Channeling '86: an old reporter, Republican teens and memories of the Mound City matriarch

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on
Past Teenage Republican Chair Audrey Kope designed the shirt

First, a confession: I ate the chicken. I also took the t-shirt.

The chicken I could have done without. It was one of those well-intended chunks of banquet-style poultry that neither offends nor inspires. But it managed to address my hunger when mixed with a little political chatter, a baked potato and some sour cream and a scattering of heavily steamed vegetables.

All while I waited to hear the featured banquet speaker, Qusi Al-Haj, senior adviser to U.S. Sen. John Thune. Qusi has a fascinating story about his own immigration from Jordan to the United States, where he struggled through financial hardships to get an education, start a family and build a business in Rapid City. He also went on to become an valuable West River Republican leader and honored adviser among Thune staffers.

I’ll be writing a separate blog piece on Qusi sometime soon (by my standards). But for now, back to the t-shirt.

It was irresistible, even though it will be a puzzle to most people I meet when I wear it in public these days. It reads: “Alice Kundert for Governor.”

Oh, there’s something else: “1986.”

The kids at the South Dakota Teenage Republican Camp at Camp Rimrock west of Rapid City, where I ate the chicken and accepted the t-shirt (I’m a contract news provider these days, so I make my own ethical rules) last week weren’t even born when former state legislator, Auditor and Secretary of State Alice Kundert was part of a four-candidate Republican primary for governor 31 years ago.

Yet her name was every bit as familiar as Thune and Noem and Rounds to the kids at the camp.

That’s because Alice was advisor to state Teenage Republicans, or TARS, for more than a decade. But she was a lot more than that to the group and its annual summer leadership camp just up Rapid Creek a few miles from Rapid City.

“In the first 52 years of the camp, she made 50 of them,” says Dusty Johnson, a Republican U.S. House candidate who did his own duty as TARS state adviser for 13 years. “She was really the keynote speaker and the highlight for those kids. They were every bit as excited to see her as they were to see someone like Thune.”

Which is why this year’s group of about 50 Teenage Republicans decided to feature Kundert on their camp t-shirt, even though the theme this year was about Abraham Lincoln and what he stood for.

That’s lofty competition. But in the TARS world, Kundert competes with anyone. She’s the TARS matriarch and icon, known for sending inspired young party members off into the world with a better understanding of government and the ways of politics.

She accomplished much in winning a seat in the state legislators and serving two terms each as state auditor and secretary of state.

But she didn’t get the big prize in 1986. Even with a impressive political resume, Kundert finished fourth in that crowded GOP primary race, which was won by former South Dakota Speaker of the House George S. Mickelson, whose father George T. Mickelson was both House speaker and governor.

The substantially proprotioned Brookings lawyer — who described his own size as 6-foot-4 and an eighth of a ton — topped former U.S. Rep. Clint Roberts of Presho, who was no small man himself, by 3,000 votes. Lt. Gov. Lowell Hansen of Sioux Falls, a former state representative and House speaker, finished in third place.

But it was an extraordinary year for politics in South Dakota, beyond that race. In the GOP U.S. Senate primary, incumbent Sen. Jim Abdnor (our Lyman County boy) beat two-term Gov. Bill Janklow by more than 10,000 votes, deepening a split in the party that would endure for years.

That primary wasn’t Abdnor’s first big win. He defeated three-term Democratic Sen. George McGovern in 1980 to join the Senate, after a sequence of of productive terms in the U.S. House. But in the general of 1986, Abdnor lost to rising Democratic star Tom Daschle, who was in his fourth U.S. House term and would go on to become Democratic leader in the U.S. Senate.

In the 1986 GOP U.S. House primary, Black Hills businessman Dale Bell easily topped the second-place finisher, state Rep. Scott Heidepriem of Miller. Third place went to former state Sen. Don Frankenfeld of Rapid City. State Rep. Ron Volesky of Huron finished a distant fourth.

Heidepriem and Volesky would both switch parties years later and win legislative seats as Democrats. And Heidepriem was the Democratic nominee for governor in 2010, losing to Republican Dennis Daugaard, while Volesky was an unsuccessful candidate for state attorney general as a Democrat in 2006 and 2010.

And that was just the tale of the Republicans from 1986. On the Democratic side, the gubernatorial primary went to long-time legislative leader Lars Herseth, who, like Mickelson, is the son of a governor. His mother, Lorna, also served as secretary of state. And his daughter, Stephanie, would later win a special election in 2004 for U.S. Rep. Bill Janklow's vacated (because of a vehicular manslaughter conviction) House seat, and follow by winning three full terms on her own before losing to Republican Kristi Noem in 2010.

Whew. Just let me pause to let my brain catch up with my fingers.

OK, in the Democratic primary, Lars Herseth defeated his main opponent Dick Kneip, a smooth campaigner who had won three terms as governor (two two-year terms and, after a constitutional amendment, a four-year term) in the 1970s. Former state PUC commissioner and state Sen. Ken Stofferahn finished third in the 1986 primary.

And in the Democratic U.S. House race, state Sen. Tim Johnson  of Vermillion beat state Sen. Jim Burg of Wessington Springs by about 2,000 votes, with Dean Sinclair finishing way back in third.

Johnson, of course, beat Bell in the general election for the House. Mickelson beat Herseth for the governor’s chair. And Daschle won the first of three U.S. Senate terms before losing in 2004 to the aforementioned Thune.

Wow.What a year it was, 1986.

So, how about that t-shirt? The one I couldn’t turn down? Pretty cool, huh?

It wasn’t an original. It was a redux item designed for the camp by 18-year-old Audrey Kope of Rapid City. The St. Thomas More graduate and soon-to-be Augustana University freshman ended her term as TARS chair at the camp last week. Kope, who intends to major in political science and history, demonstrated her interest in both by designing the t-shirt.

And if you walked around the TARS camp, as I did, and called out: “Who knows who Alice Kundert was?” you’d get an almost universal elevation of hands. And under questioning, they did know. And they should.

In her time, Alice was a pretty big deal to state government, state politics, and especially to Teenage Republicans. She helped shape future party leaders in a variety of events, especially the annual leadership camps open to young Republicans age 12 through high school seniors.

Other TARS state advisors included former state Auditor Vern Larson and Johnson, a former former PUC commissioner and Daugaard chief of staff. Johnson tried to inspire a sense or history as well as politics during his 13 years as state TARS advisor. So Kundert wasn’t likely to be forgotten.

A Mound City native whose father, Otto, and brother, Gust, also served in the state Legislature, Alice Kundert a was a chatty, robust Republican who treated thousands of Teenage Republicans like godchildren. And in 1986, she was widely known and loved among GOP voters because of that role.

That led my friend and colleague David Kranz, a reporter, editor and, especially, political columnist at the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, to make one of the few bad predictions of his career: Kundert to win the 1986 primary.

“It’s all those young Republicans camps, and those young Republicans,” Kranz said. “They’ll get out and work for her. It’ll make the difference.”

They did make a difference, in many ways, but not including sending Kundert to the general election as the party’s candidate for governor. For all the TARS connections and what they meant, she had a lot working against her. Too much.

“Alice did have that grassroots army, but she had no money,” Johnson said. “Alice told me on numerous occasions that she had tremendous call reluctance. She just wouldn’t ask for money. She was embarrassed by the thought of doing it.”

Most of us, candidates or not, can relate. Calling for dollars, or asking face to face, is an unpleasant enterprise. And even in 1986, calling for cash was becoming a dominant factor in statewide races. Because Kundert struggled to make the calls, she couldn’t raise the money she needed.

Which was especially damaging since she was in an exceptionally strong field of candidates, one she might not have overcome with plenty of money.

“If she’d had some money, she would have had a chance,” Johnson said. “But that was an incredibly talented primary, including really a once-in-a-generation talent in George Mickelson.”

Unfortunately for Kundert, she tried to fill in the spending gap with her own savings.

“And in her later years, she talked on at least two occasions about not really having money for her older years because she spent so much in her gubernatorial campaign,” Johnson said. “The last time I visited Alice in her apartment (in Mobridge, where the Mound City native lived the last years of her life), she had almost nothing to eat in the house.”

Johnson tried to get her interested in Meals on Wheels to help with nutrition.

“She was a little taken aback that I would even suggest it,” he said. “The idea of getting that kind of help was not even in her DNA.”

Jay Vogt, today the director of the South Dakota State Historical Society in Pierre, met Kundert at the TARS camps when he was a teenager. And he worked as her deputy in the Capitol during her eight years as secretary of state. He also watched her wilt at the fundraising chore.

“She would almost give money back to people,” Vogt said. “I remember her actually saying, ‘Oh, you can’t give me that much money, no.’ And I’d say, ‘Alice, you can’t do that.’”

Vogt said Kundert was well aware that her chances were slim in the ’86 primary. But she felt called to run because it gave her a platform to talk about issues, and also because she loved traveling the state and meetingwith South Dakotans.

That love existed outside of campaigns.

“She just loved to drive across the state and talk to people,” Vogt said. “She’d take off from Mound City and go to Sioux Falls and give a talk and turn around and drive back. And I’d say, ‘Alice, you should get a room and stay overnight.’ But she didn’t. She’d just drive back. And then she’d be in the office at 7:30 in the morning. She truly was a dedicated public servant, one with a heart of gold.”

During those years when she worked in the Capitol, she could often by seen walking streets nearby in the evening, for exercise and conversation along the way. Many times she walked past the house across from the governor’s residence where my reporeter brother, Terry, lived with his wife, Nancy, and their family.

And on several occasions, she noticed Terry and me sitting on the front porch, and called out: “Hi boys!”

I’m 65. Terry’s 73. And if Alice walked by us today, I’m guessing she’d still call out: “Hi boys!”

And, boy, would I like to hear it again.

As she aged, Alice Kundert continued to drive herself around South Dakota “probably past when she should have,” Vogt said. At an age where most didn’t drive, she was still piloting for other elderly in her community so they could get to appointments and meals. And she was feeling vital and useful because of it.

So it was a great loss when she had to give up driving and the freedom if offered. Bit by bit she was more confined to her apartment, and more prepared for what came next.

“Mentally she was fine but physically she just couldn’t do the things she wanted to do,” Vogt said. “In the last years I’d go see her or call her and she’d say, ‘Oh, I wish the Lord would come take me. I’m ready to go.’”

She went, finally, on June 10, 2013, just a couple of weeks short of her 93rd birthday.

And while she never realized her chief-executive dream, she built a legacy that endures within the state Republican Party, and beyond.

“The history books will obviously tell you more about governors than they will about state auditors and secretaries of state,” Dusty Johnson said. “But I will tell you that it’s still pretty remarkable that four years after a 92-year-old woman died, there are still teenagers at summer camps wearing t-shirts that celebrate her failed run for governor three decades ago.”

Teenagers, yes, and also one old reporter.

The shirt fits, after all, and I’m going to wear it. I think Alice would like that.

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.