Billie Sutton and the Moments That Change Our Lives

Last Updated by Lori Walsh on

As those who would be governor campaign throughout the state, we're bringing you conversations with the candidates on In the Moment. We'll share those conversations here so you can learn more about the people and pltatforms behind the postcards that are sure to flutter through your mailbox in the months to come.

I suspect what I'll remember most about this first talk with Billie Sutton is how drastically his life changed the day he became paralyzed. His ambitions shifted. His faith strengthened. His love for Kelsea flourished. His adulthood arrived. 

Life is full of moments, both tender and tragic, when everything we thought we knew about who we are and where we're going buckles and shifts and transforms. If we are wise and persistent (and perhaps fortunate) we transform as well. 

The following is an edited version of this conversation. If you would like to listen to it in its entirety, click here.

Lori Walsh:

What makes a great governor for the state of South Dakota? What are the most important issues of our day? And who do you think will serve the state well in the coming years?

The race to become the 33rd Governor of the state has already begun. Primary elections fall on June 5th of 2018. We've invited each candidate for governor to join us on In the Moment so you can get to know them better, today we welcome Billie Sutton.

Billie Sutton grew up in Burke, South Dakota helping on the family ranch. He's a fifth generation South Dakotan who is elected to represent district 21 as a South Dakota state senator. In 2010, he was subsequently reelected to three more terms, four consecutive terms he's served. He currently serves as the state senate minority leader. He's married to Kelsea and together they have a son. Sutton earned his bachelors degree in finance from the University of Wyoming. He also works as an investment executive at an independent community bank. He's here with us in the SDPB studios in Vermillion. Thank you so much for being here.

Billie Sutton:

Thanks for having me.

Lori Walsh:

Let's start with some history. If you were to win the governor position, you would be the youngest governor at the age of 34. Why does that matter to you? Why is that an advantage?

Billie Sutton:

I think it matters because we bring a new face and a fresh outlook to state government that a lot of people feel has gotten stale and its kind of become a good old boys club up in Pierre. I think that there's a lot of excitement about our race because we would bring, my race would bring new ideas and a better outlook for state government. And a bigger focus on our future, which are our kids.

Lori Walsh:

And maybe the answer is somewhat similar, but also the other moment in history would be ending a 40 year streak of republican gubernatory control. Why does that matter to shake things up at this point?

Billie Sutton:

Yeah it's a similar conversation. We've seen a lot of corruption in our state government over the last several years. I would contend that it's not specific to a certain party, it's any part that would be in control for that long could see problems. I mean I don't think you have to go too far, just look at the state of Illinois to see that on the Democrat side they've had a lot of corruption. It's because they've had a power structure for far too long. And so it's time for a shake up. And it's time for new, fresh ideas and a new outlook on how we run state government. It just needs a better focus.

Lori Walsh:

Are you seeing that appetite from voters as you go around and meet people? Is that one of things that you're getting feedback from them? And what else are they telling you in these early stages?

Billie Sutton:

Yeah, absolutely. I'm hearing from a lot of people, and that's all across the board, republicans, independents, democrats alike that see that the system is not working as it should right now and it's time for change. And so we're hearing a lot about that. I'm hearing a lot about the struggles of families. Saving enough money for college. We used to be the second cheapest state for cost of higher education. Now we're the second more expensive. And that's directly tied to state support of higher education. So families are finding it harder and harder to send their kids to college. They're finding it harder and harder to put food on the table and to get ahead. And so I'm hearing a lot about that and it comes down to creating opportunities for our young people and better jobs with better wages.

Lori Walsh:

Another little piece of history, the fifth West River governor. That's hard, that's a mouthful. Fifth West River governor you would be if you were elected. Why does that matter?

Billie Sutton:

I think it matters just because there is a divide and the task that we have is to bring rural and urban together. And there's no doubt that there's different mindsets. Kind of on each side of the river but we have a lot more similar than not. And my goal is to bring people together. Being not only a West River cowboy, but also in small business and I think that message speaks to a lot of people, rather than just being a candidate from Sioux Falls or just a candidate from Rapid City. I mean I'm almost directly in the middle of the state. I represent a district that is both East River and West River. So I'm uniquely qualified to understand the differences between East River and West River. And the differences between rural and urban and bringing people together around our shared values of hard work, honesty and integrity.

Lori Walsh:

How do you intend to bring those urban voters in?

Billie Sutton:

I think it's a matter of having the discussion about what's important to them and listening. Too often politicians do a lot of talking and not enough listening. So it's really important that candidates and people that are going in leadership listen to what the everyday South Dakotan wants. And I think that urban voters are very concerned about the same things that I talked about before. What the future holds for their kids. The conversations that they have around the kitchen table about how they send their kids to college. And how do they put food on the table. And how do they save enough for retirement. Those are all things that every voter in South Dakota and every individual seems to care about. And that's what we need to do is talk to them on their level and get a better understanding of what's important to the voters of South Dakota.

Lori Walsh:

We talked about if you were elected you would be the youngest governor in state history, but you have a long history of public service. Tell me a little bit about your family background and when you got involved with public service and why.

Billie Sutton:

My grandpa was in the legislature from '72 to '78. He also ran as the lieutenant governor candidate with Roger McKellips and Janklow won that race. So we have a long history of service in our family. And my grandpa was widely known as statesman. And I try to do my best to make him proud. He passed away in '82. So I never got to meet him. He left a good message of working hard and always doing the right thing for the people. And I try to use that in my dealings in the state legislature over the last seven years every day. Just to serve the people and do the best job I can. My grandma also tried to run back in the '80s I believe and she ran for state auditor and was unsuccessful in that bid but we have a rich history of public service. I never really saw myself being a public servant. Prior to my injury in 2007 I was just rodeoing and I was a professional rodeo cowboy and that's really all I wanted to do.

After I was paralyzed in the rodeo accident in 2007 my life changed drastically. So many people invested in me and helped me move forward, that I decided that I wanted to give back somehow. And when I got asked to run for legislature in 2010 I looked at it like one door closed and another one opened. I had the opportunity to positively impact a lot of peoples lives in that role. And it was the best decision that I ever made. I don't regret it at all.

Lori Walsh:

Over the past seven years what are some things that you're proud of? That you accomplished, that the state government accomplished as a team? What do you look back at and see as the wins?

Billie Sutton:

Yeah I think one of the bigger wins to me is a real grass roots economic development focus that we passed in the legislature. If you remember the voters referred the governors large project bill that was just going to focus on large corporations and incentives for large corporations. And the voters overwhelmingly defeated that on the ballot. And so the legislature had to come back the next session and say okay, what are we going to do for economic development in South Dakota? And we focused on education as an investment. And we focused on housing and infrastructure. And those are some things that I was very involved in with my friends on the other side of the isle. I think of guys like Corey Brown and Russ Olson that are friends of mine. We were able to accomplish a lot because we were willing to work together. Because the voters said no, this isn't the direction we want. We want you guys to try again. And we did that. And that's been very successful. But the problem is that the funding for those initiatives are running out and there's no plan in place to continue investing in those areas. And that's another thing that needs to be a big focus.

I'm also proud of the work that we did with education funding and teacher pay specifically. I was very involved in that. And that was a much needed change and improvement. But we still have a long ways to go as it relates to treating education as an investment. We are one of five states that doesn't have state support for early childhood education. And I think that's just unacceptable if we're going to create opportunities for our kids, that's the first place we need to start.

Lori Walsh:

Difficult funding decisions and budget decisions and financial decisions ahead for the state of South Dakota as we look at sales tax revenue. Are you poised to make some of those difficult financial decisions and what do you think is one of the first things that you would need to look at in that regard?

Billie Sutton:

Absolutely. I think I am ready to make those decisions. I've served on appropriations for five of my seven years. By the time I'm done in the legislature I'll have served six years on appropriations. So I know the state budget in and out. And frankly it's a matter of prioritizing the dollars that we have and it's a matter of strengthening our Ag economy. We need to look at ways to be innovative and use technology and to support our ranchers and farmers in a way that when we do have lower commodity prices and we do have struggling cattle prices that our producers are diverse enough and we have the state support so that our economy doesn't suffer as badly.

Lori Walsh:

Do you have specific plans that you're laying out for that? What does that look like?

Billie Sutton:

Yeah we'll be digging into those a little bit deeper, but we're working through some ideas on how we promote technology. How we promote more diversity in agriculture as it relates to maybe hunting operations. And more support at the higher education level to prepare young people to go into agriculture. And that's another huge part of it is that it's very difficult for a young individual to get into agriculture with the cost of land, and the inputs that go into it. Unless you get it passed down through your family it's very difficult. And so what we're seeing is larger and larger operations and not enough support for beginning farmers and ranchers. And that's something I'm very interested in.

Lori Walsh:

Billie I'm wondering, I'm looking at your website and I'm wondering this phrase, meaningful health care, stuck out as something that you cared about. Meaningful health care, what does that mean to you? And why phrase it like that?

Billie Sutton:

That means that we need to get people health care access at the right place, at the right time, at the right cost. Too many people don't have access to health care in South Dakota. Well access to health care coverage. You can always go to the emergency room to get health care. But that's usually when it's too late. When your sickness or illness has gotten to a stage that you might be beyond saving. And we've seen that. A lot of people are losing their lives because we don't have coverage for a lot of those folks. And so that's something that I'm interested in, talking about throughout the campaign.

And then we also have a workforce shortage in health care. We need to do more at the high school and post secondary level to encourage people to consider the health care field. And what that looks like. And to encourage, especially in rural areas, we have a real shortage in rural South Dakota with health care professionals. Whether that's docs or nurse practitioners and we need to look at ways to either help support them in that role or get them to a place where they feel like they want to go into the health care field.

Because I've seen it be successful at the high school level with career and tech ed programs. What's biomedical programs? At that level that kids that maybe were never interested in that take a high school class and decide that's what I want to go do for a living. And those are the types of things we need to do. We also need to encourage them to stay in South Dakota. We need to grow our own. Too often we're pushing kids out of South Dakota because of the cost of higher education. Because there's not support for them and the opportunities that they want to pursue.

Lori Walsh:

Do you think not enough is being done? It's certainly been a push under Governor Daugaards administration, work force development. Do you plan to continue some of his programs? Do you think there's more that needs to be done?

Billie Sutton:

Yeah I think there has definitely been some good progress made but I think we can certainly do more. I've pushed for more tuition reimbursement for more health care professionals. I think we can do more on that level. We've started and are working on a rural residency track in South Dakota that I think we can work to emulate across the state. And create more opportunities in that vein as well.

Lori Walsh:

What else has he done during this administration that you feel is worth keeping going? What do you think this administration has done well, Dennis Daugaard and Matt Michels, that you say that's important to keep the focus on that? And where are the areas where you think, no they weren't- Diverge from what they did and I want to do something different.

Billie Sutton:

Certainly early on in Governor Daugaards administration I was very frustrated for the first three or four years that we weren't, we were heading in the wrong direction. There's been some change in the mindset with the teacher pay thing is a perfect example where we had the administration kind of wake up and say you know what, we do need to do something about this. And we were able to work across the isle to do that.

One of the big things that I think made a huge difference is corrections reform. And especially juvenile justice reform. That's in its infancy and so we need a candidate that wants to continue that legacy of improving our corrections system. I believe that I am the candidate to do that because I've been very involved with corrections reform. We have a long ways to go and there's a lot of improvements that can be made. But it's going to take time. And we just have to all work together to continue to improve that system. There is no reason that we should be locking kids up for non-violent offenses. And setting back their future.

Lori Walsh:

The number of incarcerated kids has gone done. So that's been a success. The crime rate has not gone down, but we're looking at serving those kids in different ways in their communities. Do you think the services exist for the kids who are doing the non-violent crimes? The interventions exist? Is that where we need to lean more into and develop more? Or is there another area?

Billie Sutton:

Yeah, that's what I'm talking about where we have a long ways to go. There are some services available but not enough services. We're going to work to phase those in over time. But we need to be a little more aggressive with it. Because I think a lot of schools are struggling with what to do with kids that are causing problems. I've heard a lot of concerns from schools about juvenile reforms. And that's mainly because some of the, especially in rural areas, and even in some of our urban areas, some of the services are not available yet. But we're getting there. We are making headway. But we have work to do yet. And I'm the candidate that's willing to take that head on and fix these problems.

Lori Walsh:

Let's talk about faith and the role of faith in your life first, but then also the broader picture of faith as a role in this particular election. It seems to be something that a lot of governor candidates are leading with. And talking about. And getting involved in these conversations. Sometimes contentious, about religion and faith and South Dakota. Where do you stand?

Billie Sutton:

My faith has definitely informed a lot of my values. When I had my injury in 2007 I don't know where I would be without my faith in a higher purpose. And my faith in God that I needed to lean on that heavily to make it through the challenges that I faced. My life changed so drastically, so quickly that I couldn't have done it on my own. I couldn't have done it without friends and family and faith. I call it the 3 F's. I've talked about that a lot throughout my career. And it's very important to me.

But I think it's also very important that we respect anybody's view of faith. And not try to, I would never presume to push my faith on someone else. I want to live my life as an example and hopefully encourage other people to say, you know what, what does he believe in? And what helps him to get up every day and move forward? And I think that's what faith is about. And that's what believe in God is about for me, is living my life as an example for other people. But I would never presume to push that on anyone else and put them in a box as to whether what they believe is right or wrong. I can only do what I can do.

Lori Walsh:

You mentioned at the beginning of our conversation about corruption in Pierre. And I'm wondering if we can get more specific about that. Because so many of our conversations about corruption end up going broader, maybe including things that shouldn't be included. So when you say corruption in Pierre, what exactly are you talking about?

Billie Sutton:

I'm talking about EB-5 and GEAR UP, specifically are the two big ones that when people think about corruption in Pierre, that's kind of what comes to mind. And it comes down to a lack of oversight and a lack of focus on what was going on in those programs and what was going wrong in those programs. And why didn't we catch it earlier? Why weren't we digging into the problems that it seems that a lot of people knew were there. We saw emails recently on the GEAR UP program that show that folks knew that there were problems in the GEAR UP program. But I don't think anybody went far enough to address them and to stop those problems from happening.

And so we need to take a hard look at how we're managing federal grants that are pass-through dollars. And we need to have more oversight and accountability. And one of the big things that I'd just like to see from state government is to take an honest approach and say you know what, these bad things happened and here's what we could have done better. And here's what we need to do better. And so that this never happens again. But I don't seem to get that answer. I seem to get the answer that we did everything we could at the state government level. I just don't believe that. I think we could have done more. And I think we owe it to the voters and to the tax payers to do a better job of taking care of our tax payer dollars.

Lori Walsh:

We could have done more. What do you think we could have done more of under the current laws that were in place when those events occurred?

Billie Sutton:

I think that the GEAR UP grant could have been taken away from Mid-Central far sooner than it was. And I think that there were warnings that those dollars were not being used correctly. The state was the prime lead and signed off on that grant even though mid-central was administering it, it was on the state to make sure those dollars were being spent correctly.

There was also no focus on whether that program was performing well or not. And we have not been able to get answers on what the performance was like of that program. So it was just saying here's the money, do with it what you want and I don't think that's acceptable.

Lori Walsh:

What happened this year, what's currently still happening ... Do you feel like that has already been addressed? And can be prevented in the future to the best of the states' ability? Or do you think there is more work to be done by this legislature to shore up some of those holes or gaps or areas of lack of oversight or accountability?

Billie Sutton:

I think there's definitely more work to be done. And I think we, many of us agree that there's more work to be done. It's just a question of how you get there. And so the Government Operations and Audit committee is looking at some pieces of legislation, I'll be bring some legislation as well, that focuses on more open and accountable government. Right now state government's only required to keep records for five years. Well, the GEAR UP One program was farther than five years ago. And so our legislative audit department can't even audit that program to see if some of the same players were involved that were involved with GEAR UP Two when it was renewed. If we were able to keep records for longer than five years, then maybe we could address that.

I also think that we need to have more open government as it relates to emails and more access to emails, especially through the administration and higher ups in the administration. So that you have easier access to information.

Lori Walsh:

Give me an idea of the support that you have from your family. Talk about Kelsea a little bit here at the end.

Billie Sutton:

Kelsea's just an incredible individual. In 2007 when I got hurt, we'd been just seeing each other for about a month. I would say we really weren't even dating yet. I was going to school at the University of Wyoming, she was in Colorado. And we went to the same high school together and so it's funny that we ended up starting seeing each other when we were in college, so far away from home.

But I can remember that after my injury she came to visit, she was one of the first ones there to come visit. And I told her, my life is going to change pretty drastically and you have no requirement or commitment to stick with me in this. And I don't know what my life is going to hold moving forward. And she didn't even blink. She stuck with me through everything. And we went through a lot of hard times together. But that's the key is that we did it together and our relationship grew from that.

I got asked a while back if I would go back to that day, October 4th, 2007, and change the outcome. If I didn't get on that horse that day I wouldn't have gotten paralyzed, would I go back and do it differently? And the answer is no. Because I can't guarantee I would have stayed with Kelsea. I can't guarantee what our future would have held. But I know today that we're together. And I know today that we have a 16 month old son named Liam, that I don't know that we'd ever have and he's the light of our life.

So many opportunities have been created from that day and that's why I put such a value on faith in my life and the people around me. Because so many people invested in me like Kelsea. And she's just incredible anyway, she's the first female to get elected to the country commission in Gregory County. She helped start a local farmers market. She helped start our day care in Burke. She's been very involved with our fitness center. She just does it all. And sometimes I think maybe she should be the one running for governor but she's just been incredibly supportive in this role.

Lori Walsh:

Well she kind of is. It's a team effort.

Billie Sutton:

Exactly, we are a team. And that's the only reason that we decided to run for this. Is if she was going to be on board 100% with what we were going to do. And she has been, and will continue to do so as well.

Lori Walsh:

Final minute left, my guest has been Billie Sutton, tell me what you want to hear from voters at this point? What sort of conversations are you seeking to have with them? And then how they can contact you.

Billie Sutton:

It's really not necessarily even what I want to hear, I guess I just want input from voters. We're going to be doing a listening tour here in the coming months and I think we have several stops that we're working on right now. But I want to hear what's important to the voters. I think that's so important in today's age of politics is, like I've said before, is that too many politicians want to talk and don't do enough listening. And I want to give our state government back to the people. We've seen too often that legislation or ballot measures pass specifically that get over turned by the legislature. And I want to be a leader in respecting the world of voters. And I want to listen to the voters. It's incredibly important for me to do that.

I've done that in my district. I come from a legislative district where there are 1500 more republicans than democrats. And so I've earned their respect.

You can get a hold of me on my website at suttonforsd.com. And I look forward to meeting as many people as possible throughout the campaign.

 

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I have always been a devoted scribbler in the margins of books. As a reader, I underline and highlight. I add questions marks and exclamation points. I argue with the author. But where are the margins in a radio program like In the Moment? 

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Welcome to In the Margins. It’s a place for behind-the-scenes. It’s a place for expanding the conversation.

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Meet me in the Hills! In the Moment heads to the South Dakota Festival of Books for a live broadcast from the Deadwood Mountain Grand. It's my favorite event of the year, and much reading awaits. I'm currently deep into the sweetness of "Braiding Sweetgrass." Here are a few other titles waiting on the nightstand.