Loving the law, jitterbugging with the grandkids and quipping like The Gipper in a run for state AG
At 66, I just had to ask: Why now? Why this? Why not just retire instead?
You know, do a little fishing. Do a little gardening. Kick back and enjoy the grandkids.
They seemed like logical questions to ask a 71-year-old fellow grandpa as he campaigns for the South Dakota attorney general’s job. And Randy Seiler offered a logical response by referring to another 71-year-old — Donald Trump.
Trump was 70 in January of 2017 when he was inaugurated as the nation’s 45th president. That made him the oldest first-term president in U.S. history, nudging out Ronald Reagan by a year.
But it’s Reagan that Seiler really wants to talk about when the age thing comes up.
“To paraphrase Reagan, I do not intend to exploit my opponent’s youth and lack of experience for political gain,” Seiler says. “I think Reagan was, what, 70 or 71 when he said that?”
Actually, The Gipper was 73 years old and running for his second term as president when he was asked about his advanced age during a 1984 debate with 56-year-old youngster and Democratic challenger Walter Mondale. Reagan fumbled facts regularly during the debates, but he also showed his engaging sense of humor while wielding his response to the age question like a campaign club — one painted with a smiley face:
"I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience,” he said.
Even Mondale had to chuckle, all the way to a general-election pounding by Reagan that November.
As a Democrat in a heavily Republican state, Seiler doesn’t expect to pound anybody. His first goal is to win his party’s nomination at the state convention in Sioux Falls this weekend. And that’s no sure thing, despite a lengthy law career that included 13 years of private practice and 25 years with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in South Dakota.
The Mobridge native and Fort Pierre resident was a top assistant prosecutor to U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson when Johnson left for private practice. President Barack Obama selected Seiler to succeed Johnson, and Seiler served almost three years as U.S. attorney, first under Obama and for a time under Donald Trump.
He left the job, as is the tradition, when Trump found a Republican successor in Ron Parsons.
Seiler lists among his credentials working as “lead counsel on more than 70 federal felony jury trials and more than 500 criminal cases.” Since leaving the Department of Justice to return to private practice, Seiler has filled in as acting Hughes County State’s Attorney and also has contracts to provide legal services as a prosecutor and legal adviser for the Lower Brule and Crow Creek tribes.
That comes after years of experience for Seiler working with tribes across South Dakota.
When I called Seiler at his office he was finishing up duties for Hughes County and working on those tribal contracts. But he also had grandpa business, so he was preparing for a birthday party for a 4-year-old granddaughter, one that was to include some jitterbug instruction.
Why add a statewide campaign on top of all that?
“When I was leaving the U.S. Attorney’s Office, I wasn’t ready to hang it up,” Seiler said. “I looked around at what kind of law I wanted to practice and what kind of lawyer I wanted to be, and what kind of clients I wanted to serve. My health is excellent. I still run virtually every morning, so I’m not ready to be put out to pasture.”
Seiler said he was considering his next professional move when “a friend reached out and we talked about this race as an option. I’m energized by it. I’m excited about it. I decided that the kind of law I wanted to practice was exactly the kind of law I was practicing at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. And the people I wanted to represent on my clients list were the people of South Dakota.”
Going into the state convention, Seiler faces former Oglala Lakota Tribe Attorney General Tatewin Means, a bright young woman with an impressive educational resume and compelling family history who might well have statewide-office potential. But is it this year in this particular campaign? I’d be surprised.
If not for Seiler’s expansive resume of experience and willingness to run, Means would likely be the go-to attorney general candidate for the Democrats. But with Seiler as the presumed favorite at the convention, she brings other possibilities, too. Certainly she would be credible as a candidate for another constitutional offices, such as Secretary of State. And that idea seems to have some appeal to some Democrats.
But while we’re kicking around ideas, I was kicking around the possibility of Means as a running mate for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Billie Sutton. It seemed to have some merit, to me, at least. Call it doubling down on the change theme.
Start with a West River ranch kid and Scripture-reading Christian who survived and thrived in the years after a paralyzing rodeo accident, building a family, a career in banking and finance and four-term run in the state Senate that left him ready for a political move that was more challenging. Add a talented, charismatic Lakota woman who overcame the realities of racism growing up in western South Dakota to excel in sports and education, graduate from respected out-of-state universities and come home to help her people and her state.
It seems like it could all add up to an energized Democratic party, an inspired body of independent voters and maybe even a bit of support from Republicans grown weary, in the wake of EB-5 and Gear Up, of the establishment candidates of the GOP. In an era of change, even in a deeply red state, who could offer more change than a Sutton-Means team?
For sure, such a team would capture some attention nationally. Whether it would capture the votes needed for a competitive challenge of Republican nominee Kristi Noem and her soon-to-be-named running mate is unclear.
Just a thought. But it turns out it was a "never mind" thought. Sutton went a different direction with his running-mate pick, which he announced this morning in Sioux Falls. I missed listening in on the announcement live, because I was on a phone interview with Sen. John Thune for a Father's Day column -- including Mike Rounds and Kristi Noem, too -- I'll publish here on the blog this weekend. But I caught up with the Sutton news on Facebook, watching the replay video of Sutton introducing running mate Michelle Lavallee, a Republican businesswoman from Sioux Falls who obviously is being transformed into a Democrat, for the race at least.
I’d honestly never heard of Lavallee, that I could recall. But she grew up on a farm near Huron, competed in rodeo and, according to Sutton, was figuring out how to back a horse trailer at age 7 -- a skill I still haven't mastered. Apparently she is well known and well regarded in the Sioux Falls buisness community, with promotional and marketing credentials from work at the University of South Dakota, Avera Health and Raven Industries.
Now running her own firm, the Republican woman is doubling down on different as a Democratic candidate. In a state with a 90,000 Republican edge in registered voters, it's understandable. But it also fits into Sutton's them of bipartisan problem solving. Democrat Scott Heidepriem made a similar effort in 2010 by naming Ben Arndt, a Republican businessman from Sioux Falls, as his running mate. That didn’t turn out so well for Heidepriem, Arndt and the Democrats.
Will this year and this Democratic team be different? We’ll see. Different times, different candidates. And maybe a state voting constituency looking for change?
Which brings us back to Seiler and his important first step this weekend in securing the nomination of his party for the attorney general’s race.
Several old-guard Republicans — including the love-him, hate-him, not-much-in-between blogger Pat Powers — seemed to celebrate when Means announced she was getting in on the Democratic side. That’s a reaction that should cause concern among Democrats, because old-guard Republicans tend not to have the best interests of the minority party at heart.
The reaction was likely an indication that they, at least, feel their party’s AG nominee would be threatened more by Seiler than by Means. Who knows? Well, old-guard Republicans might.
Means certainly has meaningful prosecution experience in the complicated, challenging, under-resourced world of crime, punishment and criminal justice on the sprawling Pine Ridge Reservation. And she wrote an elegant, persuasive open letter to state citizens in announcing her AG bid, one that would have made her father, Russell, proud. It’s also one that could easily fit — and maybe fit better — in a race higher up the election ballot, this year or one in the future.
Down ballot a bit, the AG race leads to a job that’s an odd hybrid of prosecution and politics, with a little social engineering thrown in. And it’s exactly what Seiler wants to do, at an age when others might be winding down their legal work to prepare for dance parties for his granddaughters.
Oh, wait, he’s doing that AND the statewide campaign.
I’d expect Seiler to show great respect for Means, even as he works to secure his convention nomination. He worked with her on reservation issues, which was part of his job with the Justice Department. Seiler said Means was good for the process and the race.
“I think democracy works best when people are engaged, when people are involved and when people have a choice,” he said. “So I welcomed her to the race. And I welcome the robust discussion on experience and background that will follow.
Sam Parkinson, executive director of the South Dakota Democratic Party, welcomed Means into the AG race, too.
“We’ve got two very qualified and impressive attorney general candidates running for the office,” Parkinson said. “I think it’s good that Democrats have the competition, showing the multiple folks want to run and get out and show that Democrat name. I’m sure people think one candidate is more qualified than the other, but I’m happy to have both in the race.”
If Seiler manages to win at the convention, he’ll then face one of three Republican AG candidates — John Fitzgerald, Lance Russell or Jason Ravnsborg — who should have an entertaining little ring war at the state Republican Party convention the weekend after next in Pierre.
That race, too, will focus on experience in the courtroom, where Lawrence County State’s Attorney John Fitzgerald is the clear winner with 254 jury trials throughout his 38-year career as a prosecutor. Neither Russell nor Ravsborg can come close to matching that, although Russell served eight years as Fall River County and Oglala Lakota County states attorney and also has 10 years of experience in the South Dakota Legislature. Ravsborg has military service, including war-zone duty overseas, to his law practice in Yankton and very limited work as a part-time deputy state’s attorney in Union County.
But the delegate count at the convention will matter more than the years of experience and number of criminal trials. Ravsborg and Russell seemed to take the early lead in working the system and lining up delegates, although Fitzgerald has been hustling to catch up.
Russell recently won the GOP primary for the District 30 state Senate seat he now holds. So he will have to decide prior to the AG nominating process at the convention whether to withdraw as a candidate for the Senate seat. He thinks he’ll have a pretty good idea by that point whether he would have the delegates to win the AG nomination.
Old hands at the GOP state convention expect spirited discussing on the AG choice, and possibly a late drive home from Pierre after the convention closes.
The Republican AG candidate will be favored, but not necessarily to an overwhelming degree, in the general election in November. That will be something new in AG races in South Dakota, dominated as they have been by Republicans.
There have only been three Democratic attorneys general in state history. The last, Kermit Sande, was elected for a single two-year term in 1972. That same year state voters amended the constitution to allow the governor and other constitutional officers to serve four-year terms.
In 1974, Kermit Sande was blown out in the AG race by Republican Bill Janklow, and Republicans have dominated the office ever since. Sooner or later, you'd think, that GOP stranglehold on the office -- which in theory is about law and order more than it is about politics -- seems likely to end.
Seiler thinks this is the year. And while the AG’s office has proven to be a stepping stone to the governor’s chair for a number of South Dakotans, Bill Janklow probably most notably among them, Seiler says that’s not in the cards for him.
“While they say you can never say never, I can assure you I have no intention of running for governor, and I think that’s a good thing,” he said. “I don’t want my clients, the people of South Dakota, to have to worry about that.”
He doesn’t want to worry about it, either. He has enough on his schedule right now, including sharing those jitterbug steps.