Billie Sutton Readies for General Election Opponent

Last Updated by Heather Benson on

Next week voters decide which candidates represent the Republican Party in the general election. Let SDPB help you become better informed. Watch the Republican Gubernatorial Primary debate at 8:00 p.m. Central on SDPB-TV (streamed at SDPB.org). Listen to the radio replay Wednesday at 11:00 a.m. Central during In The Moment. The winner of the Republican Primary goes on to face Democrat Billie Sutt0n, a State Senator state from Burke. To listen to this conversation in its entirety, click here.

Lori Walsh:                            Welcome back to In the Moment, I'm Lori Walsh. Next week voters decide which candidate represents the Republican Party in the general election for governor. Let SDPB help you become better informed, watch the debate tonight at 8:00 PM Central, 7:00 Mountain on SDPB TV. It's also streamed at SDPB.org live, and we bring you the radio replay on In the Moment tomorrow, that's at 10:00 Central, 10:00 mountain. The winner of the Republican primary goes on to face our next guest in the general election. Billie Sutton is a Democratic State Senator from Burke and he's also running for governor. Billie Sutton, welcome, thanks for coming back.

Billie Sutton:                        Thanks for having me on, Lori.

Lori Walsh:                            Give me an idea now, you're in a very different position than Marty Jackley and Kristi Noem are as they get ready for debate tonight. You have a slightly different campaign strategy because of how things play out. What are you doing right now, and what are people telling you about what they're looking for in the next governor?

Billie Sutton:                        Yeah, absolutely. We've just been continuing to build our base of support. I've just been humbled and excited to see all the grassroots support we've had throughout this campaign. The 31st of May marks a year since we announced and just it's been an incredible experience, and we've really focused on listening to the people and getting a better grasp on what they want from their next governor and what we can do better in South Dakota. Heard a lot about a frustration with a lack of transparency in government. People are looking for more openness and honesty and transparency in their government, and that's been something that's a very common theme throughout the last year.

Lori Walsh:                            I want to get deeper into that in just a minute, but I'm wondering how do you see ... do you see it as an advantage that you don't have to have a primary challenger? Or is it somewhat of a disadvantage because of the exposure? What are your thoughts?

Billie Sutton:                        I think there's both upsides and downsides to be honest with you. I think that the downside is that you maybe don't get all the media coverage that they're getting with a primary, but I've been really happy with the earned media that we've gotten as we've moved through the campaign, and people are really paying attention to it. The upside is that we are able to save our resources and really focus on the general election, and that helps us be better prepared, in a really good place with the resources that we have. I expect that once the primary's done I'm going to have more cash on hand than whoever comes out of the primary, and that puts me in a really good position. 

Lori Walsh:                            Let's talk a little bit about this frustration that South Dakotan's have. Are you hearing that their frustration is largely tied into previous government scandals in state government? Is it an overall frustration that you sense from just where America is right now, that people want more transparency and more openness? What are your thoughts as you listen to people across the state?

Billie Sutton:                       There's been the past scandals, whether it's GEAR UP or EB-5. There's also a real frustration that the voters aren't being listened to at the ballot box. With the repeal of IM 22, and other measures that have been attempts to make changes, to ballot measures that were passed by the voters, and so I think that's part of it, but I think there's a broader message that I've heard, and it's just a frustration of politics as usual. Kind of an anti-status quo. People want a leader that can bring people together and that put partition differences aside and just work to find common sense solutions to South Dakota's challenges. That's really what I've focused on in my time in the legislature, and that's what I'm going to focus on as governor as well.

Lori Walsh:                            I'm looking at your restoring trust and integrity plan, because when people ask for open government or more transparency it's pretty easy to give lip service to that, and in fact it's turned into something of a campaign issue for both parties. Tell me about the importance of laying out a plan for integrity and transparency and openness? Why do that? Then let's get to the meat of what's inside.

Billie Sutton:                        Yeah, absolutely. The importance of that is that both nationally, throughout the years, and even in South Dakota, I feel like there's just been a lack of trust in what government's doing, whether you can look at scandals, or as I mentioned the repeal of IM 22, just the frustration that people aren't getting all the answers and in turn that leads to a lack of trust. 

Billie Sutton:                        I think that's problematic to being able to get things done. I think that creates division, and it almost creates a system where the two parties are so far apart that not only do they not trust each other, they don't like each other, and they think that if you're a Democrat and they are Republican they don't like you, or vise versa, that they just don't even like you as a person. I think that's really dangerous, it's a dangerous place to be, and so I hope to bring people together and find common ground. As I said, I've done that in legislature, but as it relates to accountability and transparency in government, I've brought a number of measures in past legislative sessions, so it isn't just a campaign thing for me, it's something that I've actually worked on in the past to bring back trust to government. That's really what my plan does.

Lori Walsh:                            Not all of the measures that you've brought through the legislature have been successful, or have found the support that perhaps you might have expected. What changes when you're in the governor's office, that some of those ideas that you had before you'll be able to get more of a base of support for some of those transparency-

Billie Sutton:                        Yeah, we've definitely seen some success in my time in legislature, especially the related to ... One of the amendments that I got passed on to a bill here a couple of years ago was to not allow people to use their campaign money for personal use once they're done with political office. So I found consensus around that, I found consensus around increasing the timeframe of keeping government records, as far a fiscal documents. It maybe didn't go as far as I wanted it to go, but at the end of the day you don't always get everything you want. I think that's an important part, is that we have to talk about how we find common ground and how we compromise. 

We've definitely seen success, but me being in the governor's office will elevate that conversation and create a more focused conversation around what we need to do as a state to have that kind of transparency and openness. There's actually a lot of things that I can do as governor. I can encourage openness of emails and government records at a level that I was just not able to do as a state senator.

Lori Walsh:                            When Governor Dennis Daugaard was on South Dakota Focus with Stephanie Rissler recently he offered advice for the next governor, and one of the pieces of advice he gave was that you don't want someone who's coming in to think that they know everything, they've made up their mind about everything. There was so many things in issue he thought he understood and then he realized there was more to it than he had thought of. That sounds like what you're saying maybe would resonate with you, and I'm also wondering, can you communicate that on the campaign trail? Or do voters want someone to come in and say, "I know that ..." Decisive, and this is what's going to happen? Can you take that kind of approach during the campaign? Or is that only something you can take as you're leaving the governor's office?

Billie Sutton:                        No, I think Governor Daugaard's right to the degree that too often politicians think they know everything. You run for office, you think you have all the answers and that you're just going to tell everybody how it is and that's not the case because you need to listen to the people that you represent, and you need to work to understand their concerns and be open to that conversation. 

I think that's the biggest part of finding ... finding a way to work together is being able to be a good listener and listen to what the people want. That has really been my focus in my legislative district. I like to explain where I come from, as far as my background goes in the legislative district I come from is very much a Republican district, and as a Democrat I wouldn't be in this office had I not listened to the people in my district and focused on common sense solutions and not partition answers. Because we don't all have the answers, and no party has a monopoly on good ideas. I think that's one thing that's really important to remember, is that we have to consider other people's thoughts and weigh those as we move forward and tackle each issue as it comes in front of us.

Lori Walsh:                            When you listen ... and if you're just tuning in you're listening to In the Moment. My guest today is Billie Sutton, he's a Democratic candidate for governor. The Republicans Marty Jackley and Kristi Noem debate tonight on SDPB TV. Senator Sutton, I'm wondering as you listen to people and they bring up their frustration with IM 22, and they bring up their frustration and anger about GEAR UP or EB-5, how much was lost as far as public trust? How much has to be restored? Do you have a sense of how bad it is as far as what people think about state government?

Billie Sutton:                        Yeah, I think it's gotten a lot worse. I don't know if I can put a percentage on it or answer that fully, but I can tell you that every day on the campaign trail I hear a frustration, so it can seem anecdotal some days but then when you hear it day, after day, after day, I think there's been a lot of trust lost, and I think people are just looking for someone that is authentic and real and accountable. 

I think one of the things that could have been done to address some of these issues is for people in state government to just say, "Look, we were wrong on this. Here's where we were wrong. Here's how we're going to fix it, and let's move forward," because that's something that South Dakotan's respect, is the honesty and accountability. 

 The same with IM 22. I've heard from a lot of people it passed by over 50%, but I've heard from a lot of people since then that did not vote for it that said, "You know what? I didn't agree with that, but what the legislature did was wrong," and in fact there were problems with IM 22. I don't think many people dispute that, but what we should have done is fixed it, not throw out the whole thing and offer not enough as replacement.

One of the biggest things they could have done with the IM 22 issue is to replace the campaign finance reform, and nothing has been done on that front, and that's been very disappointing to a lot of voters. I just think there's a broad frustration out there that people aren't being listened to and we have to do more to make sure that we have an honest, open, and transparent government.

Lori Walsh:                            What could have been done about GEAR UP? Because we had so many conversations on this program, and news media outlets throughout the state, committee meetings, public input sessions, and wind back the clock a little bit and say, well, let's look ahead, how do we prevent something like that from happening again? What could have been done?

Billie Sutton:                        Yeah, I just think better oversight of those federal dollars that are coming into our state as pass through dollars. The state was the administrator of that grant and in fact we'd uncovered emails ... I serve on Government Operations and Audit Committee and we uncovered emails that there were problems with the GEAR UP program dating years ago that I guess, to put it, they were just overlooked. There wasn't a big enough focus on eliminating conflicts of interest and how we go about that as a state to make sure that someone isn't benefiting from these dollars in an inappropriate way. I think if we could have stopped some of that who knows what would have happened, but I can tell you moving forward that we have to have a focus on making sure we're eliminating conflicts of interest, that we are making sure the dollars that we have are being used appropriately. I think in EB-5 and GEAR UP [inaudible 00:14:16] that just wasn't the case.

Lori Walsh:                            It seems simple when you say it like that, doesn't it? Is it that simple? Are there simple fixes?

Billie Sutton:                        No, it's certainly complicated. I don't think anybody would say that, or try to oversimplify it, but those are the discussions that need to be had that haven't been had. It's going to take a leader that's willing to take those on and bring the legislature to the table, and bring stakeholders to the table, and talk about the tough issues without just sweeping it under the rug and saying, "You know what? There's nothing to see here." Because clearly there was something to see there.

Lori Walsh:                            Maybe what I mean is it seems fundamental. It seems like these are some of the fundamentals ... maybe simple is the wrong word, but these are fundamentals of government-

Billie Sutton:                        Yeah, get back to the basics. Let's make sure that people that are working in government are doing the job that they need to be doing and that nobody's benefiting inappropriately. I think that's just a fundamental piece of bringing trust back to government, is knowing that who your elected officials are that you can trust them to do the right thing, and if something bad does happen, that somebody is accountable for it and says, "You know what? We're going to fix this problem, and we're going to do all we can to ensure that it doesn't happen again."

Lori Walsh:                            My guest is Billie Sutton. We're going to take a quick break, and Senator Sutton if you could just stay on the line for a minute we'll come back with more with Billie Sutton Democratic candidate for Governor of South Dakota in just a minute. You're In the Moment on listener supported SDPB Radio.

You mentioned something earlier about really crossing the aisle and people assuming that because you're Republican or a Democrat that you don't even like one another. One of the questions that came up during the Republican debate for congress was, what does it mean to be a Republican? The candidates were answering that. I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about what it means to be a Democrat to you in South Dakota?

Billie Sutton:                        Yeah, I think that's a really great question because sometimes I think it's easy to get branded as something you're not, and it's different in every state, I think, to a lot of degree. But in South Dakota I think that means really focusing on education, and that is a huge part of workforce development and economic development and addressing a lot of our social problems. We're one of, I think, six states that doesn't have early childhood education support at the state level. That's something I'm really passionate about and very focused on throughout this campaign and as governor, that the studies show that the huge not only economic impact, but social impact to early childhood education, so that's a big one. 

I think it's also important as a South Dakotan that we focus on workforce development and making sure we have the housing necessary. That's a big thing that's come up throughout the campaign is affordable housing. But at the end of the day I think Democrats and Republicans have a lot of similarities, and I don't think the bridge is that far apart. Sometimes [inaudible 00:18:30] and politicians try to make us think that we're more divided than we actually are, and that comes from labels. That comes from putting people in a camp when we have a lot more in common than not. 

Lori Walsh:                            We do hear a lot of candidates on the Republican side talking about President Trump and different places where they agree with him, really making that connection and that association. How do you deal with that? Because right now we have a Republican president, and they can pick and choose the areas where they really feel like this is a strong policy of the President.

Billie Sutton:                        Sure. I think my focus is going to be working with the administration and President Trump when we can to strengthen South Dakota, and then as South Dakotans when we disagree to try to find better solutions for our state and protect us from Washington DC, because I think every state's unique and I think that we need to focus on South Dakota problems and not national politics. National politics has gotten so divisive, and during my time in the legislature I've seen South Dakota become more and more divided. That's why I think it's so important that we have leaders that bring us together, not tear us apart, and that is really going to be my focus. 

I have a record of ... I will literally work with anyone in the legislature, or at whatever level leadership I've been at, in order to find common sense solutions, because at the end of the day what South Dakotan's want is for us to get things done and to address problems. So to me, it doesn't really matter to me who the president is, what party they're from, or what party you're from in the legislature, that when you're elected Governor of South Dakota, you represent everybody to the best of your ability. 

That's going to be my focus. That's what I've done as a legislator on every big issue, whether it's education, or healthcare, or economic development, or corrections, or roads and bridges, you name it, I've worked on it to try to find solutions, and I really haven't cared what party they're from.

Lori Walsh:                            You mentioned early childhood education and workforce development, and you mentioned them close together. I remember a conversation we had on this program with Randell Beck, and he said workforce development begins in preschool. He was making the connection between the future of ... if you care about the South Dakota economy, you have to start caring about education at a much younger age. Do you agree with that? Did he overstate that?

Billie Sutton:                        I don't think he overstated at all. I would completely agree. I think that it's one of the most important investments we can make is in education at every level, whether that's early childhood, or K-12, or higher education, or even non-traditional students, people that maybe have been affected by a changing economy that want to further their degree, or be given the opportunity to get a better job, or to go into a new field, and I think that that all revolves around the importance of education. 

I know some people are probably aware of my story and what I've gone through, some of the challenges I've faced, and really had to focus on persevering in times of challenges after my injury. That is really why I'm in the position I'm in today, is because I saw how much education affected my life, and I don't know where I would be had I not gotten a good education, whether that's K-12, or at the higher ed level. When I've asked myself that, the answer kind of scares me, and so I'm in this position because of my focus on the importance of education. It's affected my life, and so many other people that I knows lives, the importance of it, and if we're ever going to address our workforce shortage, it's going to be a renewed focus on education at every level, but I think especially K-12 and then even further early childhood education as a longer term solution.

Lori Walsh:                            Part of the role of governor is to look at those state agencies and figure out what's next, what needs to be improved. Look ahead a little bit and give me an idea if there are state agencies that you think need particular attention?

Billie Sutton:                        Yeah, I think we could do a better job in having more collaboration amongst some areas of state government, and that includes more collaboration amongst Department of Ag and the Governor's Office of Economic Development, and I want to create more partnerships there. Also, within the Department of Education I think there's room for some reforms and a renewed focus on how state government works together to get things done. 

At the end of the day the state government does not have all the answers and a lot of our solutions are going to be determined at a local level, so I think one of the most important things we can do from a state government perspective is to get input from people on the ground, people in our local communities, and renew a conversation about what each community needs and have a specific focus on our individual communities and building them up, because state government is not going to be the silver bullet for the problems that we have in South Dakota. We can be a conduit, and we can work together with our local economic development groups, our local schools, and our local hospitals to try to improve South Dakota, but it's going to take a renewed focus on how we listen and how we work together.

Lori Walsh:                            I don't have the numbers in front of me right now, but there have been so many new faces as we look at meeting the candidates for the state house in November. Many people have registered, or gathered petitions to run as Democrats, and one of the questions that we've asked a few times is, a lot of these newcomers are going to be defeated, just the nature of being new to the game, trying to figure out how to run a campaign, and it seems like you're alluding to that right here in a sense that there is a renewed sense of desire to be in public service in the State of South Dakota right now. Is there a way to capitalize on that, even if some of those people, or many of those people are not victorious in their first election bit? How do you capture that energy and turn it toward community service in a new way?

Billie Sutton:                        Yeah, there's just a lot of energy around that, and that's great to see. It's really exciting for me to see the level of engagement of people in the general public, and I hope it brings a new era of what public service means. I'm pretty confident over the last few years that there has not been a clear enough focus on what it means to be a public servant, and that's a great conversation to have because we can talk about what public service actually means. 

It's very simple, it's about people, and it's about listening to people and understanding where they're coming from no matter what party affiliation they are, and maybe no party affiliation at all. It's a renewed focus on how we work together to improve our communities and to make lives better for everybody in South Dakota, not just the select few, that we create opportunities for our kids to stay here. That's one of the things I've heard on the campaign that people are really frustrated about, they're worried about their kids leaving South Dakota and not coming back. It's going to take all of us to work together to solve that problem and there is no silver bullet for it. It's a number of legs in the stool that we can try to address, but that takes people getting involved, getting engaged, and serving their communities.

I'm not just talking about it running for the legislature, I'm talking about school boards, county commission, city council, you name it, it's very important that people get involved and engaged, and I think we're seeing that. I think we're seeing that all across the board, and it's a really exciting time for South Dakota in my opinion.

Lori Walsh:                            Yeah. This week is American Legion Boys State and the American Legion Auxiliary Girls State, high school students from across this state have convened to learn about government. What's your message for those kids, those young adults as they embark ... I saw the program or the manual the other day and it's pretty intense, it's a big week for those kids.

Billie Sutton:                        Yeah. I think it's incredibly important. I've spoken to the Girls State in the past and my message has always been to get active, stay involved. Talk to your leaders, be respectful of your leaders. It's not an easy job to be in public service because people can often be critical and they can say things, especially over social media, that they would never say to your face. It can be very negative and nasty, and I think it's just incredibly important that we have respect for our elected officials, whether you agree with them or not, so that we can have those discussions, because if you are not respectful and you are rude and inappropriate, that shuts down conversation right there, and it's very difficult to find consensus when that happens. 

So my message to young people is even though you might disagree with somebody, don't be disagreeable, and we should be searching for the right answers, not the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, to steal a JFK quote. I think that is incredibly important in our society if we're ever going to bridge this divisive system that we have ran into.

Lori Walsh:                            How old were you when you had the idea that that was something that you wanted to do?

Billie Sutton:                        Yeah, I never saw myself in politics to be completely honest with you. When my injury occurred in 2007 I broke my back, I was paralyzed from the waist down, I didn't know what my life was going to hold. I was planning on rodeoing as long as could, and then coming back to the family ranch and doing that. I had a lot of goals for myself, but when one door closed another one opened and I got asked to run for the legislature in 2010. I was 26 years old, I think, at the time, and really wasn't sure what that was going to look like, but I had decided after my injury that I was going to take every opportunity I could to try to do more for other people, because of the people that invested in me it really awakened in me a service over self mentality that I don't think I had prior to my injury.

That was the best decision that I ever made, because it really opened my eyes to the importance of people being involved and the positive impact you can have on the lives of your fellow South Dakotans. That's just been incredibly rewarding, and I would encourage anybody and everybody to at least consider running for any type of public service office, because you can have a big impact even in your local communities. I've seen it time and time again, and that's what I go back to, that's what it's going to take to solve our biggest problems. One person isn't going to solve our big problems, it's going to take all of us.

Lori Walsh:                            As you watch Marty Jackley and Kristi Noem campaign, and maybe you'll tune into the debate tonight, what are you looking for? What are you listening for?

Billie Sutton:                        I think they're working to get support from their base. I'm not sure exactly what I'm looking for because I've really been focused on how we run a positive race, and how we address the issues that are important to South Dakotans. Whoever comes out of that primary, we're looking forward to that race, and looking forward to a constructive debate and a respectful conversation about how we move our state forward.

Lori Walsh:                            Billie Sutton, thank you so much for being here. We appreciate your time.

Billie Sutton:                        Thank you so much, I really appreciate it Lori.

 

 

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