Hubbel's mad as, uh, heck and not gonna take it from the GOP any more

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on

Hey, Marty, heads up: Lora’s in the race.

I admit, it’s a bit of a belated warning to South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley. Lora Hubbel announced her candidacy for governor in the 2018 Republican primary a week or two ago.

It was a quiet launch for her campaign. I saw it on former state Sen. Gordon Howie’s blog, The Right Side. And what with fly fishing and jig pitching and yard work, you know, I didn’t get to it right away.

That’s not unusual these days.  At my semi-retirement pace, I often write recent history rather than breaking news. In my own defense, it’s usually very recent history. Not like, say, Calvin Coolidge visiting Custer State Park or even Bill Janklow beating Roger McKellips.

And, aw shucks, as my old pal Tony Dean liked to say, I kind of like that pace.

But I still get around to things eventually, especially on chilly days after a late-April snow when the peonies are shivering out in the front yard. And so I got around to writing Lora.

When I read on Gordon Howie’s blog — The Right Side, at http://www.rightsidesd.com — that Lora Hubbel was again running for governor, I had three immediate thoughts:

1) She can’t win.
2) No, seriously. She can’t win. Really.
3) Now Jackley will have to talk about the thing.The things, actually.

The thing is corruption, and allegations of the same. Which involves things.

Maybe you remember a couple of the things: EB-5 and Gear Up and, even worse, the related suicide of Rich Benda — a Kimball guy I knew for many years, and liked — and the murder-suicide of Scott Westerhuis — a guy I’m sort of glad I didn’t know at all — and his family.

I suspect that Marty Jackley would rather not talk much about these particular things during his campaign for governor.  I suspect, further, that the Republican Machine in South Dakota (which will be referred to as the RMSD for the purposes of this story) would prefer that the things named EB-5 and Gear Up would be allowed to drift quietly into history.

And who could blame Jackley or those others who constitute the RMSD? The things, after all, are horrible things, to think about, to talk about, to understand.

Take Benda’s suicide. It was a mournful act of self-destruction dragged into the public light by looming criminal charges against Benda, a former cabinet member in the Mike Rounds administration.

In his cabinet role, Benda was directly connected to the EB-5 program, which provides U.S. residency opportunities for foreign investors willing to put at least $500,000 into approved projects. Benda was to be charged with felony theft in connection to that program when he died of a shotgun blast that officials ruled suicide, a determination Hubbel and some others question, in not particularly specific ways.

Benda's death didn't end the EB-5 nvestigation. Jackley eventually brought felony charges against Joop Bollen, who ran the EB-5 program in South Dakota. Bollen pleaded guilty to one of five felony charges and was sentenced to two years probation and a $2,000 fine.

Critics said that wasn’t enough, and argued that Jackley failed as a prosecutor. Jackley said it was the best he could do under the law, and later succeeded in having the law strengthened.

And then there’s the apparent murder by Westerhuis of his wife, Nicole, and their four children, something that really doesn’t compute in a rational human mind, ever. Westerhuis followed that horrific act, Jackley says, by setting fire to the family home and killing himself. It all happened as a net tightened in a coming case of financial fraud tied to misuse of public money for the Gear Up educational program for low-income students.

It was a private horror gone public in ways we don’t often see in South Dakota. And hope never to see again.

Jackley eventually brought felony charges against three people who worked with the Westerhuises in managing Gear Up. Those trials are scheduled for this summer.

It’s unclear whether the other big-name candidate in the GOP primary race for governor will bring up the things. But Congresswoman Kristi Noem has proven that she is not afraid of a campaign fistfight. Ask Stephanie Herseth Sandlin about that.

There could be some risk there, for Noem. It could put her in conflict with the powerful RMSD. And she has been in the state Legislature and now serves in Congress, both of which have at least some theoretical responsibility over both the EB-5 program and funding for Gear Up.

So it’s hard for her to play the outsider card in these issues completely.

Hubbel refers to Noem as “Powder Puff Kristi” and doubts she’ll tackle the really tough issues in any really tough way, especially if there’s any really dangerous political risk.

There isn’t much risk for Hubbel, a well-defined political outsider in South Dakota — meaning, mainly, that she is outside the RMSD, and probably outside the mainstream of state voters of any political persuasion.

She also is inclined, in a Donald Trump sort of way, toward flamboyant political rhetoric that tends to involve personal attacks on people with whom she differs.

And she harbors an assortment of worries that she thinks you should share.

They include worries about the Muslim Brotherhood infiltrating government in South Dakota and across America. She also hates Common Core, and thinks it is a federal educational conspiracy with tentacles that reach deep into the Republican Party in South Dakota.

Hubbel believes Gov. Dennis Daugaard is part of that conspiracy and also that he is a closet Obamacare lover. That despite the fact that he dragged his feet at expanding Medicaid coverage under the controversial health-insurance program and spoke against many of its mandates.

Whatever, Hubbel tends to say. She’s unafraid of political consequences, although there are likely few left for person who has largely been disestablished from any meaningful political support system in the state. One of her latest dust-ups with the GOP leadership came at the party’s state convention last June. Hubbel clashed with Lieutenant Gov. Matt Michels over the process of presenting and debating proposed resolutions.

She felt she was shut down unfairly, and turned away from the GOP and toward the South Dakota Constitutional Party. But not for long.

“I was upset by that treatment, but I was only with the Constitutional Party for about two months,” she said. “I’ve been a Republican basically since I was 5 years old.”

So, she’ll run as a Republican in a primary she will almost certainly not win. But 100-percent is hard to find in politics. I laughed at Donald Trump’s candidacy for a year, then munched a minced-crow sandwich while I watched his inaugural.

So there’s always a sliver of hope. And a segment of the Trumpish constituency lives in South Dakota.  She reached out to those folks, appropriately enough, on Twitter recently with this comment referring to certain Trump critics:

“Nothing more dangerous to pinheads than a real man…”

So Hubbel will focus first on the anti-pinhead constituency for support, as she talks about “the things” with an angry, outsider’s perspective under the larger campaign banner of fighting corruption.

She hopes other voters won’t tune her out because of policy differences or concerns about her style.

“I don’t expect everybody to vote for me because they think exactly as I do,” Hubbel says. “I want people to vote for me because they love the things I love and hate the things I hate. And I hate corruption.”

Hubbel says she hates corruption regardless of party, and hopes to help lead the GOP toward more ethical standards.

She has a little of that leadership experience. Along with her short-lived stay as a leader of the state Constitution Party, which has a few hundred members, Hubble has also served as Republican Party chair in Minnehaha County. And she has been on a fair number of ballots.

In 2006, she finished well back in the pack in an 11-person, non-partisan run for mayor of Sioux Falls, then won a seat in the South Dakota House from a Sioux Falls district in 2010. Then she lost in a challenge for a state Senate seat in 2012.

In 2014, she challenged Daugaard, the incumbent Republican governor, in the GOP primary, but took less than 20 percent of the vote. Then she stood in as a replacement running mate for Independent gubernatorial candidate Mike Myers, who got 4 percent of the vote.

Hubbel says she took on the Mission Nearly Impossible challenging Daugaard in 2014 because of Common Core and Obamacare, and corruption.

And she’s taking a challenge of similar proportions against Noem and Jackley. Could she make a difference in that race? Some say she might.

“I think she’ll play a role, because it (corruption) is an issue that people really seem to care about,” says state Sen. Billie Sutton of Burke. “That’s why you saw IM 22 pass. Corruption gives people at the top a black eye. I think every candidate should be talking about corruption.”

They could include Sutton, an up-and-comer Democrat who will announce in the next month or so whether he will run for governor in 2018. Sutton thinks the battle between Jackley and Noem “could be a relatively close race,” where both candidates “have issues to attack the other on.”

Of course, Democrats would love to see Jackley and Noem engage in the same kind of mutually destructive primary battle that sucked up the cash -- and the voter good will -- and disassembled the campaigns of presumed front-runners Mark Barnett and Steve Kirby in the 2002 governor's race, and paved the path to victory for Mike Rounds.

And Hubbel could play a role there, with “the things.”

How hard the scandal-corruption hammer will hit Jackley is still a hazy prediction, however.

“That stuff only hurts Marty Jackley if you can tie him directly to it,” says Jon Schaff, a political science professor at Northern State University in Aberdeen. “And he wasn’t directly involved. If anything, he can argue that he was the one who came in and actually prosecuted people in those cases.”

That is Jackley's main rebuttal to allegations that he failed his responsibilities in the EB-5 and Gear Up scandals.

“None of the federal investigations brought charges in these cases,” Jackley said. “I brought charges in both.”

Hubbel uses vague references to popular conspiracy theories on both the EB-5 and Gear Up investigations, arguing that there was at best a rush to judgment in the investigations.

 When asked if she’s saying that  Rich Benda was actually murdered or if she believes that the Westerhuis tragedy wasn’t a murder-suicide as investigators and Jackley concluded,  Hubbel responds:

 “I’m saying, let’s follow the evidence. Don’t close it off,” she said. “Wasn’t Westerhuis notorious for being the fastest-closed murder case in the nation?  A murder case of six people like that, closed in a week?”

The investigation was a bit more involved than that. The Westernhuis house near Platte burned on Sept. 17, 2015. Law enforcement, fire investigators and DCI agents were among those converging on the scene in the coming hours and days, as the investigation began and took shape. Jackley announced the results of the investigation, affirmed the cause and offered details in a news release on Nov. 3, 2015, which included this statement:

"“Forensic evidence and the totality of the investigation confirms Scott Westerhuis was responsible for the deaths of Nicole, Kailey, Jaeci, Connor and Michael Westerhuis, before setting fire to his home and taking his own life,” Jackley said. “This tragedy has affected an entire community, and we continue to offer our prayers and thoughts for the Westerhuis and Fish families. The joint state and federal investigation into the financial circumstances surrounding the Gear-Up Program remains an ongoing priority.”

Jackley says these days that he remains ready to look at any new evidence and consider new tips. But he also maintains that the investigations led to the conclusions he presented. To believe in some other conspiracy theory would require that not just he and his subordinates but local and federal officials as well had to be in on the conspiracy.

Which is next to impossible, he said.

“If there is another conclusion, I’d like somebody to show me physical or forensic evidence of that,” Jackley said. “People are just using these cases to try to make political gains.”

In that regard, Schaff questions whether Hubbel has the standing and name identification to be a credible carrier of the anti-corruption message.

“How much attention is Hubbel really going to get? And can she actually drive the news story, when she’s a marginal candidate?” Schaff said. “Can she drive the media narrative? Or is she too obscure and discredited as a source or as a spokesperson that no one will really listen?”

Fair questions.

Hubbel thinks there's an audience waiting to listen, and hear. She thinks many of them voted for Initiated Measure 22 last November. The measure aimed at ethics reform, campaign contribution limits and throttling the influence of lobbyists passed overwhelmingly statewide.

But IM 22 had its problems, including potential constitutional questions that led to a court challenge and an initial circuit-court ruling placing it on hold. Daugaard and other critics said it was badly written and probably unconstitutional in parts. He and the Republican-controlled Legislature revoked IM 22 with legislation during the 2017 session and approved their own responses to constituent concerns about ethics. Another ballot battle on ethics reform is expected, and the corruption issue seems to carry weight.

Throwing that weight at Jackley won’t be easy, however. And it won’t be cheap. Not if it is to be effective. Even in South Dakota, $1 million is considered the ground floor of funding for a seriously competitive gubernatorial candidate. Noem and Jackley will be spend more.

Last time she ran for governor, Hubbel spent about $20,000, about $8,000 of it her own.

“That was my investment,” she said. “I planned on it. Saved. Didn’t take vacations.”

She hopes to have more financial help from supporters this time, and a more organized and message-directed campaign. But clearly this campaign will come with personal costs, too, and financially is destined to fall far short of what Hubbel will need to present her message.

She has other things she could be doing, after all. Her political rhetoric might be unusual, but her life story is pretty typical South Dakotan.

She and her husband, Timothy, married in Vermillion in 1979, when he was a policeman and she was attending college. She had tentative plans to be a doctor. But they had their first child “nine months and two weeks” after the wedding. And kids often change professional plans.

She did manage to become a registered nurse, and also taught school, mostly as a substitute, in biology. They also did well financially by remodeling and selling houses. That kept them more than busy on top of other work responsibilities.

“We were good at it,” Hubbel said. “I wouldn’t recommend it to other people, because your kids need to have fun, too.”

The couple had three children and now have four grandchildren.

So why mess up a good thing with the difficulties of a political campaign she is unlikely to win?

“It gets back to the corruption,” she says. “I hate it. And right now the corruption is the Republican brand. And it makes us all look bad.”

She’s mad about that. How mad?

Marty Jackley could be the first to find out.

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.