Despite the contradictions, choosing Johnson over Bjorkman -- probably
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During his campaign kickoff, a greeting by Johnson & Johnson

Oct. 16, 2018


It will conflict with my general opposition to voting for white Republican males, but I’ll probably go with Dusty Johnson in the U.S. House race.

I say “probably” because I won’t know for sure until Election Day. I don’t vote early. I don’t believe in voting early. Too much can happen between now and, say,  Election Day to alter my opinion of one candidate or another. To change my vote, even.

Candidates are often at their worst during the closing weeks of a campaign. So are their ads. So I leave myself open to possibilities heading toward Election Day. That’s true in the U.S. House race just as it is in the governor’s race, where I already have proclaimed my preference for Billie Sutton over Kristi Noem.

Neither of whom is a white Republican male, which is good. We’ve got plenty of white, Republican males in elected office in South Dakota already, don’t we? Come on, we do. Deep down inside, you know we do, even if you happen to be a white Republican male, like me.

Or not like me, as the case may be. And there certainly are a number of white Republican males who are not much like me, other than race, gender and current political affiliation. And with me, “current” is a meaningful qualifier for my political affiliation. If you know my history, you know I wander around a bit in party registration.

I started out as a registered independent, went Democrat, went Republican, went Libertarian. I switched back to Democrat to vote for Hillary in the 2008 primary, then went back to Libertarian. I switched to Democrat again so I could vote for Hillary in the 2016 presidential primary. Then I switched back to the Party of Newland, drawn by the siren call of cranky Libertarian independence. But I switched to Republican last spring so I could vote for, and especially against, a few specific candidates in the GOP primary.

I’m still registered Republican, and I kind of like getting some of the GOP political mailings that I wouldn’t otherwise get. My wife is registered Democrat, so we get the minority party mailings through her. The Libertarian Party is more inclined toward hand gestures than mass mailings, so I’m not missing much there.

I was thinking about politics and the House race the other morning as I was driving down the winding asphalt through Vanocker Canyon. I was returning home in a roundabout way from a mercifully brief ruffed-grouse hunt with the dog through steep, snowy, slick aspen-and-birch stands populated with boulders and fallen tree trunks and branches.

It’s just the kind of terrain that might someday require a complicated first-responder extraction of  “some old fart thrashing around out in the woods with his dog.” But that’s another story, hopefully still years away.

During my contemplative road time on this particular hunt, I went from Rapid City to Sturgis by way of Nemo Road and Vanocker Canyon Road, with a hunt in the high aspen midway through the canyon. I saw few campaign signs, in part because I saw few homes. I’d say there were three or four Kristi Noem signs, three or four Dusty Johnson signs, one Billie Sutton sign and one Randy Seiler sign.

The Seiler and Sutton signs were in an especially intriguing setting, because they shared property on the southeast edge of Sturgis with a sign for Republican state Sen. Gary Cammack. Sutton’s moderate — some might even argue conservative — form of Democratic politics, along with a certain degree of antipathy toward Noem by some Republicans, has made for some strange road-bed fellows among the campaign-sign communities across the state.

Sutton promoted his conservative credentials — something a Democrat might not do in every state — with a recent news release touting himself as the “most conservative” Democrat in the South Dakota Legislature, according to a ranking by the American Conservative Union Foundation.

In the South Dakota Senate, including Republicans and Democrats, Sutton was 12th most conservative member with a score of 70 percent, according to the ACUF.  That’s higher than the overall average of 67 percent for the Senate, and even the average among Republican senators of 70 percent. And, of course, it’s well above the Democratic average of 50 percent in the Senate.

For those of you who haven’t kept track, there are just six Democrats in the 35-member state Senate and 10 Democrats in the 70-member House. So the Democrats need a big win. And Sutton is their big hope.

I voted for Noem in the June primary, even though I have a closer relationship with Marty Jackley and didn’t like Noem's closing attack ads. I thought the ads were unfairly distorted even beyond the normal unfair attack-ad distortions, particularly in the “family” fight of a primary race.

But I like the idea of a woman governor. And Noem is sharp and organized and hard-working. And while she’s part of the Republican establishment, she isn’t part of the white-Republican-male establishment. And I think there’s a bit of a difference there.

So she might bring some needed change to Pierre, while maintaining what needs to be maintained. And there is plenty of both.

At 46, Noem is plenty experienced in life and politics to take on the governor’s job. But she’s plenty conservative, too, and quite a bit more conservative than I am. So I like Sutton better, as a politician and a potential governor.

All told, his world view through the prism of politics is pretty similar to mine. About as similar, in fact, as any candidate I have covered.

I’ll admit, his age — 34 — gives me pause. But young isn't unheard of in the race for South Dakota governor. The last Democrat to win that race, Dick Kneip, was 37 when he won his first term. Republicans Frank Farrar and Bill Janklow were 39.

Beyond that, Sutton's life experience would, I think, make a guy wise and mature beyond his years, which Sutton seems to be. And he has a calm charisma and intuitive perspectives on politics and on life that seem valuable for any job at any level.

I’m a little disappointed that Sutton decided to fire up an attack ad against Noem a while back. I was hoping he could hold the high ground on that through the election. It's true, I know, that she had been attacking him already. And I’m sure the advisors who know more than I know convinced Sutton he had to hit back.

Sutton will argue that he was simply holding her accountable for weaknesses in her record and big campaign donations she has received. And in turn Noem argues her attack ad is merely pointing out facts about Sutton’s past support for Hillary Clinton and what that could have meant in things like taxes and Supreme Court nominees.

I think Noem’s Clinton-Sutton comparison is an effective attack ad, based on fact. I thought his response attack ad — picking some Noem votes and some campaign donations and blowing them up — was run-of-the-mill stuff used against people who have been in office for any length of time.

But both ads are more about distortion and destruction than they are education, which is why they're called attack ads. And I think his attacker against Noem hurts him more than it helps him, although he might have polling showing I'm wrong.

Either way, the good news for Sutton fans is that he recently started airing a much-better response ad to Noem’s Clinton attack, in which he resumes looking at the camera and reminding people who is, and who he isn’t — and concludes with: “There’s only one Washington politician running for governor, and it isn’t me.”

That’s effective. It’s high-ground stuff. And I’m still on track to vote for Sutton on Nov. 6. Probably.

Probably the main reason, or reasons, I’m likely to vote for Johnson isn’t about my current registration or politics in general. It’s simpler than that: I know him and I like him and I'm confident he's ready for the job.

I’ve known Johnson for, oh, I don’t know, 15 or 20 years, I guess. He was a young Republican who looked a lot younger when we first met. But I got to know him during his years of work for Gov. Mike Rounds and then Gov. Dennise Daugaard. Somewhere in there he sandwiched in a 6-year-term on the state Public Utilities Commission and a successful run for reelection to the PUC.

But Johnson gave up the PUC spot he had just won in the 2010 election without serving any of the second term at all, because then-Gov.-elect Daugaard needed a chief of staff. I understand why Daugaard asked. I'm still conflicted about why Johnson said "yes." I wasn’t thrilled as a voter that he left before he started that term, which was a valuable gift that South Dakotans gave him. But I also understood. I guess. Mostly.

Or at least I got over it. With time. Mostly.

Like Noem, Johnson is more conservative than I am, but probably not quite as much more. And I like him for reasons beyond policy and politics. First, he works as hard and campaigns as hard and listens as well as any candidate I've known. Second, he’s an optimist. I know, he says that in his campaign ads. But he also is. That matters. There’s less optimism in public life than we need, and less optimism in the world.

Next, he went to the funeral of my friend and colleague Denise Ross, a strong, smart reporter who challenged Johnson when he needed challenging just like she challenged anyone else who made news. After Denise died from cancer in July, Johnson also wrote a tribute to her individually and to professional reporters generally, which was published in state newspapers.

In grieving the passing of a talented reporter he also considered a friend, Johnson wrote in part:

“I’m also sad for our state, and for our republic. Denise was a talented, honest, and hard-working journalist. Most of us (especially politicians) don’t respect or appreciate good journalists like we should. In our frustration with an unwelcome story, we overlook that an independent media is necessary to hold government, parties and candidates accountable. We disregard that most reporters are good people, doing their best.”

Johnson doesn’t call real news “fake news” just because he doesn’t like it. He understands the difference. And he is willing to speak publicly about that difference, and to the value of good, tough, honorable-if-imperfect journalism to our society.

For a Republican in the age of Trump, all that matters. To me, at least. Now, if he could only call out Trump for his boorish behavior once in a while … but I suppose that’s asking too much, of a Republican seeking office, in the age of Trump.

I like that Johnson is not an ideologue. He isn’t angry. He doesn’t rant.  He isn’t’ inclined to name-call.

Even when I disagree with him, and maybe especially then, we have meaningful debates on legislation and policy and political philosophy — debates that are full of vigor and empty of rancor. He has called me the next day to clarify one of his points or further explore one of mine, and at least in one case to apologize for not giving the issue enough thought before speaking.

Imagine that, from a politician.

If Johnson gets elected, I won’t agree with all of his votes on big, politically charged issues. And I’ll tell him that. I’d expect him to listen and consider, even if he doesn’t change his mind.

Johnson’s many years of experience in the governor’s office and his term as a PUC commissioner, along with private-enterprise work in telecommunications,  make for a strong resume in a congressional race.

He was going to be hard to beat from the start, as GOP primary opponents Secretary of State Shantel Krebs and state Sen. Neal Tapio found out.

Then there’s Johnson’s Democratic candidate, Tim Bjorkman, who is running an admirable campaign that hasn’t been quite as competitive as the Sutton campaign, which is neck-and-neck with Noem’s.

What I can tell you about Bjorkman isn’t nearly as well informed from experience as what I can tell you about Johnson. I met Bjorkman once more than a year ago, when he was in Rapid City for some town-hall-style meetings during which he listened but also presented himself and his philosophy.

I went to two of those meetings and had an interview with Bjorkman after one of them. Then I wrote a story for my South Dakota Public Broadcasting blog

I haven’t seen or spoken to Bjorkman since, so I know him better only as much as you can know someone through his public statements and advertisements — and endorsements by others.

Bjorkman was an awkward candidate when I interviewed him, a bit haughty and inclined to bristle when challenged. And he seemed a lot more interested in talking than listening, to me at least. I told him then that I thought he needed to work on that. And I presume he has improved there and in other ways essential to candidate success.

It was clear from that first meeting on that Bjorkman is an intelligent, sincere man with solid South Dakota roots who, as a circuit judge for 10 years, came to see the failures first hand of our criminal justice system and how they spread throughout our society and government in costly ways.

Costly in terms of dollars and human misery.

Bjorkman has some meaningful ideas on how to improve that criminal-justice system so it does more good and less harm. Some of those ideas are already part of state corrections reform packages passed by the state Legislature and signed by Gov. Dennis Dauggard — and worked on early on by Johnson, when he was Daugaard’s chief of staff.

I like Bjorkman’s commitment to putting country and state before party. I share his concerns about big money in politics. And I’d prefer to have South Dakota’s lone House seat held by a Democrat, to put a tiny bit of balance back in our state.

This will seem contradictory, and maybe it is, but I hope the Democrats take back the U.S. House, again for balance and to put some control on the plans and policies of President Trump. Yet, at this point, what I know and what like and what I have seen from Johnson for many years means I’ll probably vote for him on Nov. 6.

But not a day sooner, just in case.