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Although bored by politics, Bjorkman leaves circuit court for U.S. House race hoping for wave of change
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U.S. House candidate Tim Bjorkman speaks at his listening meeting

As a lawyer and former judge, Tim Bjorkman knows how to ask probing questions.

And he hit me with a pretty good one just moments after we met.

“Are you here as a reporter?” the Democratic candidate for the U.S. House said following his recent “listening” session, or town hall, take your pick, at the Rapid City Public Library.

Bjorkman was subtle in his quick, up-and-down examination of my jogging shoes, beat-up cargo shorts and bright red “Hellfighters Supporter” t-shirt. (If you’ve been to the Sturgis motorcycle rally, you might have seen the evangelically inspired Hellfighters out there fighting, well, Hell, in a target-rich environment.)

But Bjorkman’s inquiry made me reflect on whether I need to upgrade my attire for news assignments, even in this more-casual era of my semi-retirement.

“Oh, uh, reporter, I guess,” I said, casually flashing my 4-by-8-inch notebook as exhibit No. 1.

Um, your honor.

And in truth, Bjorkman’s question was relevant beyond clothing. Because I don’t always know the answer — reporter or not? — when I show up at an event that is, in theory at least, newsworthy. Sometimes, I just sit and watch and listen and get, well, uninspired. Then I head home to enter the courtroom of compost and continue my ongoing oral argument with the mule deer over ownership of the day lilies.

Bjorkman, though, was ready made news, since he is a Democrat running for the state’s only seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. In a state where Republicans hold all statewide offices and both houses of the Legislature, that makes Bjorkman not just a newsworthy man, but a brave man as well.

And, as Alexander Pope pointed out way back in the early 1700s, brave men rush in where angels fear to tread. OK, OK, Pope actually said “fools rush in,” but I’m trying to be encouraging.

Lord knows, Democrats in South Dakota need encouragement these days, especially when they embark on the mission-near-impossible of beating a Republican for statewide office.

 A guardian angel wouldn’t hurt, either. Or a couple of million dollars. And maybe a lightning strike.

If that seems overly negative for a reporter who is, well, trying to be positive, you should know that the judge-turned-candidate was inclined to think so, too.

“I understand the challenge,” Bjorkman said at my mention of the 80,000-plus advantage in registered Republican voters and steep campaign hill ahead. “And I’ve had plenty of people tell me I can’t win.”

At that point I made what might have been a tactical error for reporting purposes:

“Well, you probably can’t,” I said, leaving room for lightning strikes in the slim gap between “probably can’t” and “can’t”.

Bjorkman wasn’t entirely satisfied with the distinction, however. And pretty soon we were into a pretty decent oral argument of our own. Nothing nasty, you understand. But a fairly spirited argument, for sure, and within just a few minutes of our hello handshake.

At one point he told me to stop interrupting him. At another, I suggested he stop acting like he was still a judge, rather than a political candidate. Things were kind of bristly, quickly, which led me to conclude: I think I’m going to like the guy.

But, OK, I admit that I tend to like politicians. Some friends tell me it’s one of my many character flaws.

More than anything else, I guess, I like the fact that politicians are willing to try, sometimes against long odds, knowing they will be attacked and belittled and, these days, probably vilified at least as often as they will be praised and supported.

Bjorkman is willing to try in the U.S. House race. And since he’s a Democrat, the odds are about as long as they can get in politics. He understands that going in, while holding out hope for an upset.

“I might be wrong, and I might lose badly,” he told 30 or 40 people, mostly Democrats, gathered for his second listening session at the library. “I can take that. But I cannot stand failing to stand up and do what is right for our country.”

Here we can agree completely. Good candidates are good for America, no matter what happens at the voting booth. I don’t think Bjorkman is an especially good U.S. House candidate, yet. But after getting to know him a bit, I think there’s a good chance he can become one.

Others share my opinion on that, and in some cases go further.

“I think he can win,” says Rapid City psychiatrist and Democrat Steve Manlove. “I think he is head and shoulders above the other two candidates.”

The “other two” Manlove mentioned are Republican Secretary of State Shantel Krebs of Fort Pierre and former South Dakota Public Utilities Commissioner Dusty Johnson of Mitchell. The winner in the GOP U.S. House primary, whoever else might be involved, is expected to be one of those two. And that winner will be the heavy favorite going into the general election.

But hold on a minute with the “heavy” part, says former Republican state Rep. Charlie Hoffman of Long Lake — which is, in case you don’t recognize it, both a lake and a not-too-much-left-of-a-town up there by Eureka about six miles from the North Dakota line

Hoffman is a farmer-rancher whose family land overlying the sweet Spring Creek Aquifer was homesteaded by his grandfather in 1885. His family is a bit of a story in itself. You might remember Charlie's son, Austin, who was a KELO TV reporter for a time. He's a lawyer now, back in McPherson County, where he's deputy state's attorney and also runs private law practices in Eureka and Hoven.

I'll be a little surprised if we don't see Austin's name on a legislative ballot someday, or maybe a statewide-office ballot.

Austin's sisters, Alexandra and Elizabeth, were collegiate swimmers who each won the title of Miss South Dakota Teen USA, two years apart. Alexandra was also crowed Miss South Dakota. And their mom, Holly, made an appearance and had a successful run in Nicaragua on the CBS reality show Survivor.

But back to Charlie. He's the son of LeRoy G. Hoffman, who grew up on the family property before heading for the University of Colorado in Boulder to study, hang on, opera. There he met and fell in love with the woman he would marry. And Claudia really gave him something to sing about.

So LeRoy continued his opera study on the East Coast, where Charlie and his brother were born, and then toured and sang in Europe. Impressed yet? I am. I was, too, hearing him sing, a long time ago.

After returning to McPherson County, LeRoy Hoffman won two terms in the South Dakota Senate. And the saturating sound of his bass-baritone — called into service on the Senate floor for birthday and other songs — still lives in Senate lore and echoes in the memory of Capitol old-timers.

Charlie sings well, too. But not quite that well.

“I don’t do solos,” he said. “No way I can compete with my father.”

LeRoy Hoffman ran for governor in the 1978 Republican primary, finishing ahead of Presho rancher and state Sen. Clint Roberts but behind a former juvenile delinquent and U.S. Marine (I know, I know, there’s no “former” in Marine, still…) with a volcanic personality and populist inclinations. After winning the primary, state Attorney General Bill Janklow went on to defeat Democrat Roger McKellips in the general election.

The much-sadder part of the LeRoy Hoffman story was the pancreatic cancer that took his life two years after that election, when he was just 48 years old. It left plenty of "what might have beens" to remember along with his voice.

But it was another family member, Charlie’s maternal grandfather, Charles Boettcher II, who led to the connection with Bjorkman.

“I met Tim 10 years ago when he was researching the book Verne Sankey: Americans First Public Enemy,” Hoffman said. “The guy Verne kidnapped was my grandfather.”

Sankey was a Depression-era railroad-engineer-turned-bootlegger who turned to robbing banks and, eventually, a kidnapping-ransom scheme involving Boettcher, who — according to Charlie — might well have been a regular customer of the bootlegger.

Charlie Hoffman was impressed by Bjorkman’s intelligence and demeanor and thoroughness while researching the book, with help from the Hoffman family. And what he has seen of the former judge since then has only strengthened that impression.

“I think the moral fiber in Tim Bjorkman is some of the highest a human being can have,” Hoffman said. “I know nothing of the man that is not absolutely top shelf.”

As for the U.S. House race, well, Hoffman has already endorsed Shantel Krebs. A former three-term state House member himself, Hoffman worked with Krebs when they were both serving in that body. And they continued as GOP colleagues when she moved to the Senate.

Hoffman knows Krebs well and admires for her work both in the Legislature and in fixing problems in the Secretary of State’s Office. But that doesn’t change his admiration for Bjorkman, or his belief that he can make the race competitive.

“He is the finest Democratic candidate I have seen for years. I think the Democrats have put up the best candidate they have for the House, just as they’ve done by putting Billie Sutton up for the governor’s chair,” Hoffman said.

He thinks Sutton’s road is especially difficult, against either U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem or Attorney General Marty Jackley. And on the House race? Hoffman thinks it might be more competitive.

“I don’t care who wins the GOP primary in that one, folks, they’re going to have a chess match on their hands,” Hoffman said.

A life-long Republican trial attorney who represented clients in Bjorkman’s courtroom agrees with Hoffman on that.

“I’ve never voted for a Democrat in my life,” said the man, who asked not to be identified. “I’m pretty sure I won’t this time. But I’m not sure. It’s the first time in my life it’s been a possibility. I’m going to be watching this race closely.”

The lawyer praised Bjorkman for being a good listener who was “really good at the law” and hard to fool in court.

“You come in with some BS argument and he could smell it a mile away,” the lawyer said. “When you were going before Judge Bjorkman, you knew you had to really know your stuff.  Because he’d question you up one side and down the other.”

The lawyer said conversations with Bjorkman on the law and more left the impression that he is socially conservative, other than his position on crime. There he was “willing to give people a second chance, if they could show they were serious about it,” the man said. “Even though he’s pretty conservative socially, his religious upbringing and beliefs make him inclined to give that second chance, if he thinks it’s deserved.”

That meant Bjorkman, who was elected to the bench in the First Judicial Circuit in southeast South Dakota with 73 percent of the vote in 2006, was sometimes more popular with defense lawyers than prosecutors.

Manlove maintains that Bjorkman’s skills and insights as a lawyer and his 10 years on the bench set him up well for politics.

“He was a professional listener before he ran for the House,” Manlove said. “He took all the input into account and tried to come up with a good decision.”

Bjorkman appeared to listen well, and ask questions as a judge might of attorneys before him, during the two meetings I sat in on while he was in Rapid City. But before he listened, he spoke  — for more than half an hour at the first meeting, slightly less at the next — to outline, roughly, his campaign platform and give some biographical details.

The base of that platform developed over a lifetime in South Dakota. Bjorkman has lived in Canistota for 27 years, but it’s hard to point to a hometown before that.

His dad was an agent for the old Milwaukee Road Railroad, and Bjorkman lists Wessington Springs, Belvidere, Okaton, Murdo, Mitchell, Parker, Draper, Kimball and Rapid City among those places his family spent time during his childhood.

Gotta say, I’m a little envious of that geographic resume, parts of which overlap mine. Those overlaps include attending SDSU, although Bjorkman transferred to USD to get his undergraduate degree in history and English. Then, after a stint as a factory worker, he went on to graduate from the USD School of Law.

He and his wive, Kay, have been married for 35 years and have four adult sons. Three of those sons “answered call after 9-11” and served in the military. And Bjorkman’s eyes filled with tears as he spoke about the serious nature and fears in sending a child off to war.

It’ll be hard for critics to challenge his family’s patriotism, or his South Dakota roots.

Bjorkman got his first job at Foland’s IGA store in Kimball, working for 50 cents an hour. And the stable home life, quality education and work ethic he developed growing up set him up to succeed in ways many young people don’t have today, he said.

“To me it is just morally wrong that in the greatest nation in the history of the world, one in three of our children grows up in poverty,” he said.

Upward mobility is an impossible dream, however, for many families stuck in poverty and burdened by laws and policies that benefit the wealthy and widen the economic divide, Bjorkman said. That economic disparity still needs serious revision, he said.

“For decades we have watched the lower-middle class falling away from us,” Bjorkman said. “Most people sent to prison come from dysfunctional homes. They grew up being abused and neglected, and received a poor education and little understanding of a work ethic.”

Many end up with a substance-abuse problem early in their teenage years, which leads them to fall away from school by the time they confront “freshman algebra.” And all that is instrumental in their descent into crime and the painful introduction to the criminal-justice system, Bjorkman said.

The faces he saw in his courtroom make up the statistics of corrections in South Dakota. Bjorkman said that when he was a senior in college in 1978, there were 518 prison inmates in in the state. Now there are almost 4,000 — a growth rate 30 times the state’s population growth.

Many of those inmates “are the products of often-untreated multi-generational addiction, often with mental illness, and a history of abuse,” he said.

Bjorkman dug into that issue researching a professional article for the South Dakota Law Review. The work provided him with detailed campaign material on corrections and its impacts in South Dakota. The story entitled, “A State in Shackles: The Effect of a Dysfunctional Childhood on Crime and Imprisonment,” was scheduled to be published this month.
If the state can find creative ways to change the downward trajectory of many children living on the margins of society, it can save lives and tax dollars and shape a more hopeful future, Bjorkman said.

“We must do more — far, far more — to protect the vulnerable people in our state,” he said. "What's at stake is assuring that each child has a fair shot at life."

He called affordable health care “the most crucial issue of the day,” noting the high cost -- to taxpayers and people with the means to buy health insurance -- of providing health care in emergency situations for those who need it but don’t have insurance because they can’t afford it or can’t get it.

So a high percentage of health care for many who struggle in poverty comes in the emergency room or, worse, in jails and prisons, where it is “often too late, erratic and at a horrendous cost.”

Obamacare was a beginning effort to address that problem, he said.

“I support as the morally right thing to do and the economically wise thing to do universal health care that is affordable for all Americans,” he said.

Treaty rights to Native Americans must be honored, he said, including providing high-quality, reliable health-care options that are often unavailable now.

He also supports raising the minimum wage, so that “local Walmarts can pay their own people well enough so they can buy their own groceries."

Speaking of Walmart, and its ultra-wealthy family corporation, Bjorkman uses this line in his speeches, and on his campaign website Tim Bjorkman for Congress:

“There is something seriously wrong when, in the wealthiest nation in history, one in three of our children grows up poor, and when a single family's combined wealth is more than the bottom 130 million Americans."

The rigid partisan divide in Washington has been built to advantage powerful special interests at the expense of average Americans, Bjorkman said.

"Too many from both parties are beholden to special interests," he said. "Corporate money controls too much."

Bjorkman says he wants to be part of a “wave of change” hitting Washington, D.C.

“It’s time for change and fresh leadership, I think, in both parties,” he said.

But how does a Democrat who has only run for one office — circuit court judge — covering just part of the state win a statewide election against two formidable Republican candidates who have already won statewide races, have deep GOP connections and have been raising money and campaigning for months?

Well, he made a good move by coming out this soon. He’ll need time to build name ID and raise money.  Then it’ll depend on who he can hire for the campaign and how much they’ll have to spend.

We’ll also get to watch and see how well Bjorkman shapes his intellect and passion and experience into a inspirational platform and charismatic persona. Learning to sell yourself isn’t easy for some people, and I’m guessing that part will be a struggle for Bjorkman, who seems uncomfortable with being a politician and raving about his own attributes.

As he said to me, “politics kind of bores me, to be honest with you.”

Well, being bored with politics is a genuine connection he’ll have with most voters. But in his case I hope — because I hope for competitive statewide races to cover — it’s not really true. Rather, I hope it’s his way of saying he is anxious to govern, to get down to the business of people and policy, not the mind-numbing, sometimes-self-diminishing act of asking for money and presenting clear-and-effective rhetoric on complicated issues.

Running for and, should lightning strike, keeping a U.S. House seat is an unending political chore. So he’ll  have to get over the boredom thing.

There’s no hint of boredom in Dusty Johnson when he’s out pressing the flesh. He clearly loves campaigning. And whether it’s love or not, Shantel Krebs clearly embraces the chore. And it shows, in both of them. They’re good at it.

Bjorkman needs to get good at it, quickly. Then get better. And still better. I intend to check and see how he’s doing with that in the coming months, and let you know.

Meanwhile, I need to wash my blue SDPB polo shirt and get a new pair of khakis, just to avoid confusion -- and another probing question from the judge.

Er, I mean candidate.