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Kristi Noem on Faith, Leadership, and Hard Work

Posted by Lori Walsh on

We interview a lot of politicians (and those seeking office) on In the Moment. My favorite elements of these conversations are always the stories people tell about foundational or pivotal moments in their lives. I'm drawn to the thrumming vulnerability of these all-too-human experiences that connect us in spite of our differences.

Most South Dakotans know that Kristi Noem's father was killed in a farming accident when she was only 22 years old. And most people know she credits faith and hard work in the survival of the family operation. I had never heard, however, her story of finding cassette tapes with her dad's voice and what those messages meant to her.

My father also recorded messages to me on microcassette tapes. He would take a walk, tell me the stories of his days, and then wrap the tape in bubble wrap, seal it in an envelope, and mail it to me, wherever I was across the globe.

As you consider who you want to serve as governor of South Dakota, as you consider politics, for that matter, take a moment today to think about the stories that connect us.

All politics, after all, are personal.

The following is an edited version of this conversation. To listen to it in its entirety, click here.

Lori Walsh:

U.S. Congresswoman Kristi Noem says she's ready to wrap up her work in Washington and return to Pierre. She's running for Governor of South Dakota in 2018. I caught up with her this morning to talk about her campaign.

Let's start with sort of the basics of running for governor and the executive experience that you have, because you have a unique combination that you're offering South Dakota. Let's start there.

Kristi Noem:

Sure. And it really is. That's what these governor's races tend to be about a lot of the time. People look at their background and see if they're qualified for the position. And I just think that I have a very unique background, you know, I spent my life running businesses and farming and ranching. In fact, took over as general manager of our family business when my dad was killed in an accident on our farm. At the time I was only 22 years old and it was a large operation and kind of a difficult time for our family. Well, a very, very difficult time for our family. But then ran a hunting lodge and helped manage my mother's restaurant as well. And then my husband and I have an insurance agency that he operates as well. You know, it's just a lot of different background in small business.

But then also served for four years in the state legislature, two years of that in a leadership position. So building consensus with lawmakers and understanding what legislators go through when they're making decisions that help their districts. And now being in D.C. the last seven years and knowing how all of the federal regulations impact our state, but also how that federal dollar comes to South Dakota and the flexibility that we do have to really use those dollars to better serve our state, I just think there's no one else in this race that has that kind of background and information to hit the ground running and really do some new and creative things to really bring South Dakota to the next level of economic development and workforce development.

Lori Walsh:

At the age of 22 you could not have felt very prepared to really walk through not only grief, but to step into this really challenging role. What did you bring with you at the age of 22 that made it possible?

Kristi Noem:

You know, I think about it a lot because I still everyday miss my dad. He was, you know, my best friend, somebody that my entire life all I wanted to do was grow up and be able to farm with him everyday. But it was tough because I was married but I was still going to college, and I'd been married for a couple years, but just weeks after my dad died our first little girl was born, so I was eight months pregnant as well when dad passed away. And then we took over this operation that was almost 10,000 acres and stepped into a leadership role. So I just remember going to bed the night that we lost him and thinking that my answer was to rely heavily on the Lord and to work hard. And that's what I did.

In fact, my family said I wasn't very fun for those first couple of years because they said I didn't really grieve, I just worked. And my mom said I would drop Cassidy off at her house at 6:00 in the morning and go work all day and come back and pick her up at midnight when she was a baby. And then after when she got to be a little bit older, eight, nine months old, she came with me in the combine and the tractor. And so my drive was to work and do the things that I would have done with my dad.

But you know, the special thing was was that my older brother and sister ended up moving back to South Dakota. My younger brother was still in high school when my dad passed away. And so it wasn't long after a period of time that all four of us kids and mom formed a partnership and farmed together. You know, and that was my dad's dream, he talked about it all the time. The reason he worked so hard was so that his operation would be big enough that all four kids could stay if they wanted to. And that actually came to pass. So I consider one of the biggest blessings of the entire situation was that I was completely surrounded with family the entire time. And that's how we got through it, was that and our faith.

Lori Walsh:

You could have walked away, you could have said, "Now is not the time. I'm in college, I have a new baby, I've just gotten married not too long ago." Did you ever think about not participating in it and walking away? Was that ever part of your internal conversation?

Kristi Noem:

Well, we discussed it. And there was people who advised it to us, you know, because it was such a large operation. But I think for us as family members we knew that wasn't going to be an option. That we loved the farm. And when you are farmers you're so tied to the land and it's your family history. And so my dad had said to me all the time, "Kristi, don't sell land, because God's not making any more land." And so we just knew, you hear your dad's voice in your head during those times and you just think, "We can do this."

And I oftentimes thought, you know, I don't know what kind of seed to buy, I don't know which neighbors will be helpful. I don't know who to talk to, who to get the best advice from. And we actually found in my dad's pickup, I cleaned out his pickup about probably six months after he passed away, but he had little tiny recording tapes, you know those little recorders that you dictate into? He had tapes and tapes that he had spoken into over the years. Some of them were 10 years old, so some of them were from when I was still in eighth grade or a freshman in high school. And it was what field had the best soil, what kind of seed did better in drought conditions.

There was even one in there that talked about all of us kids, what he thought we would be when we grew up, what he thought our strengths were and our weaknesses. I mean, what a gift to someone who just wanted to talk to her dad again and get advice. Because I had it all right there on those tapes. And that was really the moment, about six months after dad died that I thought, "We're going to be okay because God provides." And who could have anticipated that we would have had that kind of assistance in not only hearing my dad's voice again, but having the answers to a lot of the questions that had been rolling around in my head for months.

Lori Walsh:

What did he say about you? What did he think your strengths were? I'm sure you remember.

Kristi Noem:

I do. He said that he thought I was strong and tough and a leader, but that I also said anything that came through my head and that I would probably need to over time develop a filter. Which kind of kind of cracks me up. Because now I often think, "What would he think about me being in the job that I have today?" Because that was certainly was not on the radar at all that I would be involved in politics or in the government. But he often, he said that he thought I was a hard worker, but that my downfall would probably be that I was so black and white. And that I often, always, not often, he said always on the tape, always thought I was right. So I think I've used that then to try to always learn from everybody who does speak to me, knowing that that might be a flaw that I have.

Lori Walsh:

All right. So how has your time in Pierre as a lawmaker there, and in Washington, sort of softened those edges of always thinking that you're right? I can't imagine anybody could make it through Washington and still feel ...

Kristi Noem:

And still think they're right all the time.

Lori Walsh:

All the time, right?

Kristi Noem:

You could maybe make it there, but then you're not very effective. Because so much of policymaking has to be collaborative, otherwise you're just a lot of noise and you're not getting much done. And when I was in Pierre, I was there about a week and I realized, I looked around and realized leadership controlled everything. You know, they controlled debates, what committee bills went to, they had opportunities to help people be successful, but they also if they didn't like somebody's bill they could work very hard to make sure it never went anywhere.

So I was pretty quiet my first year, people always said and I've had other lawmakers that I've served with say, "We couldn't quite figure you out right away because you were pretty quiet." And I said, "Well, I believe in learning and listening right away." But then I decided to run for leadership, because I thought if I'm going to be away from my family, my business, my kids, my husband, then I want to be as effective as I possibly can. So I ran for the assistant majority leader position my second term and was elected to that. And really enjoyed being collaborative. You know, having lawmakers say, "This is important to me," and helping find ways to help them get that done.

Now being in D.C. it's very different because I still have that role, in fact right now I'm actively working on the child tax credit and our tax reform package and this death tax and being the one that's the liaison, I'm on Ways and Means which is putting together the tax reform bill. Between other members and hearing their concerns and making sure that we have a bill that's the best bill possible when it comes forward next week.

Lori Walsh:

Let's talk about the first legislative session if you are elected to be Governor of South Dakota, what do you hit the ground running with?

Kristi Noem:

You know, honestly the first thing I would do if I came out of this election successfully is have a retreat with all the legislators. You know, they need somebody who listens to them, and I think a lot of times our legislators don't think anyone in the executive branch is listening. So I would invite them all to come, spend a couple days with me, bring their spouses, because so many legislators it's a family commitment that they make. And just listen to their ideas and what they see. Because they're ambassadors in their communities and they have so much knowledge.

The first thing that I believe is a concern for our state is workforce. We have a need for people to fill thousands of jobs in this state, and they often need a skill to fill that job or an education requirement to fill that job. And we do a good job with our technical schools, our universities do a good job, but we don't do a good job licensing people to go through apprenticeship programs or using private businesses as opportunities to train people quicker in cooperation with our technical schools to get them into those positions.

And often our welfare programs, our Medicaid programs, our housing assistance, those programs don't tie people into education opportunities or workforce development. And if we did that then those individuals would have an opportunity to provide for their families instead of constantly living in this perpetuation of poverty that we see in our state so often.

Lori Walsh:

When we talk about the atmosphere in Pierre, you mentioned going on a retreat, I'm sure you know the news across the country lately, but then it's also impacting the conversation with Pierre about sexual harassment and discrimination and outright sexual assault. Some women have said that is the atmosphere of Pierre that needs to be changed. What's the role of a governor in leadership in that regard?

Kristi Noem:

I think it's huge and it sets the tone and the culture for Pierre. It grieves me to hear some of the stories. I never experienced that when I was in Pierre, but those situations should not be happening. And so it is, I would take that as a personal responsibility of mine to change the culture and the way that this has gone on, not just where I see incidences in Washington, D.C., even in our workplace, but also in Pierre during the legislative session and outside of the session. I think that many times we don't recognize the opportunity we have to be examples and to step forward and be a role model, when you're in leadership positions, to set that kind of a tone.

Lori Walsh:

Is that something you've been able to do in Washington? Obviously President Trump when he was elected carried some of this baggage with him as well.

Kristi Noem:

Yeah, I think, so we just had a long conversation about this with a group of members yesterday morning. We actually were down in the gym and had finished working out for the morning and were sitting around talking about it. And it was all male members and myself visiting. But a lot of the times they didn't realize things that happen or that they say or that others would do that really do feel like harassment to women. So I think it's building awareness, talking about it, bringing it out into the open, and it's something that you have to confront people on to change their ways. And so we're having a discussion in D.C. about mandatory training. I think in Pierre that would be something that could be considered as well.

Lori Walsh:

You think it's an opportunity then to really take this sort of MeToo hashtag and what many women and men are saying right now and say, "We can do better in the future?"

Kristi Noem:

Absolutely. I look at every time there's a problem, a challenge, something that's brought forward that's ugly and that we want to change, it all just depends on your perspective. See it as an opportunity to fix it and something that we can use as an opportunity to improve the situation. I want to improve the situation for my kids, for my daughters, for other young girls. And that should be the motivating goal behind this discussion is to change this culture for the next women leaders that are coming up in the ranks.

Lori Walsh:

If you are successful in this race you become South Dakota's first female governor, is South Dakota ready for a female governor?

Kristi Noem:

Oh, I absolutely believe they are. I think that South Dakotans have always been wonderful about recognizing ideas, you know, character of individuals, hard work ethic. From the time I was young on our ranch there wasn't girl chores and boy chores, it was just work and everybody did it together. So I really believe that is the perspective in South Dakota. And there's a lot of people that are excited about it.

Lori Walsh:

All right, let's go back to workforce development a little bit.

And I want to talk about Governor Dennis Daugaard right now, what are some of the things in workforce development or in other areas that you feel are really strong legacies of his and that you would try to keep moving forward?

Kristi Noem:

Well, I believe he's done a lot to strengthen our technical schools and to put them on a playing field to where they can recruit more students to fill the workforce needs that we have in our state. He's done a great job including business owners and making them partners in that education process. I also believe the constant visiting about it and recruitment of new businesses has been helpful. My goal would be to build on that but also to expand some new ideas into it.

We have apprenticeship programs that private businesses are running today to train workers so they can earn a wage while they're being trained to become an electrician, an HVAC worker, a welder. Right now the state of South Dakota doesn't license an individual who goes through an apprenticeship program. I would do that, we could fill our technical skills over and over in one year and still not meet our workforce needs. So we have to be creative in finding ways to get people trained to fill these positions, and fill those needs quicker. We can not keep recruiting new businesses if we can't fill the needs that we have today.

And South Dakota really needs to diversify its economy. Agriculture's always going to be our number one industry, and I'm thrilled about that, and anything we can do to strengthen value added agriculture and add value to our products is going to be wonderful. But our economy needs to be diversified. We need to go after that next big industry. And I think it's going to be based around technology and connectivity, where people hire locally but do business globally. And so the state has to recognize that and partner with businesses and people to cast that vision for where we go to diversify, not just our business structure and how we get workers into those positions, but also how we recruit those new industries.

Lori Walsh:

What's the role of a vibrant arts economy here in the state, arts and culture? When we talk about workforce development that really doesn't come up very often, and a lot of young artists and those who are more creatively inclined feel like they do have to leave the state to find the work that they need.

Kristi Noem:

Yeah, I think that's very unfortunate. We have pockets where they can thrive and feel like they're being sustained and supported in South Dakota, but every single person who comes to South Dakota or who lives here and wants to stay, they all want a good quality of life and they all want diversity of opportunities and access to arts. And so that is something that needs to be valued and then promoted as well. So I think that the state has done a good job of that, but there's much more that we could do to help cultivate that across the state and build awareness for those artists.

The unfortunate thing is that if you raise a child in South Dakota and they get to the point where they're out of high school and they want to go get an education, many of them feel like they need to leave to get the education that they want. And if they do that, then oftentimes they don't come back. They become established in another community, another city somewhere else, and they don't come back until much later in life.

My dream is exactly what my dad's dream was for our ranch. My dream is that none of our kids would ever feel like they have to leave the state to accomplish their dreams, that we would facilitate it right here in South Dakota so they could live here, be educated here, raise their families here, and be a part of the future of South Dakota. Because we have so many less challenges and so many benefits than other areas of this country, that it is something that they value. And oftentimes when they do leave, it's for that education opportunity or that higher wage opportunity, and that's the problem that we've got to fix.

Lori Walsh:

All right, let's talk about President Donald Trump's announcement of the opioid crisis as a Nationwide Public Health Emergency. Fast forward to how that declaration and his efforts are going to be impacting the state of South Dakota, and what's the role of a governor in sort of looking at this epidemic as it sort of pushes in on our borders right now?

Kristi Noem:

Yes, I was glad the president made this declaration. It's a huge issue across our country, but also in South Dakota. You know, our violent crimes have doubled in the last 10 years, our rapes have tripled, our crime rate and drug trafficking and increase in drug uses and addictions have escalated. In fact, even just in the Sioux Falls metro area we now have higher crime rates than Fargo, Omaha, Lincoln, and other cities in the region. And so we have to deal with this huge issue and we're going the wrong direction. So I'm glad to see that Governor Daugaard has attempted to tackle judicial reforms and also juvenile justice reforms, but we've got a lot more to do. And we just don't have enough services in the state for people that are struggling with drug addiction. I met with law enforcement officers and those involved across the state, and overwhelmingly there's lack of treatment opportunities, there's lack of cooperation with people that even if they're having a mental health crisis and that leads to drug use, there's lack of mental counselors and people that can help them in those times of crisis. And so the state is going to have to get much more involved in putting solutions in local communities, because many times what's hurting us is that they're often hours away from accessing the kind of treatment and help that they need, and therefore it's un-accessible.

Lori Walsh:

How do we do that financially? When we talk about making some of these changes, you know, how do we pay for it?

Kristi Noem:

Well, it's costing our state an incredible amount of money to incarcerate individuals and to continuously run them through our drugs and courts. And so there are federal dollars available, we've passed bills that have sent more dollars down to the states. We're working with the Department of Justice on getting new pilot programs into the state of South Dakota. The wonderful thing that we have is that South Dakota's a small state and that we have an opportunity to turn this around quickly. And so we could be a pilot project for the entire nation on how to deal with this situation. And I've been making that case to our Department of Justice.

But we also, as a state, need to prioritize it to help families. Our programs should strengthen families, they should strengthen parents. And there's many parents in the state of South Dakota that didn't have a good example of how to be a parent and have no idea how to raise the children that they have. And there needs to be a responsibility put on them to be the parent in that situation and to have the kind of healing and drug addiction treatment course that involves the entire family. And so the state will have to find ways to prioritize the money to put into mental health and drug counseling centers. And you know, honestly, if we put more people into the workforce and get them off of welfare programs, you know, if we give people opportunities to get off of welfare, TANF, housing assistance, and give them an education to fill the jobs that we have need, the more people you get off the program, obviously they're then paying taxes, getting off of the dollars that go through that program, and it frees up money in the state budget to invest in these other problem areas that we have.

Lori Walsh:

Changes, proposed Republican changes to the Affordable Care Act, does that make it more difficult or easier to deal with addiction in South Dakota?

Kristi Noem:

No, I think it makes it much easier. Because the bill that I voted for in the House that would have repealed and replaced Obamacare gave money to the states that they're already getting, but cut a lot of the strings to it. And said, "Governors, you know your populations better than somebody in Washington, D.C. does. So here is your dollars, and you use it to best take care of the people that are in your state." That kind of flexibility and freedom gives us the chance to create programs that meet the needs that we have on the ground.

Our treatment, our mental health services, our health care services, are very different than they are in other parts of the country. We don't deliver healthcare in South Dakota like they do in New York City or in Los Angeles. And therefore if they cut some of those strings and allowed us to invest more in telemedicine, or even telepsychiatric counseling services, and more opportunities to have home-based care, if we can tailor our programs to provide resources in the rural, remote areas that we have in this state, we certainly would see better outcomes.

And that's the difficulty that we've had many times is that the federal government has limited how creative that we can be. I'm a big believer the best ideas don't come out of Washington, D.C., they don't come out of Pierre, they come out of people in the local communities and in those industries that are dealing with those situations each and every day. And with the kind of flexibility that we provided in that health care bill in the House would allow us to put some of those practices into use.

Lori Walsh:

I'm sure that you've been following and have followed the conversation in South Dakota about Initiated Measure 22, and this had a lot of South Dakotans talking corruption or potential corruption in Pierre. And there was various scandals that you know about that really drove this conversation to the forefront. What do you think needs to be done as governor to regain the trust of South Dakotans so that they feel those loopholes are closed. After the repeal of Initiated Measure 22, many voters feel like lawmakers didn't listen to them. What do you have to do as governor to address those issues that people have in a way that makes sense for the overall state budget and for the state of South Dakota?

Kristi Noem:

The state has to be absolutely transparent with the people that they're accountable to. Just every dollar that goes through the state should be easily opened and accessible to people so that they know exactly where their hard-earned tax dollars are going and that there isn't anything that the state government's trying to hide from them. So I'm a big believer in the fact that the state could do a lot more on transparency in order to open up. When you're truthful and you lay out the facts in front of folks, that's how you build trust. And we just haven't done a great job of that in South Dakota.

You know, Initiated Measure 22, I know there's been a lot of debate over that the last several years and I know that there was changes that people were looking at. And the full repeal was something that I hoped wouldn't happen because I think it's extremely important that the voters are heard. My hope is that they will look at measures that could be considered and put back into place that were important, that fulfilled some of the desire of people to see more integrity in the state government, more accountability to them as well.

Lori Walsh:

Do you think there's a problem in something beyond the perception? Do you think there's a problem in the laws and the way business is done?

Kristi Noem:

You know, it's hard for me because I haven't been a part of Pierre, I've not been a Pierre insider for many years. I never saw a problem when I was in the state legislature. That would be one of the first goals I would have as governor, is to make sure that there isn't a problem, and if it is that we're going to fix it. There is certainly big questions that I have, but it's hard for me to, I try not to speak irresponsibly, and I don't have any facts or data that tells me for sure that there was corruption. But I tell you what, if I was successful in this election we would make sure that anybody that was involved in any kind of corruption in the state would be brought to justice and that people would have the facts.

Lori Walsh:

We reached U.S. Congresswoman Kristi Noem this morning at her home in South Dakota. You can connect with her campaign online at kristiforgovernor.com. And you can find conversations with all the South Dakota gubernatorial candidates for 2018. As we gather them they're all posted on our website listen.sdpb.org.

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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.