polite, well-mannered guy who generally seems to prefer fact to fiction when it comes to public policy discussions. And that’s a good place to start.

Huether also seems to have been more concerned, interestingly enough, about Nancy Pelosi than Donald Trump. Huether says he was “dumbfounded” that the Democrats endured the kind of rejection they suffered last November and still selected the long-serving California House member as their minority leader, again.

“I was thinking, ‘How could you not sense the importance of that message?’” he said, referring to the election outcome.

His December announcement sent an important message that was sadly sensed in the state Democratic Party. Party officials said in December in a Sioux Falls Argus Leader story that the sputtering (my word, not theirs) Democratic machine would work with him as an independent, just like they’ll work with any independent.

They clearly weren’t happy about the move, however.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed that he left,” says party Executive Director Suzanne Jones Pranger. “But we acknowledge that the independent population is growing across the country and here.”

Bob Mercer showed us just how much  it’s growing and how deep the Democratic losses have become last October when he checked on the totals of registered voters in South Dakota:

There were 251,649 Republicans; 170,445 Democrats; 118,046 independents and those with no-party affiliation; 1,603 Libertarians; 502 Constitutionalists; and 827 others.

I’ve been registered independent, Democrat and Republican in my voting life. But I’ve been hanging out in the Libertarian Party for the last decade or so.

I did register Democratic last spring so I could vote for Hillary Clinton in the primary. That gave the party a registration boost that I took away a week or so ago when I returned to The Party of Newland (Bob, of course), which is much different than a party at Newland’s — and less likely to get you arrested.

But back to the numbers, er, uh, statistics: Mercer pointed out in October that Democrats actually had an edge over Republicans in registered voters in South Dakota in 1978. That was the year Bill Janklow beat Roger McKellips and started a Republican gubernatorial reign of more than 40 years (by the time Daugaard leaves office in January of 2019…), and likely more.

The ’78 numbers: Democrats 193,345, Republicans 191,766.

It was all downhill for the Democrats after that in competing with Republicans for registered voters, and in elected offices.

The Democratic Party recovered nicely in registrations by 2008, thanks in large part to heavy registration work tied to the high-profile Obama-Clinton primary race, topping the 200,000 mark at 204,413. Republicans still had significantly more, at 241,528 and independents were at 82,473.

By the general election in 2014, Democratic registration had dropped to 176,165, with Republicans holding pretty steady at 240,544 and Independents/no party named at 102,337.

It’s unclear just how much it hurt the party when Democrats decided to open their primary to independent voters. But it obviously didn’t help and the jump in independents probably wasn’t coincidental.

Forty three years after the last Democrat — Dick Kneip — was elected governor, the party in South Dakota is short on money and short on competitive candidates. It is also without a single statewide office holder and clinging to what you might call a micro-minority in the state House and state Senate.

A pragmatist with designs on a statewide race might look at it all and figure there are few political benefits and plenty of drawbacks to being a registered Democrat in South Dakota. And Jon Schaff, a political science professor at Northern State University in Aberdeen, thinks that’s just what Huether did.

“I think the (Democratic) brand is so tainted at this point that as long as he’s got a donor base sufficient that does not care what party he’s in or whether he’s in a party in this case, then I don’t think it matters,” Schaff says. “Because, really, how much institutional help his party could have given him anyway is in itself a question.”

So is it possible Huether would be better off on a statewide ballot with an “I” instead of “D” after his name?

“He might be able to create a sufficient organizational and fundraising team that would do just as well if not better than the Democratic Party would do in a statewide race, without carrying the baggage of having to say ‘I’m a Democrat,’” Schaff says.

Emily Wanless, a political science professor at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, agrees that the “D” can be a tough letter to carry for a statewide candidate these days

“When I first heard the move I thought it was an overly political move, as I think most people did,” Wanless said of Huether’s registration switch. “ And I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad move in the sense that obviously the Democratic Party label has a connotation here in South Dakota. It’s very hard to run as a Democrat with any success.”

Wanless considers Huether a “credible” candidate, regardless of registration, because of his name ID as mayor of Sioux Falls, connections and likely support in the state’s largest population center and his past campaign wins.

He is mentioned in discussions about both the U.S. House and the governor’s seat. But the U. S. House seems like a better run for Huether. Because while the Republicans candidates there will be strong, they won’t be quite as strong as in the governor’s race.

Two well-known, well-funded Republican incumbents — Congresswoman Kristi Noem and state Attorney General Marty Jackley — already have their campaign machinery running and the money coming in, and they’re strengthening campaign plans for the governor's contest.

In the U.S. House race, Secretary of State Shantel Krebs and former state PUC Commissioner Dusty Johnson are tough in those areas, too, but not as tough.

South Dakota has a recent history of electing Democrats to Congress, while the GOP has had a lock on the governor’s chair. And a congressional race might be a better option for pitching an independent message to take to the deeply partisan Congress.

Could Huether be a younger, better-dressed, better-coiffed version of Bernie Sanders?

Chreep … chreep … chreep.

Huether would benefit if the Democrats decided not to run anyone in the House race, as they did in the 2010 U.S. Senate race, where John Thune was considered unbeatable. But Huether almost certainly won’t be quite that lucky, if he runs.

“Democrats want us to have candidates and we will,”  Jones Pranger said. “We are going to have good candidates for both of those open seats, the House and the governor’s chair. I can assure you of that.”

She doesn’t have them yet, however. And at this point there’s no time to waste.

Huether has to be timely in his thinking, too, if he’s serious about 2018. He won’t be quite as squeezed because of his good name ID in a high-population zone, which presumably has a reasonable fundraising base. But he’ll need time to work on that name recognition outside the Sioux Falls region, and to raise money and build a campaign network.                                        
A long-time Democratic strategist in South Dakota who declined to be identified for this story expects the Democrat Party to field a credible candidate who will face a more difficult task when Huether in the race. And the Democrat believes party voters may resent Huether for leaving them and further complicating their candidates' chances.

Wanless has her doubts about that.

“I don’t think he’s alienating himself from the Democrats too much,” she said. “And he might be able to capture some moderate Republicans, along with independents.”

Along with some Democrats if they’re dissatisfied with their candidate.

And Wanless said a candidate not tied to the parties might have appeal in this political climate.

“So he’s capturing a sentiment, that independent sentiment,” she said. “You can look at past elections and say independents don’t do well. And that’s true, to an extent. But more recently look more at Larry Pressler’s bid for the Senate. He was kind of able to capture that independent sentiment.”

Indeed, former three-term Republican U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler, who had also served two terms in the U.S. House, ran as an independent in 2014.  He finished third in a four-person race, with 17 percent of the vote. Republican winner Mike Rounds, a former two-term governor, got 50 percent. Democrat Rick Weiland got 30 percent and independent Gordon Howie got 3 percent — which is closer to a typical independent’s finish in South Dakota.

Some Democrats wonder how close the race would have been if Pressler hadn’t run. But it’s likely he took votes from both Rounds and Weiland.

Pressler’s political resume was longer and more notable than Huether’s. But so were his negatives among some voters, including Republicans who resented his vote and public support for Barack Obama. Pressler also struggled to buy enough advertising necessary to compete, which would be a key issue for Huether.

Schaff thinks Huether needs “at least the upper hundreds of thousands” in campaign funds to run a credible race. I’ll go a little higher. I think he needs at least $1 million, minimum. Absolute minimum. Can he raise that, or more?

He has to be asking that himself, regardless of what the crickets don’t say.

Schaff says Huether better have already had serious conversations with Democratic donors and moderate Republicans who might be inclined to support him.

“I don’t think you make that switch (in registration) unless you’ve had some of those discussions,” Schaff says.

If those discussions have taken place, Huether isn’t talking about them. But he is defending his switch to independent, which he says reflects a life-long leaning.

“I’m about as independent not only as a person but also as a leader as I think you’ll find,” he said. “I think I’ve proven it as a public servant. I’m pretty dang independent.”

A Sioux Falls businessman who worked with and against Huether on different initiatives in the city says that independence is good until it become a fault. The businessman, who offered a brief text response to my interview request on the condition that he not be identified, said Huether’s independence sometimes makes him less open to collaboration.

Have all those years as an executive in the private sector and, now, in the mayor’s office made him lead too much and not listen enough? Huether thinks not. He argues that he has plenty of cooperative spirit and listened as well as he led in the private sector.

Getting back to 2018, Huether says he’s “honored and flattered” to be the focus of speculation for important offices like the U.S. House and governor.

“And when folks all across the state encourage me to do more and continue in a leadership role, that really does get your juices flowing,” he said.

Huether also admits to an affection for the idea of serving at other levels of government. And while he doesn’t have his sixth-grade speech anymore, he does remember that he used the familiar quote from the 1961 inaugural speech of President John F. Kennedy:

“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

But there’s a less-familiar line in that Kennedy speech that might be relevant to this discussion. Kennedy opened the speech with this:

“We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom — signifying an end as well as a beginning, signifying renewal as well as change.”

Huether’s change in registration certainly was not a victory of party. He might argue it was a celebration of freedom for partisan imperatives, both an end and a beginning.

What that beginning turns out to be, and how it might renew and change his political life, remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Huether’s name remains in play as the state’s political focus turns to 2018 and beyond.

But for now, I can only tell you this:

Chreep … chreep …chreep.
 

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The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.