Michael Jackley had just hooked and almost landed the biggest largemouth bass of the day when a “ping” from my back pocket announced the arrival of a cell-phone text.
I set aside my Pflueger spinning outfit and fished out the iPhone, while Michael resumed casting 20 yards or so up the shoreline. The text was from his dad, Marty, the South Dakota attorney general and Republican candidate for governor.
“Branding irons on,” it said.
That meant that just a couple miles to the south as the golden eagle flies, down across a greening pasture from the ridge-line stock dam where we were fishing bass, the stage was set for real-life high-plains theater.
Assorted friends and neighbors were beginning an essential act of spring on a West River cattle ranch: branding, castrating and vaccinating.
About 200 head of calves belonging to the Norman Ranch cattle operation on the plains north of Rapid City had been separated from their mother cows that morning. And brothers Tom and Joe Norman would soon be manning those hot branding irons as others in the crew — including Joe’s son-in-law, the AG — wrestled calves weighing 150 to 250 pounds.
The idea is to haul the calves to the ground and secure their thrashing legs so they can be branded and vaccinated and, in the case of young not-for-long bulls, “nutted,” as the cowboys like to say, if not necessarily think about too much.
De-nutted would be more accurate, of course. But let’s not focus on the negatives of livestock care. Or forget the fishing, just yet.
“Hey Michael, that was your dad,” I called. “We’ve got to go. The branding’s getting started.”
There was an implied sigh of disappointment in Michael Jackley’s barely audible, “Oh, OK.” At 13, and with a powerful hankering toward all things involving fishing rods and firearms, Michael would rather cast than brand — especially since the bass were beginning to warm up along with the temperature.
But he also understands the expectations waiting over at the corral for a grandson in the Norman clan. It’s important stuff. So he fired off a few more casts and hooked yet another bass, while I stored my gear in the pickup. There my 8-year-old grandson, Jackson, had already taken refuge from the still-chilly morning breeze to warm up with a mini iPad.
Jackson and I were there on a sunny Sunday morning so I could pick up some color and background for this story on Michael’s dad and his run for governor. The branding was set to begin at 9:30 a.m. But we got there early, thanks to a text from Marty Jackley the night before:
“Michael wants to invite you and your grandson fishing — both fly and spinning rod, depending on the wind, at the bass stock dam in the morning before branding,” he wrote.
I can't speak for Jackson, but I'd rather fish than sleep. So we were up and on the gravel north of town early, arriving at the Norman Ranch at about 8 and watching some cattle sorting before heading for the dam. There the three of us caught and released 25 or 30 bass before the branding-time text came in. It was too breezy for much fly casting, but I did catch one bass on my new 8-weight fly rod, just to show Michael how to throw those things in the wind. He paid attention.
Soon we were in the pickup bouncing back to the road toward the corrals.
“So, your dad’s running for governor,” I said. “What do you think of that?”
“I think it’s good,” Michael said. “I hope he wins.”
Such hope was shared among the cast of characters we found assembled at the metal corrals out in the pasture a half mile or so from the ranch home of Joe and Diane Norman.
“Hey, Mr. AG,” one wrangler had greeted Jackley earlier with a handshake. “We going to get some work out of you today?”
And work it was, as cowboys and at least one cowgirl on horseback leg-roped one calf after the other, dragging each away from the squirming cluster of bawling calves out to a waiting crew of two or four wrestlers — depending on the size of the calf, and its attitude.
The 46-year-old attorney general was up to his elbows in the action, as he grabbed a hind leg and joined with his teammate in pulling down the calf, while also sitting down in jerky slow motion himself. Once on the ground, he jammed one booted foot into the calf’s hind quarters and stretched the calf's hind leg while his other boot controlled the calf’s other leg.
Another wrestler got the front legs and sat lightly, or not so lightly as need be, on the calf, straddling its shoulders as Joe or Tom Norman moved in with the smoldering branding iron. By the time the acrid puff of smoke began to dissipate, a young woman hustled over and deftly handled the castration. An older man followed her with the vaccination needle or nasal syringe.
With factory like efficiency, each calf was handled and released, then stumbled to its feet and trotted stiffly off to find its mother.
“Does your son-in-law know what he’s doing?” I asked Joe Norman as he reached for another hot iron.
“Well, he says he does,” Norman said with a smile and a shrug.
It occurred to me later that we could have been talking about wrestling calves or running for governor. Either way, Joe Norman seemed confident.
And he has had some time to get to know the AG. It has been about 18 years since Jackley showed up on Norman property, focusing on Joe and Diane’s daughter, Angela.
Their first was date successful, eventually.
“I took her turkey hunting up in the Black Hills in Spearfish Canyon,” Jackley said. “I didn’t get a turkey. And we got stuck. And after trying to dig us out we had to walk out. She tells the story better, but she says that was when she first decided she liked me. I gave her my coat to wear, and she said I was very patient.”
Patience paid off. Marty and Angela Jackley will celebrate their 16th anniversary in July. They have two children, Michael and 11-year-old Isabella. And they make regular trips back to the Norman Ranch, where Jackley escapes the pace and complexities of his indoor job and re-connects with the West River agricultural world he knew growing up in Sturgis.
“My dad was state’s attorney and a Black Hills State professor. And my grandpa was a superintendent at Edgemont, then at Sturgis. But he also had the farm,” Jackley said. “I lived in Sturgis but always worked out at the farm, painting buildings and fixing fence. It certainly taught me a strong work ethic.”
It’s a small farm, 160 acres, four miles east of Vale. But it is “a cornfield away from the Belle Fourche River” and in the Orman Dam irrigation district. So it can grow stuff pretty well. Jackley thinks his farm and ranch connections will be useful in his governor’s campaign, where his chief rival, U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, has a direct farm upbringing and clear agricultural bonafides.
“As I’ve run for governor, I’ve talked about the importance of having a candidate that’s balanced, can understand value-added ag,” Jackley says.
It’s certainly important if you’re running against a four-term U.S. House member (who also served two terms in the South Dakota House) with an effective campaign style and deep agricultural roots. Noem left college after her father’s death to return home and help with the family farm in northeast South Dakota, then continued farming and ranching with her own family.
But Jackley insists it’s more than politics or even family obligations that brings him back for the Norman Ranch.
“I just love it out here. I love getting back home and being a real hands-on part of the ranch operation,” he says, during a brief break from the calf wrestling. “And it beats the heck out of the desk job I have.”
He has had a few of those, actually, since he earned an electrical-engineering degree from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, where he ran track and cross country well enough to earn a 2011 induction into the Hardrocker Athletic Hall of Fame.
So you can expect to see him running — literally — in campaign ads.
After law school at USD, Jackley was a clerk for U.S. District Judge Richard Battey for two years. Then he worked in private practice for the Gunderson, Palmer law firm in Rapid City for nine years.
He was appointed U.S. Attorney by President George W. Bush in 2006 and approved unanimously by the U.S. Senate. But with Bush gone in 2009 and Brendan Johnson set to replace Jackley under the Barack Obama administration, Jackley was appointed by Gov. Mike Rounds to be South Dakota attorney general that September. He replaced AG Larry Long, whom Rounds named to be a Second Circuit judge in Sioux Falls.
Jackley then easily won the AG race in 2010 and was reelected in 2014.
“That year I broke the state record for the highest win percentage at 82 percent,” Jackley said.
Well, OK, but the record needs an asterisk. The Democrats didn’t even field an AG candidate that year. So Jackley beat Libertarian Chad Haber, 82 percent to 18 percent. And Haber isn’t even a lawyer.
That wasn’t the first time a non-lawyer ran for AG, by the way. Libertarian Bob Newland ran in 2002, when he took not quite 4 percent of the vote, to 53.52 percent for Long and 42.76 percent for Democrat Ron Volesky. But Newland did have a fetching campaign slogan: “At least I’m not a lawyer.”
Generally, however, we prefer lawyers in the AG’s office, and we tolerate them pretty well in the governor’s chair, too. Our very first governor, Arthur C. Mellette, was a lawyer and a former criminal prosecutor in Indiana. And out of 31 different governors (32 on paper since Bill Janklow was the 27th and 30th) in state history, 14 were lawyers and nine of them were prosecutors at some level.
Six South Dakota governors first served as state attorney general: Coe Crawford, Merrill Q. Sharpe, George T. Mickelson, Sigurd Anderson, Frank Farrar and Bill Janklow.
One notable failure in that formula was Mark Barnett, who served as South Dakota attorney general longer than anyone in state history — from January of 1991 to January of 2003. That was before state voters decided to limit constitutional officers to two four-year terms.
Many considered Barnett the favorite going into the 2002 governor’s race. I know I did. He had money, name ID and had been busy laying the groundwork for a governor’s race during his AG years.
But wealthy Sioux Falls businessman Steve Kirby came in with cash and a tough campaign style. He also had some West River connections through his wife, Suzy, a member of the Hustead family of Wall Drug fame. Barnett overreacted in response, to which Kirby overreacted, and things degenerated from there.
Mike Rounds avoided the mud wrestling and smiled his way through the campaign without giving or taking a punch. And while there did end up being a tight battle between Barnett and Kirby, it was for second place. Rounds won the primary with a comfortable 44.34 percent to 29.54 percent for Barnett and 26.12 percent for Kirby.
South Dakota voters have only elected four Democratic governors, the last in 1974. And 2002 would be no exception. Rounds beat Democrat Jim Abbott 56.77 percent to 41.92 percent, in a race that also included independent and Libertarian candidates.
Fast-forward 15 years. Could things get nasty enough between Jackley and Noem to result in a battle like the Barnett-Kirby rumble in 2002? Maybe. But so what?
There’s no Mike Rounds smiling nearby to pick up the disillusioned GOP voters.
“Both will have ample funds and will mount strong campaigns critical of one another that could leave a sour taste in the mouths of the public, as it did when Mike Rounds was able to come up and get the nomination,” says retired South Dakota State University political science professor Bob Burns of Brookings.
But then what? The only other announced candidate for the GOP is Lora Hubbel, a political outsider unlikely to hit double figures in the primary, regardless of how hard Jackley and Noem hit each other.
“I don’t think she could be a big beneficiary of it herself,” Burns says. “But if another well-known Republican were to get in the race, it could be a factor.”
That could be a Republican with some name ID and both standing and experience as a state legislative leader, as Rounds had in 2002. Or it could be someone with more than just “some” name ID.
“I think Lt. Gov. Matt Michels is probably the one person who could benefit from a war between Jackley and Noem,” Burns says.
But Michels isn’t running for governor. At least, not at this point. He announced in March that he would not enter the 2018 campaign cycle for governor, saying he has plenty to handle in his current duties. But he also said he was humbled by the extent of the support he received for a possible candidacy in the race.
And to a politician, being humbled by political support is not all that far from being inspired by it. So, keep an eye on Michels. I intend to.
Keep an eye on the discussion about political corruption, too. It will be raised by a Hubbel, who intends to use it against both Jackley and Noem, again and again.
Meanwhile, Jackley faces something he hasn’t confronted before: a highly competitive statewide campaign. He knows only appointments and campaign smooth sailing so far, although he did only beat Democrat Ron Volesky 67 percent to 33 percent in 2010. Which was kind of a contest, when compared to the shellacking of Haber.
For Noem, it’s a case of been there, won that. She came from a late start as a relatively obscure state legislator— albeit with a leadership role in the House — to win a three-person GOP U.S. House primary in 2010 that included well-known GOP Secretary of State Chris Nelson.
Then Noem proved to be a quick campaign study and overachieving fundraiser as she went on to defeat incumbent Democratic Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, who was prior to that considered the party’s rising star.
Herseth hasn’t run for office since then. And her recent hiring as president of Augustana University in Sioux Falls indicates she won’t, for at least a while.
So Noem is formidable and, as a former Tom Daschle staffer once said, she has a taste for the jugular when it comes to campaigning. Meaning she campaigns hard, when the campaign needs it. She knows how to handle livestock, too, and sits a horse well. Jackley is unlikely to out ag the aggie in this campaign. But he’s still committed to competing for the ag vote, West River and East.
Jackley probably earned points in the farm-ranch community overall when he joined attorneys general from more than 30 other states in fighting a 2015 Environmental Protection Agency rule to expand the EPA’s authority to regular certain waters in the United States under provisions of the Clean Water Act.
The rule hasn’t gone into effect, however, because of the court challenges. EPA Administrator and former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who only recently decided that humans might be contributing to climate change, led the charge of state AGs against the rule and is working with his boss, President Donald Trump, to amend it.
The fears of totalitarian action by the EPA on everything from marginal creeks to stock dams have seemed overblown to me. And the fight seemed to be as much about throttling Obama at every turn as it was about reasonable water management and environmental protection. But Jackley argues that it’s bigger than politics and matters to farmers and ranchers.
“It was really about who was going to control the water — the states or the federal government,” Jackley said. “States have historically had that authority.”
Jackley fired off comments about the water lawsuit in a regular stream of press releases on many issues that had both news and campaign value.
“He has been able to keep his name in the news, largely by joining in these lawsuits against the Obama administration in court,” Burns said. “In each of those suits, he appealed to conservative ideology.”
They include a lawsuit by a group of state attorneys general, including Jackley, filed in Nebraska to resist an Obama administration directive to schools to allow students to use bathrooms, locker rooms and shower rooms that match their gender identity.
“As a parent, I’m troubled by the concept that an 11-year-old little boy could come in and shower with an 11-year-old little girl,” Jackley said.
Critics of the lawsuit said the scenario Jackley describes would be unlikely to happen, and accused him of playing to the extreme right. Jackley says schools can easy accommodate special bathroom needs with a unisex bathroom or third bathroom, if they are needed.
States rights and keeping government as lean and close to taxpayers as possible will be key parts of Jackley’s campaign platform. When asked if he thinks the salary improvement package for teachers and related sales-tax increase approved by legislators and Gov. Dennis Daugaard was a good idea, Jackley shows both pragmatism and naivety.
“I would have liked to see, within the existing budget, the increases given to teachers and requiring them to go to teachers,” he said. “I would have looked for ways to do that within the existing budget.”
That's what people who have never had to actually fund education on a large, continuing scale tend to say: there’s money in the budget. Just find it. I don’t know where. Apparently neither did Daugaard and legislative budget hawks. Not that kind of money, at least. Maybe Jackley will get a chance to show us.
Meanwhile, law enforcement will obviously be a strong part of his campaign platform. And drugs will be front and center. He rejects the notion that the war on drugs is failing and simply serves to make drug dealers rich.
“If you look at the national epidemics on heroin, methamphetamine, other drugs causing health and safety issues, the states with strong enforcement have not experienced the type of challenges other states have,” Jackley says. “Part of any failure, though, is our southern border.”
That’s part of the reason Jackley is optimistic about the Trump administration, even though he admits that, “I don’t always agree with some of his presentations or his tweets.”
Good on that, Mr. AG. There’s a lot with which not to agree. But Jackley in general supports Trump and his governing philosophy.
“After meeting with him, with (Vice President Mike) Pence and with (Attorney General Jeff) Sessions, I believe this his policies of partnering with, for instance, attorneys general to address the meth coming into from the southern border is a good thing.”
Jackley likes the approach presented by Sessions on drug-law and immigration-law enforcement.
“A comprehensive immigration policy and drug-enforcement policy will greatly improve health and safety in all states,” he says.
Jackley continues to be a strong opponent of legalized recreational use of marijuana. He is more understanding of the interest in medical use of marijuana but says any move in that direction should be developed and handled in a tightly controlled environment.
“I think everyone hopes science and technology can come up with a cure for that child having seizures or other medical problems,” he said.
When we talk law and order, Jackley and I usually get around to debating the death penalty, which he supports in “some very difficult situations where the only way to protect innocent life is to use capital punishment.”
As for me? Well, I’m Catholic, and like my church leaders generally opposed to the death penalty. But Jackley is Catholic, too, and considers himself to be “very strongly pro life.” So what does that mean? Well, Jackley supported both of the near-total bans on abortion in South Dakota rejected by state voters in 2006 and 2008. And believes the nation would be better off if, at least, each state could decide how to regulate, and whether to ban, the procedure.
“My position personally and my commitment as AG has always been to be a voice for life, including that unborn child,” Jackley says. “That child deserves a voice and has a right to be represented. A better way is adoptions.”
And what about the sanctity of life as it is being taken by the state in executions? Jackley believes the death penalty should be used sparingly, and thinks that doesn’t conflict with his religious beliefs. The Catholic Church only accepts the use of capital punishment in unusual circumstances where the public would otherwise be placed at risk.
In other words, the taking of a life may save other lives. To me, that means a third-world nation that can’t properly contain dangerous convicts. To Jackley, it means us, here and now.
And he points to the case where a guard at the State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls was killed during a prison escape effort by inmates Eric Robert and Rodney Berget. Robert was executed in October of 2012. Berget remains on death row.
“The only way to protect innocent life is to take the lives of these men,” Jackley said. “Or it will be another prison guard, another inmate, a nurse or a doctor. Some individuals are so evil they give us no choice but to use capital punishment.”
I argue that is seems illogical that a nation with the resources and technical expertise of this one can’t manage to keep inmates in prison without risk to innocent lives. Jackley argues back:
“You can’t just lock them up and throw away the key. Federal officials are so restrictive on how they are handled,” he said. “They will always have some interaction with individuals in the system. There’s always room for human error.”
Jackley witnessed Robert’s execution and expects to witness Berget’s, too. He also witnessed the October, 2012 execution of Donald Moeller, 60, who was convicted of the 1990 rape and murder of a 9-year-old Sioux Falls girl.
Prayers are part of Jackley's involvement in the process when human lives are taken by government execution.
“I don’t want to get too much into religion, but I will tell you that I do say a prayer before I get involved in the execution process. It’s a prayer for everyone involved,” he said. “Because I will tell you, it’s not an easy thing for anyone. The day it is an easy day, that attorney general should not be involved in it.”
Jackley said that if he is elected governor, he will witness any executions in the state.
“The only ones with the authority to shut down an execution if something goes wrong are the court or the governor,” he said.
Somewhere between here and the governor’s chair for any Republican candidate, government corruption will have to be addressed. Hubbel will talk about the EB-5 citizenship program and the Gear Up assistance program for low-income students, both of which involved allegations of the theft of public money and led to deaths.
Felony theft charges were coming against former cabinet official in the Rounds Administration, Rich Benda, when he shot and killed himself in October of 2013. And similar charges were coming against Scott and Nicole Westernhuis, Platte residents who created an educational cooperative that managed funding for Gear Up and other programs.
They were set to be accused of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars when a fire destroyed their house that investigators determined Scott Westerhuis set after he killed his wife and four children, and before he killed himself.
Hubbel and other critics of the Republican leadership in South Dakota question how the crimes and tragedies were allowed to happen and the way they were later investigated. And they argue that they are symbols of a corrupt, incompetent government power structure dominated by Republicans for the last 40 years.
Jackley points out that he didn’t oversee either program but did bring the only charges in either case. Three people who worked with the Westernhuises are scheduled for felony theft trials this summer. And he got a guilty plea on one of five felony theft charges against EB-5 manager Joop Bollen, who was sentenced to two years probation and a $2,000 fine.
There’s political capital in the corruption issue, particularly since voters last November approved a ballot measure aimed at upgrading ethics rules and improving campaign contribution regulations and lobbyist restrictions.
The Republican-controlled Legislature and Daugaard rejected the law voters approved, which was already hung up in court on constitutional questions. And they replaced it with statute upgrades of their own. But another ballot battle is likely, and the corruption issue will endure.
“I still think to a degree that it can be a good issue, but it takes a Democratic candidate to benefit from it,” Burns said. “I have a hard time seeing how one Republican can be a beneficiary over another. It’s more of a taint on the Republican Party.”
An independent candidate might benefit from the issue as well, if there is a strong one in the race. Sioux Falls Mayor Mike Huether, a former Democrat, has re-registered independent. He is considered a possibility for the governor's race or U.S. House campaign next year.
So far Democrats don’t have a candidate for governor in the 2018 election. State Sen. Billie Sutton of Burke is considered the most likely of Democratic options. Sutton has said he will make an announcement one way or another soon.
“I think Billie Sutton is probably about as strong of a candidate as the party might hope to come up with,” Burns said.
But as it has been since Dick Kneip won the governor's chair for the Democrats in 1974, the race is likely to be the Republic nominee’s to lose, unless the corruption issue blows up. So the big battle will probably be the primary.
In that, Noem goes in with a somewhat higher name ID and more money, but Jackley appears competitive in both.
“As the sole U.S. representative of a state, she has status that’s really closer to that of a U.S. senator,” Burns says. “And Jackley has to counter that by being more than just the attorney general. He has to create a statewide profile for himself of being attorney general. And I think he’s been successful at that.”
You could call that political branding. But Jackley has been successful at the real thing, too. And once again this year he managed to recharge and relax while wrestling calves at the Norman ranch. He even got his son in on some of the action, with lots of help from the crew.
But the text Michael sent me later that day? Didn’t have a thing to do with calves.
“Thank you for coming out fishing with me,” it read. “I had a blast. Hope we can do it again.”
We will. After all, there’s still a big one out there.
No, no, not the campaign. The bass that got away.