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Missing the meat but avoiding the whipping at the Pennington County Lincoln Day Dinner

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Heading into the dinner, with Texas-style security at the door

Just another Lincoln Day Dinner, that’s what I figured I was heading for late Saturday afternoon as I strolled from my car to the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center.

Boy, was I under-informed.

I knew something was different about this year’s dinner by the Pennington County Republican Party when I stopped at the check-in table to make sure it was OK if I slipped in, without a ticket. I just wanted to check out the political displays, see who was there, chat with the candidates, take in some political rhetoric and scribble a few notes for a column or blog piece, something I’ve done in past years more times than I can count.

But it turned out it wasn’t OK, that slipping in without a ticket notion. Which puzzled me. It was always OK before. So I inquired to the very polite woman at the welcome table why it wasn’t OK now. Eventually, she said she would have to get Pennington County Republican Chairwoman Marguerite McPhillips to explain.

As the woman turned away, I turned to the attendee in line behind me and said: “That’s not good. I think Marguerite hates me.”

I was kind of kidding, I thought. But …

“Yes, she does,” the guy behind me said without hesitation. “But don’t let that bother you.”

I tried not to. To be fair, Maguerite isn’t the only one in the history of my long and slightly above-average reporting career who came to hate me. And to her credit, she managed to contain her animus during a brief, polite discussion about why I couldn’t go in without a ticket.

I hadn’t yet started taking notes, at least not seriously. But I believe she mentioned a media-availability period earlier, which I wasn’t aware of and didn’t attend — and probably wouldn’t have attended had I known.

I much prefer to show up and hang out while the real dinner is on and, later, while the speeches are being made. At that point, I was still hopeful of that.

But there was more talking to do. Marguerite referred me to Craig Ericks, whom I gathered was the event lead organizer. And as I waited for Ericks to arrive near the check-in desk, I was watched carefully and at fairly close range by an imposing-looking gentlemen who seemed to be about my age. He was wearing a big cowboy hat, western boots and a brown letter jacket with a longhorns head over the image of the state of Texas on the back.

“May I ask what you're doing?” I said.

“I’m security,” he said.

“OK,” I said. “But could you be security a couple steps farther away from me?”

I smiled. He didn’t. I stepped away. He stayed where he was, which I appreciated.

I was luxuriating in my reclaimed personal space when Ericks arrived. He explained that the news media had access for interviews earlier but that after that the event was closed to reporters. I was confused by that, and said so.

I told Ericks I’d been offered a ticket by someone from Kristi Noem’s table, and asked if I could go in if I had a ticket. He paused, then said: “If you have a ticket, you can go in.”

I asked if I could then take notes and do interviews while I was in there. He said he wouldn’t particularly like it but wouldn’t stop me, either, as long as I had a ticket.

I noted that I had wandered around inside the event without a ticket during many past Lincoln Day dinners and wondered when things had changed.

“This year,” Ericks said. “We just have too much stuff going on within the Republican Party and outside of the Republican Party.”

I said I wasn’t sure what that meant. So Ericks continued, noting that the party is getting back to its conservative roots and following the path of great GOP leaders like Ronald Reagan in the past and Donald Trump today. He also said the party has important priorities like public-education campaigns on Sharia Law and Islamic extremists and the threats they present to the state and nation.

Not everyone understands and appreciates those priorities and concerns, however, Ericks said.

“We’ve got a lot of Republicans boycotting tonight,” he said.

I checked in on that today with a Republican friend of mine who regularly attended Pennington County Lincoln Day dinners in the past.

“I didn’t attend this year, and I know others who didn’t, either,” my friend said. “I just don’t feel like county leaders represent me or the party.”

I also heard from a couple of people who were in the banquet about what they considered to be anti-Muslim rhetoric. When I get a chance to chat with them more in detail, I expect to have a follow-up to this column.

For now, let’s just say I was well aware of the split in the party on philosophical and rhetorical lines. I assume that’s part of the reason the party headquarters is no longer in the building owned by Stan Adelstein, a former Republican state senator from District 32 in Rapid City. Adelstein has a long-running feud with the most conservative — he would say extreme — parts of the Republican Party in South Dakota.

I was also aware of the fuss over certain speakers who have been invited to the community for presentations on threats posed by Sharia Law and Muslim extremists. Controversy arose around those speakers, with supporters of the events saying they were educational and critics labeling them bigoted.

I told Ericks I wasn’t personally involved with any of that, but just wanted to hang out a bit and do some journalism work. He remained suspicious.

“I don’t know if Stan Adelstein sent you down here to write a bunch of fake news or what,” Ericks said.

I assured him that I wasn’t there as a double agent for Adelstein. Although now that I think of it, I wouldn’t necessarily rule it out, if the price was right. I get along with Stan just fine. And as a semi-retired reporter, I could use the extra cash.

Naw, better not. I’d be a lousy secret agent. As my cousin Monsignor Michael Woster recently said during a homily, I haven’t had a thought I didn’t share in print. It’s a bit of an exaggeration, but only a bit.

So I promised Ericks that I was not a plant for the 86-year-old Adelstein. Although, in the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit now that I  do live in Adelstein’s old district and have had breakfast with him in the past as part of a group of crabby old gray hairs unofficially known as the Old Man’s Breakfast Club.

I didn’t share that information with Ericks, thinking it might completely destroy my wounded chances of getting into the banquet room. But I did say:

“Honestly, I haven’t even seen Stan Adelstein in months.”

Which did not put Ericks at ease.

“I don’t know, I only have your word for that,” Ericks said. “But if you take any of that stuff I said and write something that isn’t true, I’ll find you and kick your ass.”

He glared at me, then laughed a little. So I think he might have been kidding. But I wasn’t quite sure. I don’t think he was kidding about the threat of Sharia law, so I guess I had to presume he might well have been serious about most things he said — including giving me a good old-fashioned pummeling.

Either way, I fired back: “I’m not sure you could. I’m pretty quick.”

Meaning foot speed, not fists, of course. I’m a writer, not a fighter.

Speaking of which, Ericks expressed a powerfully negative attitude about my chosen profession, and about the media outlets — the Rapid City Journal and South Dakota Public Broadcasting — for which I currently write. And after some dialogue on that and the butt-kicking comment, he and I seemed to grow weary of our conversation, which was beginning to seem circular.

So he went back inside. And I watched him as he went, taking another look through the door, where I spied my old Lyman County buddy and former newsman, Noel Hamiel, kibitzing (a word I might or might not have picked up from a Jewish politician I might or might not know) with the conservative crew inside.

Then I bid a fond farewell to the, uh, security guy under the cowboy hat and walked to the other side of the hallway to perch myself on a bar-stool-height chair. I figured I would watch and ponder until the last of the attendees picked up their tickets and the door was closed.

Oh, and I also figured I’d look a bit mournful and rejected, trying to curry favor and sympathy with passers-by. I think it might have worked, too. Thune West River staffer Mark Haugen came to the door, lifted up a single finger (no, no, it was the index finger!), as if he wanted me to wait, then went back inside.

So I waited, maintaining my mournful demeanor. I also made a cell-phone call to U.S. House candidate Dusty Johnson, to see if he was inside.

“No, the interstate’s closed. I’m socked in in Mitchell,” Johnson said. “But I sent a video.”

I told him I'd love to look at it, but I was in a bad seat at the time. When I explained my situation, Johnson expressed surprise, with just a hint of outrage. It seemed to him that they’d want all the publicity they could get at a Lincoln Day Dinner, which is how it seemed to me. Johnson offered to call Ericks and intervene, a notion we were discussing when Haugen emerged and waved for me to follow him through the now-closed doors.

Which I did, concluding my conversation with Johnson. Once inside Haugen told me that Ryan Nelson, Thune’s chief of staff and state director, had called and told organizers that the Thune team would cover the cost of my ticket.

I was grateful for that gesture, as I was earlier when a member of the Noem team offered to give me a ticket. And Marty Jackley also has my gratitude for inviting me to sit at his campaign table.

None of which I felt comfortable accepting or doing.

So I decided I’d better not remain inside for long. About then, though, District 30 state Senate candidate Gideon Oakes walked over to chat. His mom, Marilyn, is an well-known Republican here in the Black Hills who made an unsuccessful run for the state House from District 30 in 2016. His dad, Art, was a sometimes-caustic, still very likable (for me, at least) conservative commentator back in the days when I was helping moderate the Rapid City Journal’s long-departed political blog, Mount Blogmore.

Art was a bed and breakfast owner, with Marilyn, near Keystone. He was also chairman of the Custer County Republican Central Committee and “the man who turned the lights back on at Mount Rushmore.” He earned that unofficial title by donating money to memorial operations after the lights went out during the 1995 fiscal fight and temporary federal-government shutdown.

Art became a bit of a media darling over that, with interviews and appearances by news outlets large and small, including the Today Show from Mount Rushmore National Memorial. He was 74 when he died of pancreatic cancer in May of 2014.

“It’s hard to believe he has been gone four years,” Gideon said.

Hard for me, too, on a much less-personal level. People with an emphatic presence sometimes seem larger than their own mortality. It’s an illusion, of course, as everyone finds out. Mortality wins, always. Still, sometimes the essence of a magnetic personality lives on, as it has with Art's.

Gideon is large enough in physical stature to present an emphatic presence of his own. A past city board trustee in Keystone, he’s working on a political presence in his run for the state Senate from District 30 — as a registered Libertarian.

Whoa, what? Yup.  Gideon switched parties last year after Trump won the primary, deciding the party of Trump isn’t on the same path as the one the party of Ronald Reagan once traveled. He points to expanding budget deficits as one emphatic example of that.

If I’d had more time, I’d have talked more with Gideon about that. We agreed to resume soon over coffee up at Keystone. Which is the kind of interaction and conversation I was planning on, many times over, when I strolled up to the check-in table and learned the rules had changed.

I did get a chance to speak briefly with Jackley, who suggested in jest (I know him well enough to tell the difference) that Ericks’s pummeling-the-reporter idea wasn’t entirely without merit, at least in my case.

And I also accepted, gladly, a compliment on my writing over the years from Jeff Marlett, West River director for U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds. I had to return some compliments to Marlett, who retired as a brigadier general after 32 years with the National Guard, and also managed to slip in a mini-career as a school administrator. What is it with these multi-taskers?

There was much more to talk about, with many more people. But I didn’t have a ticket and I didn’t want to have one purchased for me. So I took a quick scan around the room, noting a pretty heavy presence of people I would consider to be part of the tea party wing of the GOP.

I also observed Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender going from table to table, presumably to promote the civic-center expansion plan in an audience that, this year at least, might be a bit of a tough sell. And I noted the familiar image of that grand old Republican Abraham Lincoln at the front of the banquet room, as well as a cutout of Donald Trump not far away.

I was trying to reconcile the notion of Lincoln and Trump together as I headed for the door, without what I’d come looking for in the way of a story. On the plus side, I didn't get my butt kicked.

At least, not yet.

But we’ll have to see what happens when Craig Ericks sees this story.