All told, it was a nice, quiet meeting for Kristi Noem.
But wait, let me clarify: I mean her Tuesday afternoon meeting with the Black Hills Sportsmen, not her meeting just prior to that with the Rapid City Wingnuts. That meeting was more, uh, eventful, as you might expect of a meeting with this particular group of powerfully opinionated, well, let’s call them maverick conservatives.
The Wingnuts named themselves years ago and are proud of the title. Loosely chaired by former Republican state Sen. Bill Napoli of Rapid City, they gather for mostly vegetable-free lunches and guest speakers and discussion each Tuesday at the Rapid City Eagles Club.
I don’t know much personally about Noem’s meeting with the Wingnuts, of course, because I was advised to depart the meeting-eating room shortly after Noem arrived and immediately after I snapped a few pictures of her preparing to address the group.
That was the deal I made with Napoli, who is sort of the group’s founder and godfather, when I arrived at the door of the meeting room and was told, by a couple of stern-faced Wingnuts, “No Media.”
And when Wingnuts talk, I listen, in part because I figure about half of them are packing, probably including some of the women. Second Amendment Sisters they are, after all.
Which reminds me of a story about Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender, a former police chief and 30-year lawman of reasonable political temperament who spoke to the Wingnuts a year or two ago. Figuring that some Wingnuts would be packing and many might suspect him to be, well, a closet moderate, Allender enlarged his status with the group by packing a heater of prominent proportions.
A gun, I mean, in a holster, under his jacket. Which seemed like an OK, idea, given the group and its Second Amendment passion.
And I thought about packing some heat myself, but all I own are long guns. And they really get uncomfortable stuck through your belt.
Armed or not, I know something about the Wingnuts because I’ve attended a meeting or two, although that was some years back. I was still a full-time reporter for the Rapid City Journal then, covering politics because they paid me to and covering the outdoors because I wanted to, although I got paid for that, too.
Napoli even invited me to speak to the group one week back in the day. And I thought some members were going to drop their teeth — always a possibility at gatherings of people in my age group, especially since Medicare doesn't cover dental — when they discovered during the Q&A that I wasn’t quite the liberal secular humanist they presumed any reporter had to be.
We had some profound political and philosophical differences, and still do. But on an issue or two, they were surprised to learn that I wasn’t all that far from many of them, although I’d probably take a less, uh, boisterous approach to promoting my beliefs.
But that was then. This was now. And I wasn’t going to be allowed to stay inside for the meeting, apparently because Napoli wanted members to feel like they could have a frank discussion, which, of course, reporters love and hate to miss.
I already knew about the no-news-media rule, because I’d seen the announcement earlier in the day on social media. Thanks to a Bob Newland Facebook post for that. Newland ran a copy of Napoli’s meeting announcement and noted that he would be attending the meeting. And he did. And he stayed. And I shot his picture, before I had to leave, of course.
More than just sticking around, however, the well-known advocate for legalized marijuana and past Libertarian candidate for governor and attorney general did enough note-and-picture taking to commit sort of an act of, uh, journalism — in thefree-wheeling blogging sense of the word, at least — that was picked up by Cory Heidelberger and his well-read Dakota Free Press blog.
You can read Newland’s piece here: http://dakotafreepress.com/2019/05/08/at-wingnuts-lunch-napoli-says-noem-doesnt-respect-legislature-tells-rhoden-to-shut-up/. It shows Newland in fine form describing Napoli in fine form, which is a fine-form combination that’s worth reading, especially if you take parts of it with a grain of salt. Or, perhaps to get more biblical, a pillar of salt.
I’ll leave it up to you to decide how accurate and appropriate Newland’s report is. Let’s just say I’d have handled my coverage differently, had I been allowed to hang around, eat a burger and take some notes. But as you might expect if you know Newland, some of his report is true and some of it is playful and some of it is cheap shot and some of it is slightly exaggerated and little bit is pure fiction.
Take Newland’s description of the Wingnuts’ reaction when Noem arrived: “Several men and women fainted. Tears welled up in the eyes of the rest.”
I like that, even if it didn’t actually happen.
Then, backing off the fiction to the description, here’s a pretty good look at Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden, who came in with his wife, Sandy, a bit before the governor strolled in with some of her staff:
“The Marlboro-man handsome, cowboy-hatted, boots-and-Wranglers-sporting Rhoden was announced by Napoli: ‘The lieutenant governor just arrived.’ That seemed a little chilly to me,” Newland said.
Marlboro-man Handsome? Newland never says anything like that about me. What's up with that? And Rhoden has to like the description a little bit, even if he doesn’t particularly care for Newland.
Then Newland summarized Noem’s short presentation and a longer question-and-answer session, much of which apparently involved a discussion of the industrial-hemp bill approved by the 2019 state Legislature and vetoed by Noem.
Which was an interesting bill and a more interesting response from Noem, which I haven’t yet figured out. She’s a grown-up farm girl, after all, who farmed herself and still has family in farming. From everything I can tell, hemp has as great potential as an agricultural product, here and in other states.
Speaking of industrial hemp, and that veto by Noem
Hemp isn’t marijuana, of course, despite some similarities. You could smoke a bushel and not get high. But apparently the similarities were enough for Noem, who took aim at the bill early on.
Noem argued that South Dakota wasn’t prepared for legalized hemp, that it would complicate law-enforcement work against illegal marijuana and worried that legalizing industrial hemp would eventually lead to legalized marijuana in the state.
Critics dismissed those concerns, saying other states are managing to move forward with legalized industrial hemp and its many benefits to agriculture without serious problems.
There was plenty of legislative support for legalizing industrial hemp — with “plenty” meaning 65-2 in the House and, after some amendments, 21-14 in the Senate. And that comes from a Legislature that does not and will not anytime soon support legalizing marijuana.
The House overrode the governor's veto on a 55-11 vote. But with a 20-13 vote, the Senate fell short of the two-thirds needed for an override.
Although other issues were brought up, apparently hemp was an important point of discussion, largely — I’d guess — because it was one of the issues where Noem squared off against the the majority of legislators, although not quite a two-thirds majority in the Senate.
Noem even took the unusual preemptive step of asking — warning? — lawmakers not to pass the hemp bill in the first place. In Capitol speak, that’s the same as saying: “Go ahead, make my day and pass that bill. This Second Amendment Sister will gun it down.”
And she did. Which was a point of discussion on its own during the Wingnuts meeting.
Getting to that "Janklow with long hair" comment
According to the Newland’s report, when Napoli ended the questions he told Noem that after watching and listening to her during the legislative session he decided that her style seemed to be “my way or the highway” and “didn’t show much respect for the legislative process. I mean, you’re just Janklow with long hair.”
Which is pretty good, don’t you think? And if you liked Janklow, you could consider it high praise. Which is not the way Napoli intended it, of course.
At that point in Newland’s narrative, he made it a point to proclaim the veracity of his “Janklow with long hair” recap: “I swear that the important parts of that, and what follows, are true and very close to being verbatim.”
And here’s the “what” in what followed, according to Newland:
“Noem responded with a second of silence, then said, ‘I’m not sure how to respond to that, Bill. I was in the Legislature, too. I was in leadership. I respect the legislative process. I’m not sure where you get, My way or the highway.’ She looked at Rhoden, as if to say, ‘You want to respond, Larry?’”
Newland says Rhoden stood and began to speak, but that Napoli growled: “I didn’t come here to listen to the lieutenant governor, I came to listen to the governor. Sit down and shut up. I mean it.”
When Rhoden tried again to speak, Napoli “shouted him down,” according to Newland. And Rhoden then “sat cowed and seething.”
Now that’s entertainment, although Rhoden would probably categorize it differently. Ed Randazzo certainly did when I called him later in the day to talk about Newland’s report and Napoli’s gavel work.
Randazzo is a GOP committeeman and the political director for the Family Heritage Alliance, which has its own conservative political bonafides. Randazzo is also a big supporter of Noem and her LG. So Randazzo was more than a little miffed by what he considered to be Napoli’s rude treatment of them both.
“You can read what I said on Facebook,” Randazzo said.
I did. On Bill Napoli’s Facebook page, in an update by Napoli discussing Noem’s appearance, Randazzo wrote: “You nearly singlehandedly embarrassed most of the people in your earshot and I was personally appalled with your disrespectful display of abysmal behavior.”
Most of the meeting went well, Randazzo said, and several Wingnuts stopped him to say they thought Napoli went too far in his criticism of Noem and his slap-down of Rhoden.
Napoli says he didn't insult the governor. And as for Rhoden ...
Not surprisingly, Napoli wasn’t shy about responding to Randazzo’s criticism.
Napoli said he “in no way insulted, attacked or demeaned Noem. As a matter of fact (when) this was all over, she said to the group that she thought I did appreciate her for the fact that she was a fighter. Rhoden on the other hand was way out of line.”
Napoli wrote in his Facebook update that the lieutenant governor “was not asked to be a speaker, nor was he invited to even be there.” Napoli also contended that Rhoden “butted in” on Noem’s comments and refused to sit down when Napoli asked him to.
“So I did what any good chairman would do. I gaveled his ass down,” Napoli wrote. “It was a glorious moment.”
In considering that “good chairman” action, I decided to consult Robert’s Rules of Order, a code of rules and behavior often used to manage meetings, especially when there’s the potential for conflict. At this point, I'm tempted to explain that Robert’s Rules of Order were developed by the late Clint Roberts, a good guy, rancher and state senator from Lyman County who went on to serve as state agriculture secretary and a member of Congress for a term.
Oh, and Roberts had Marlboro-Man good looks long before Larry Rhoden grew his mustache.
So anyway, Clint Roberts developed his rules when, uh, he was, OK, forget it. Just kidding. Robert’s Rules of Order actually came from some post-Civil War U.S. Army general named Henry Robert. And he apparently got the idea for a guidebook of parliamentary rules when he was worrying over conducting a church meeting.
This Wingnut thing? No church meeting. And Napoli’s Rules of Order seem to supersede Robert’s Rules, which might be appropriate given the setting.
Sitting in Subway a few blocks away, missing the best part
And to think, when the fireworks went off, I was at the Subway up on East North Street a few blocks away from the Wingnuts, downing the Italian BMT special and preparing for a meeting I would be able to attend: the one between Noem and members of the Black Hills Sportsmen’s Club.
Things turned out to be much quieter there, by the way. No unflattering (or flattering, depending on your opinion of Janklow) political comparisons. No loud suggestions that Rhoden should close his pie hole, which he barely got a chance to open in the first place. And no Newland, who apparently was given some bad information about the whereabouts of the BHSC meeting, as in Spearfish rather than Rapid City.
I abhor bad information. But let’s not talk about the president right now. I know, I know, Trump jokes are too easy. And I sure wouldn’t have made any at the Wingnuts meeting, where I assume the Trump love runs near 100 percent.
I won’t speak for Napoli on that, however, because he can surprise you. I wouldn’t think his style surprised Noem and Rhoden too much, however. They’ve both attended the Wingnuts before, and certainly had some Napoli experiences in the state Capitol themselves.
The sportsmen, meanwhile, were forceful in their opinions and persistent in some questioning, but they were also predictably polite and grateful for Noem’s attendance. Even so, they pressed their point that they and their concerns seemed to have been left out of early discussions on Noem’s new Second Century Initiative and its most controversial component, the free-traps, predator bounty thing.
I’ll get to that meeting and some of the issues that were raised in a follow-up story. But for now I’m interested in the meeting I couldn’t attend, and what the little dust-up did or didn’t mean.
It's easy to categorize the Wingnuts as a fringe group that doesn't matter in the larger picture of South Dakota politics. But they include a number of elected officials, including some in the state Legislature. And they speak for a portion of the most conservative part of the GOP base in South Dakota.
So they do matter. And it isn't surprising that Noem would reach out to them.
As for the little bit of theater I missed on Tuesday, well, Noem is pretty tough to rattle. And she wasn't wounded or worried by criticism at the Wingnuts meeting, according to the governor’s Communications Director Josh Shields. Even with periodic disagreements, even fiery ones, Noem intends to be out and about meeting with people and exchanging ideas, Shields says.
“The governor isn’t going to sit in her office in Pierre and wait for conversations and issues to come to her,” he said. “She’s going to get around the state to meet with groups of all shapes and sizes. What she hears most often is that even if there’s disagreement over policy, they respect the fact that she came and had a conversation.”
Noem and her people apparently left the Wingnuts meeting feeling welcomed by most and approved of by many.
And Napoli? Well, he was just doing what any good chairman would do, depending on whose rule book you’re using, of course.