Examining the Democratic fall, Trump's mental health and the potty potshot heard 'round Durty Nelly's

Posted by Kevin Woster on
Brian Hagg talks politics while John Tsitrian and Troy Heinert listen.

Decisions, decisions.

Do I start with John Tsitrian’s historical review of the 40-year decline of the South Dakota Democratic Party?

Or maybe Jay Davis being ruled out of bounds when he framed his question around the notion that President Donald Trump is mentally ill and should be removed from office?

Or, since concealed weapons were up for debate Monday in the state Legislature during failed veto-override efforts by pro-gun advocates (Dennis Daugaard 2, South Dakota Gun Owners Association 0), how about a recollection from Bill Walsh on how a pistol became, well, unconcealed when it fell out of  a man’s pocket in a bathroom at Durty Nelly’s Saloon in Deadwood, discharged and shot the guy taking care of his own businesses in the next stall?

Which makes enlarged-prostate issues seem like small-caliber bathroom concerns.

Anyway, it’s a popular story by Walsh, a 70-something former Catholic priest and Kennedy family — yeah, that Kennedy family — friend who has done a little bit of a lot of things in his life, but has never weakened in his Democratic resolve.

Even so, he tries to play the middleman politically as a founder and continuing moderator/coordinator for the Black Hills Press Club and Forum (It’s actually Black Hills Forum and Press Club, but I like the “Press” first. And this is my blog. So …)

Fashioned loosely after the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., the Black Hills Press Club and Forum actually has few press professionals in its regular group of attendees. That’s probably why Walsh broke from his introduction of speakers on Friday to proclaim, “the press is here” when I walked in, late as usual.

Former Bill Janklow cabinet Secretary Steve Zellmer procured a chair for me at his table, while long-time legislative lobbyist Larry Mann slid a briefcase full of dirty money under the table in hopes of buying a slanted story. (OK, OK, so one of those anecdotes isn’t true. I’ll leave it to you to decide which.)

Once settled in with pen and water-stained notebook (hey, I take it fishing with me) in hand, I had to wait a while for Walsh to get to the unplanned, uh, discharge in the latrine. Prior to that, I got to hear from three speakers on the state of South Dakota politics:

Democratic state Sen. Troy Heinert of Mission, an enrolled member of the Rosebud Tribe.
Rapid City lawyer and former Pennington County Republican Party Chairman Brian Hagg.
And blogger/columnist/commentator John Tsitrian, who sort of represented the two major parties (one of them a lot less major than it used to be) in South Dakota, but tried to focus on theindependent movement  — even though Tsitrian admitted that he’s actually still a registered Republican.

Tsitrian also admitted, as did Heinert, that he didn’t actually vote for Initiated Measure 22 (there were a lot of reasons not to). Each had issues with some provisions of IM 22, while admiring others (my feelings exactly). But they still objected to the way the state Legislature and Gov. Dennis Daugaard dismantled that loosely constructed ballot measure on ethics in government, gifts by lobbyists and campaign spending just a couple months after it was passed with a strong majority of South Dakota voters.

Tsitrian called that action by Republicans “a fiasco that could be a watershed event” in South Dakota.

“I think Republicans will pay a price for it,” he said.

I tend to suspect the price will get smaller with time — as in by the next round of legislative elections. And it will have to be a massive payment to bring any real balance to politics in the state Legislature.

With just six seats in the 35-member Senate and 10 in the 70-member House, the Democrats are really a macro-minority party these days, and not far from a micro-minority.

Tsitrian says key changes in state demographics over the last 40 years have been hard on the Democratic Party in South Dakota. The days when small businesses and small farms — and their more Democratic roots — were dominant are “long gone,” he says.

And there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in the larger industrial base that has supplied the Democratic Party with members in other states, he says.

It shows in the numbers. Last fall there were about 250,000 registered Republicans in South Dakota and about 170,000 Democrats, along with 118,000 independents. Republican registration has grown slowly in recently years, as Democratic registration has fallen and independents have increased sharply.

But it’s not just 40 years of history and changing demographics. Because Democrats had 204,000 registered voters in 2008, following a hard registration push tied to the Obama-Clinton presidential primary. The fall since then has been tough to understand, beyond obvious losses since 2010 when the party opened its primaries to independents.

Why not register independent if you can still vote in the party primary? Well, Heinert wants to give them some good reasons, in hopes of growing the party in South Dakota.

His opening line to the press club was both humorous and painful, as he thanked organizers for bringing in a Democrat: “I’m very pleased to be here today. I’m just sorry you had to go all the way to Mission to find one.”

Much truth is said in jest. You do have to travel a ways from Rapid City to find a legislative Democrat. Republicans who are honest about it would admit that some of that is because of favorable legislative districts drawn by the redistricting panels weighted in favor of the majority party and its interests.

I’d bring this re-districting business up to former Democratic state Rep. Linda Lea Viken of Rapid City, whom Democrats point to as an example of someone who was redistricted out of office. But I don’t want to spoil her day, today. We’ll talk about that business in a future conversation here.

But it’s not just GOP redistricting, either, anymore than it’s just fewer farms and small businesses. Roe vs. Wade certainly hurt the Democratic Party, sending some Catholic Democrats and others opposed to abortion to the Republican Party and leading to occasional division within the Democratic Party itself.

And there were some lingering impacts of the fight over the proposed Oahe Irrigation project — where then-Sen. George McGovern’s support for the project eroded favorable feelings among some in the long-Democratic family farm community.

And speaking of McGovern. A party needs a leader. And a struggling party needs a great leader.

That point was made at the press club by former state Sen. Tom Katus of Rapid City, a Democrat who wiggled in to the state Legislature from District 32 for one term because of a war between former Republican Sen. Stan Adelstein, a moderate, and more conservative challenger Elli Schwiesow.

Katus pointed out during a question-and-answer session that there were only two Democrats in the state Legislature in 1953. Two years later there were 25. Why? The party had a new executive director in McGovern, whose work in outreach and recruitment and registration would revive the ailing party in South Dakota.

But he didn’t stop at organizing the party. He ran for office, too.

In 1956, McGovern won an upset victory in the 1st District U.S. House race (back when we had two congressional districts) over four-term Republican incumbent Harold Lovre. And a political star began to shine.

The party would also work its way toward its zenith in the 1970s. Those years are hazy for me. So I got a legislative count from my brother, Terry, a reporter blessed with remarkable powers of recall who managed to survive covering 40 — yup, FOUR ZERO — state legislative sessions.

Terry was reporting from the state Capitol for the Associated Press as what we in South Dakota might call a Democratic wave came into Pierre. What an unusual sequence he got to cover:

After the 1972 election, the Democrats held the state Senate 18-17 with a 35-35 tie in the House. And Dick Kneip’s win in the governor’s race — he was the fourth and last, at this point, Democrat in state history elected chief executive — gave them the chief-executive’s chair.

Kneip’s win also gave the Democrats the edge in the otherwise evenly split 35-35 House. Redistricting rules approved after the 1970 census that dropped the number of House seats from 75 to 70 also gave the party that held the governor’s chair control in the event of an even split.

Oddly enough it happened for the first and only time in the next election. So Democrats got to pick the Speaker of the House and organize committees, just as if they had a majority.

But that wasn’t all. George McGovern still held his U.S. Senate seat, even though he was trounced by Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential race. Jim Abourezk won the other Senate seat in ‘72, beating Republican Robert Hirsch. And Democrat Frank Denholm won his second U.S. House term from the state’s 1st Congressional District, while Lyman County’s own Republican Jim Abdnor won again in the 2nd District.

In 1974, Democrats again won the state Senate, 19-16, but Republicans took the House 37-33, according to my bro, who reminded me, once again, that I could find that information on the state Legislative Research Council’s website, if wanted to do the work. (I’d rather text him…)

Mostly, it’s been a pretty hard fall ever since for the Dems.

Even so, the party still managed to compete in spurts, especially in congressional races. After McGovern, Tom Daschle became the party’s powerful leader in South Dakota, and his impact went beyond Congress. The last time the Democratic Party held a house in the state Legislature, Daschle and his campaign money were essential to wins in key legislative districts to take Senate control.

Daschle knew about tough campaigns and big wins from personal experience, having defeated Republican Medal of Honor winner Leo Thorsness by 139 votes in 1978 to win the 1st District U.S. House seat. In 1986, Congressman Daschle beat incumbent GOP Sen. Jim Abdnor, who was serving his first term after beating McGovern in 1980.

Running for his second U.S. Senate term in 1992, Daschle was fundraising hard in case former Gov. Bill Janklow — who lost to Abdnor in the 1986 GOP primary — entered the Senate race. When Janklow didn’t enter, Daschle faced a light challenge from Charlene Harr, and had campaign dough to share with legislative candidates.

A carefully targeted strategy helped win enough seats for a Democratic majority in the state Senate for the 1993 and 1994 sessions, and that provided enough balance for some fun coverage by reporters. But it hasn’t been repeated since. Far from it.

Still, Heinert insists there is no despair in the party.

“People hear I’m a Democrat and they say, ‘Oh, gee, I’m sorry,’” he said. “But I don’t feel that way. I think our party is energized.”

He says the outgunned Democrats in the Legislature look for ways to build coalitions with Republicans to fight or promote key issues. And, of course, a number of Democrat-based ballot measures have been approved by state voters.

But Heinert, who is seen along with state Sen. Billie Sutton of Burke, as a likely candidate for higher office some day, holds out hope for a revival in legislative seats and statewide offices, too. That begins by giving voters a better idea of who the South Dakota Party is and what it does and doesn’t stand for,” Heinert said.

“You can think what you want. We’re not Nancy Pelosi,” he said.

The party has to make itself more defined as a cross section of South Dakotans, with philosophies driven by a commitment to helping people, Heinert said.

“I think our party is really at a crossroads,” he said. “What does a South Dakota Democrat really look like?”

Other than a fairly rare species? Good question. How the party answers it in the next few years will say a lot about its long-term future.

Heinert said South Dakota is better with a more balanced two-party system. Even as a Republican, Hagg sees value in more balance. He also believes the GOP has some soul searching to do, in spite of its successes.

He worries that “one-trick ponies” with extremist views and styles who are elected as Republicans too often “don’t really represent the rank-and-file Republicans or the general voters in their districts.”

He says that division within the party isn’t good for relationships that can shape responsible laws and policies. And it hurts the tone of campaigns, too, Hagg said.

“The highest urgency in my opinion is the lack of civility we see between candidates — even between candidates of our own party,” he said. “It’s appalling.”

The press club events are designed to be the opposite of appalling, with rules aimed at avoiding angry exchanges and invectives during question-and-answer sessions. Verbal attacks on named politicians are among the things deemed off limits.

So co-coordinator Marnie Herrmann stepped in — literally, and took back the hand mic — when Rapid City Democrat Jay Davis, he of soft-spoken style and edgy attitudes, asked when Republicans would admit that Donald Trump is mentally ill and force him out of office.

Although she didn’t actually blow a whistle, Herrmann called a foul. And Davis didn’t push the point. Even so, Heinert had to admit: “I’d like to have answered that question.”

He said it with a smile, and got smiles in return from the audience — and from Herrmann. I think.

Heinert and Hagg agreed on the need for more respectful dialogue. They also agreed that their parties must focus on attracting and retaining more young people. Millennials, themselves a rare species at the press club, seem to show an increasing disdain for major-party politics. Divisive political rhetoric doesn’t do much to help that.

Neither did the Republican-dominated 2017 Legislature’s rejection of IM 22 in favor of its own bills on the subject, which tended to not go as far as the initiated measure.

Hagg, Heinert and Tsitrian agreed that the strong voter support for IM 22 and limits on government and lobbyist influences should be heeded.

“I think it leads more people to not want to identify with either party,” Tsitrian said.

We’re a state that values independence, after all, with people who prefer relatively loose government reins. Which brings us back to those bills vetoed by Daugaard. One would have allowed people to pack a concealed pistol or other firearm without a permit. The other would have allowed guns in the state Capitol.

Daugaard considered each a gunshot too far, and believes the current restrictions make sense without injuring the 2nd Amendment.

Attempts to override those vetoes Monday during the last day of the 2017 session failed. That’s kind of what happened to gun safety in Durty Nelly’s latrine back sometime in the early 1980s, near as Walsh can remember.

“It was another good night at Durty Nelly’s,” said Walsh, the former owner of the Historic Franklin Hotel and its renowned saloon. “And this guy went into the bathroom with a gun in his pocket, and it fell out and went off — shot the guy next to him in the leg.”

You can imagine the legal fallout from that shot heard round the bathroom and saloon, right?
What did the guy with the gun do when the Deadwood Police arrived? Did he resist arrest, maybe in a dangerous way? What was the criminal charge and sentence?

Well, ...

“We didn’t call the police,” Walsh said. “We all just handled it. I can’t remember how. But we didn’t call the police. If you’re a bar owner, you really don’t want to call the police. And I don’t think I ever did.”

After handling the occasional potty potshot, managing a little political sniping from time to time at the Black Hills Press Club and Forum isn’t so tough.

Shoot, they haven’t had to call the police once.

 

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.