Angry and profane: Lawmaker's outburst on South Dakota House floor deserved strong criticism, proportional response

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on

It’s certainly not for me to judge state Rep. David Johnson for his emotional outburst on the floor of the South Dakota House of Representatives.

I’ve had a few eruptions myself over the years. None of them quite so public or well reported -- or, perhaps, quite so profane -- as Johnson’s outburst last week in an after-session fuss with fellow Rapid City Republican Rep. Lynne DiSanto.

It blew up into a thing, a pretty big public thing, that included the formation of an investigative committee — one with the potential to discipline or even expel Johnson — by a 45-13 vote in the House. It also included the referral, by the state Highway Patrol (which provides Capitol security) of the incident to the state Division of Criminal Investigation for an possible criminal inquiry.

Before we get all lathered up, however, I’ll just tell you that I saw a long-awaited security camera video of the incident Tuesday. Other reporters saw it, too. I cant’ speak for them, but I have to say: “Seriously?”

A special investigative committee? Referred to DCI for a criminal investigation? As my mom liked to say, “Oh, shoot, that’s plumb nuts.” Or seems so, anyway.

There was no audio. And apparently there was a lot more to it in words and demeanor than in actions seen on the video. DiSanto says the video doesn’t fully reflect the depth of Johnson’s aggression, what he actually said or how it made her feel like she was in danger, of being hurt.

More on that down below, because it's important. A woman shouldn't have to feel that way anywhere, including the House floor. But first, back to my own past outbursts for a minute.

Most people know me most of the time as a mostly well-composed guy. Easygoing, even. Possibly placid. OK, OK, too much with the placid. Back to mostly well composed.

But I also have a bit of a reputation for a certain, uh, volatility in certain situations. Like newsroom situations. Or family gathering situations. Or legislative hallway situations. In those areas, and possibly some I’m forgetting, I have on occasion raised my voice and my emotions beyond what might be considered appropriate, even during contentious discussions.

If that doesn’t sound like me, it’s possible that you don’t know me. All of me, at least, not all the time. For additional perspective, I refer you to this text from my long-time pal Bernie Duffy, Jr., which he wrote the other day after reviewing a long text exchange between us, one that stretched over months.

“What struck me about our exchange was how completely rational and informative you sound in print,” he wrote. “A voice of reason, really.”

Bernie pointed that out with a bit of amazement, because on occasion he has heard a different voice from me, a more confrontational voice. He might call it “abusive.” I prefer “instructive.”

Whichever, it’s a different voice than that rational, informative “voice of reason” I typically manage print. In fact, some of my siblings have expressed some awe that I have for years engaged in social-media discussions on my blogs or my Facebook page on highly emotional issues with highly emotional people without getting highly emotional myself.

Their tone seems to ask: “Who is that guy? And why can’t he show up at the family reunions, instead of that other guy?”

Well, they both show up, of course. You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your multiple personalities.

It’s true that I tend to be at my most subdued and difficult to rile when I’m at a keyboard, as opposed to, say, when I’m in a third-floor hallway in the South Dakota Capitol, which is where a state senator once concluded that I had called him out — as in outside, for a fistfight.

Which is not my style, of course. I haven’t been in a fistfight since I picked one with a kid named Paul Thiel back in Chamberlain in about the sixth grade. We danced around in an alley for a while until I started to get a little light headed. Then he hit me in the mouth a couple of times, which I deserved but didn’t much care for.

Later, as I was washing the blood off my face in the bathroom of a Standard station (look it up, youngsters), I decided that my self-inflicted tangle with Paul was about all the fist-fighting I really wanted, for the rest of my life. And so far, it has been.

So I’m pretty sure I didn’t actually call out the state senator, in the step-outside way at least, that day back in the 1990s. But it’s possible that my aggressive tone, which came in defense of my brother, Terry, after what I considered to be the senator’s unfair criticism of him around the Capitol, might have been misinterpreted.

Might even, I suppose, have been easy to misinterpret.

Even so, that lawmaker didn’t call for a special investigative committee. He didn’t contact the cops, or the Highway Patrol, or the DCI. He did call one of my editors at the Argus Leader for a discussion on professional behavior by reporters, one in particular. And it was a good discussion, for the senator and the editor, and eventually for the editor and me.

A fellow needs such discussions from time to time, especially a fellow prone to boiling over. I hope Republican leaders have been firm in their private reprimands of Johnson for his behavior. And I’d guess days of media examination and public discussion on the House floor incident could be good things for Johnson, too, if he takes them seriously, as he should.

Who knows, DiSanto might even benefit. Self reflection on the way we engage people on hot-button points and topics is good for everybody.

I don’t know exactly what was said between them on the House floor after the afternoon session that day. For a while, we didn’t even know what Johnson did, other than vague descriptions from DiSanto and others. That’s because a video from the security camera in the House chambers was withheld from reporters — and so, withheld from you — until Tuesday, when Speaker of the House Mark Mickelson directed an aide to email a link to the video to a group of reporters.

Some of us had concerns about that initial withholding, since the security camera is a publicly owned instrument trained on publicly owned work space where publicly elected officials do public business, at public expense.

There’s a lot of “public” there, wouldn’t you say? And not so much “private.”

But I also understand that there was an investigation underway, sort of, and one or two of the many loopholes in our state open-meetings law can probably be used to justify the withholding of the tape. That’s probably a point worth further discussion, but it’s unlikely to happen right now.

The issue softened considerably as a news story and point of debate when the House voted Monday to disband the investigative committee. Attorney General Marty Jackley then confirmed that the incipient DCI investigation had been closed, probably before it really started.

That all came after DiSanto said last weekend at a cracker barrel here in Rapid City that while Johnson’s actions crossed a line, she had accepted his apology and was ready to move on. She also said then, however, that she was supportive of the investigative committee and its work.

So at that point, it sounded like she wanted the committee to continue. Two days later she joined House colleagues from both parties in voting to disband the committee.

And she has since told reporters that Johnson is not just her colleague but also her friend.

Well, OK then. Sure glad he wasn’t kicked out of the House or charged with assault, which would be a tough thing to do to a friend.

Johnson has apologized in public and privately to DiSanto and to House colleagues for his behavior. And he, too, is hopeful to move beyond the incident, which lasted a minute or so, according to the timer on the video.

Here I have to admit that while I was happy to get the video I was also a little sad to be denied the opportunity for a open-records rant. I was just getting my rant warmed up at the keyboard, testing the boundaries of my “voice of reason,” when the email arrived.

I sent compliments by return email to Speaker Mickelson for releasing the video, along with a suggestion that it’s something his dad, George S. Mickelson, the 28th governor of South Dakota, might have done in a similar situation.

Don’t get me wrong, George Mickelson could lose his cool. And at 6-4, 250 pounds or so, he had a lot of cool to lose. But he was also quick to apologize. He reamed once in person in the Capitol but sent me a hand-written letter of apology (look it up, youngsters; it involves envelopes and stamps) a day or two later.

He didn’t apologize for criticizing my story. He thought it deserved it. He apologized for the vigor of his criticism, and his selection of words.

I know all about that. Over the years, I’ve become pretty good at apologizing for my word selection and rhetorical, uh, vigor. Actually, better than pretty good. My wife says I’m great at apologizing. Practice makes perfect, or at least pretty great. She might tell you that next to yard work and snow shoveling, apologizing is the best thing I do.

I have no idea how good Johnson is at apologizing. But he should be getting better, after all the practice since that House-floor incident. Speaking of which, here’s what I saw while watching the video several times:

DiSanto is standing with House Speaker Pro Tem Steven Haugaard of Sioux Falls next to his desk at the front of the House floor. Johnson comes in from the lobby and passes behind DiSanto, offering a brief comment Haugaard, who says something brief back.

Johnson goes on to his desk and picks up a briefcase, then heads toward the back of chamber, away from Haugaard and DiSanto.  As Johnson appears to wave goodbye, Haugaard appears to encourage him to come to his desk. Johnson appears to decline and turns to leave again.

Then DiSanto gestures at Johnson and says something, and Johnson’s demeanor changes. He turns and walks briskly back to within a few feet of DiSanto, and appears to be arguing. DiSanto talks back, as Johnson turns and again heads for the back of the chamber. DiSanto gestures and says something again, and this time Johnson spins and comes back to within a couple of feet of DiSanto, appearing even angrier as he speaks. DiSanto takes a single step back, but continues to gesture and talk to Johnson.

What seems to be the most heated exchange of words and gestures then ensues, and lasts about 25 seconds. During that time only a couple of the scattering of House members on the floor seem to notice. One of them is House Republican leader Lee Qualm of Platte, who walks briskly over and steps in between Johnson and DiSanto and leads Johnson away.

At no point did Haugaard, who stood a few feet away, seem to try to intervene or say much to Johnson. Neither did Republican Rep. Elizabeth May of Kyle, who strolled up during the confrontation. May did push the head of an extended microphone at the desk next to Haugaard’s down as the argument continued.

That was it. And on the video it doesn’t look like that much. May and DiSanto agreed, however, that Johnson’s language and demeanor were wildly inappropriate. And if what May told Argus Leader reporter Dana Ferguson is true, Johnson used awful language for which he had very good reason to apologize. Both May and Haugaard appear to flinch and drop their heads at one point in Johnson's harangue, and I assume that's where the worst things were said.

DiSanto certainly had reason to be offended. Very offended. DiSanto also said she felt threatened. And I’ll take her word that she felt that way.

Criminally threatened? It didn’t appear so. Threatened enough for a House investigation? Didn’t appear so to me. But at one time it apparently did seem that way for a large majority of House members who voted to form the special committee.

 That was last week. This week Johnson and DiSanto aren’t just colleagues, they’re friends. And one of them needs to work on anger control.

I don’t know Johnson well. I know that he’s an arborist from District 33 in Rapid City with a tree-trimming, tree-removal business that’ll you’ll see around town, seeming to do good work. He has seemed in past election runs to be a reasonable guy, with views generally consistent with the mainstream of thought here in my home state, and my home town.

 If asked, I probably would have labeled him a moderate Republican with a reasonable demeanor. Now I might add, “with a bit of a short fuse.”

Only recently, less than a week, in fact, before the incident on the House floor, I saw signs of that during a legislative cracker barrel focused on environmental issues at the Outdoor Campus West here in Rapid City.

It was a well-attended event by citizens and activists who work on essential environmental concerns, but lightly attended by legislators. Still, Johnson turned out on a Saturday, along with Republicans Rep. Mike Diedrich of District 34, Rep. Blaine “Chip” Campbell of District 35 and Sen. Alan Solano of District 32.

Good for the four of them for attending, and for answering some pretty important questions on some pretty important environmental issues — things like gold mining and water quality and meandered waters and climate change.

Along the way, there was some pretty tough talk from a couple of the citizens, area rancher and, uh, colorfully articulate mining opponent Marvin Kammerer among them. Diedrich, Solano and Campbell all handled the familiar hot stuff with ease, and without getting worked up or defensive.

Johnson? He got a little worked up and defensive a couple of times, leading me to whisper once to the guy next to me: “He’s got pretty thin skin.”

“Yeah,” said the guy, who has known Johnson for years. “He’s always been that way.”

That’s a bad thing to be in the lawmaking game.

In his defense, Johnson is a first-termer. And it takes a while to grow accustomed to having constituents slap you around verbally at public meetings. That’s part of the job. And Johnson seems really committed to the job.

 Beyond that, he seems open to something that not all lawmakers welcome: the possibility that he might be wrong. At least, he was open to that when I asked him for more details on his position on climate change, after he said during the meeting that he doesn’t consider it be a “critical issue today.”

Johnson also said he does’t see any day to day evidence of climate change in the Black Hills. I wanted to know more on that, so after the meetings I asked Johnson and the other three lawmakers a two-part question: “Do you believe the climate is changing and, if so, do you believe that human activities are part of that change?”

Diedrich made it simple. He said: “Yes and yes.”

Solano said: “I think it changes and I think there’s a human element to it. I think the argument is over how much is natural and how much is human.”

Campbell said: “I don’t believe human beings are affecting the change. I do believe the climate always changes.”

And back to Johnson, who said he believes carbon is adding to greenhouse gases but reiterated that he doesn’t consider climate change to be a critical issue today. He also said:

“I’m open to scientific studies. Some of the people here have some things for me to read. And I’ll read them. I’m not afraid to change my mind if there’s a basis for it.”

I like that kind of talk in any lawmaker, thin skinned or not. So does an environmentally inspired woman I know who helped organize the natural-resources cracker barrel. She feels badly that some migiht now see Johnson only as a hothead. She also knows him as a man with a good heart and an open mind.

So I hope that as he's studying those climate-change reports and other legislative reading materials, Johnson will also be learning ways to control the stormier side of his personality.

I'm still working on that myself.




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.