Skip to main content
With Tom Petty and hope in the air, Billie Sutton begins campaign against long odds, Republican dominance
Email share
Democratic state Sen. Billie Sutton takes questions on his campaign

It isn’t just that I missed Billie Sutton’s announcement speech. I missed Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, too.

Not in person, of course. Even better-funded candidates like Kristi Noem and Marty Jackley couldn’t have managed that.

But Petty’s popular song “I Won’t Back Down” — which you’ll hear if you call Billie Sutton’s cell phone — was being blasted across the Missouri River breaks as I walked from my distantly parked Nissan up the lane between big, dusty, American-made pickups toward Bill and Renee Sutton’s ridge-line ranch house:

“Gonna stand my ground, won't be turned around
And I'll keep this world from draggin' me down
Gonna stand my ground and I won't back down!”

With family and friends, supporters and reporters, gathered against the green-and-chartreuse backdrop of a deeply deciduous valley, the Sutton’s 33-year-old son, Billie, had just announced his candidacy for governor. And he did so by, among other things, calling out the Republic establishment in South Dakota for creating a climate of corruption that he says has broken lives and held the state back for a generation.

Yeah, OK, that’s pretty good. And I missed that, too, largely because I took too much time communing with the landscape along Highway 47 between Reliance and Gregory — if you haven’t driven it, put it on your list — during the last leg of the nearly four-hour drive from Rapid City to the Sutton Ranch northeast of Burke.

But we live in an online age. And my self-created deadline structure involves days instead of hours. So I figured I could see and hear what I missed, later on. And I did, thanks to videos posted by the Sioux Falls Argus Leader and, from a different physical and philosophical angle, the news-hopping bumblebee of Dakota Free Press, Cory Heidelberger.

What I didn’t miss in person was the best stuff, including a ranch-style lunch of roast beef and baked beans and potato salad, a succession of glorious views of the Missouri River and personal interviews with Sutton and some of his supporters.

I also listened in on some questioning of the candidate by Dana Ferguson of the Argus and James Nord of the Associated Press, as well as a query or two by a grizzled veteran of the South Dakota news game named Jerry Oster.

OK, Oster’s not really that grizzled. I just felt compelled to use the cliche. Actually, Oster is clean shaven and looks pretty good, for an old guy. And I say that speaking as an old guy who is a lot closer to grizzled than he is.

The news director for WNAX Radio in Yankton, where he has worked for more than 40 years, Oster was actually on vacation. But he drove with his wife to the Sutton place on Wednesday morning for the campaign announcement.

That’s a testament to Sutton’s credibility as a candidate, as well as to the lovely roadside views along the route. But it’s also the kind of stuff grizzled old veteran reporters do, while on vacation. Just sayin’ …

As usual, Oster asked relevant questions, including this one directed at me after Sutton had moved on to another group:

“Do you think we’re the only reporters here who actually interviewed the last Democratic governor elected in South Dakota?”

I scanned the 100 or so people milling around in various angles of interaction and concluded that, indeed, we were very likely the only newshounds there who had covered Dick Kneip back in the Precambrian Era of the 1970s. Which made me stop and consider whether I had remembered to take my blood-pressure pill and apply the appropriate slathering of sun screen.

But back to Kneip.

“I think you’re right,” I said to Oster. “Which means you and I are old.”

It also means that South Dakota voters haven’t turned to the Democratic Party for their governor since 1974. And interestingly enough, a guy who worked on that campaign for Kneip was in a cluster of conversationalists just a few feet away.

Rapid City’s own 70-something Democrat-in-residence, Bill Walsh, was appropriately attired in jeans, western boots, a white straw cowboy hat and white, snap-pocket shirt. And he was predictably effusive about the latest Democrat to attempt what can reasonably be labeled the near-impossible, if the recent half-century in South Dakota is any guide.

“I was on that team that helped get Dick Kneip elected,” Walsh said. “And I can’t think of a more interesting candidate since Dick.”

Interesting in what ways? Well, for one Sutton didn’t run from the rodeo accident in his announcement speech, and Walsh embraced it.

“The time is right for a person like Billie, with his ranch country and rodeo background, his integrity and honesty,” Walsh said. “And then there’s the uniqueness of a handicapped person running for the highest office in the state.”

Walsh operates on old-school political pragmatism and also some aged terminology for people with disabilities. But you get the point. Sutton suffered a broken back and paralysis from the waist down when a bronc he was settling in to ride at a rodeo in Minot, N.D., in 2007 reared up and fell over on him in the chute.

That left the young bronc rider, who had starred in college rodeo and was building a career on the professional circuit, facing starkly different possibilities in life.

“I learned that sometimes God has other plans,” he said.

Those plans turned, after a long process of recovery and rehabilitation, into a trip back to the University of Wyoming to finish his degree, four terms in the South Dakota Senate, a budding career in banking and financial consulting at the First Fidelity Bank in Burke, marriage to his wife, Kelsea, and the blessing of a baby boy, Liam, now 13 months old.

And now there’s this governor’s race.

A Democratic national committeeman from South Dakota, Walsh is naturally, and by the demands of his position, optimistic about Democratic candidates. But he usually doesn’t allow his unrelenting good cheer to stray into downright self-delusion. And he knows how to count when it comes to voter registration.

On Election Day last November, 252,116 voters were registered Republican in South Dakota, while 170,694 were registered Democrat and 118,669 independent. And 50,698 were inactive.

Starting out with a deficit of 80,000 in voter registration is starting out, well, behind.

“It’s going to be a stretch, because of the registration numbers,” Walsh said. “But if there’s ever been a time for a Democrat to get elected in South Dakota, since the 1970s, the time is now.”

Democrats like Walsh think it might be the time because of the corruption thing, of course — EB-5, Gear Up, taxpayer money mishandled, oversight seemingly ignored or done poorly, and a good-old-boy culture that, if not necessarily encouraged, seems to have flourished over the years with a wink and a nod.

And that’s all about Republicans. Because Republicans have been in charge of state government since the Kneip years.

Plus, now there’s the Trump phenomenon, a connection that might drive many Democrats crazy but also means that politics is currently a place for the extraordinary, even what some might consider to be unimaginable.

Donald Trump in the White House? Shucks, why not a Democrat in the South Dakota governor’s chair?

Will those voters who swallowed the notion of a white, male billionaire operating as a working-class hero also see the more logical connections between a ranch-country cowboy who broke his back in a rodeo accident and blue-collar South Dakota?

Walsh believes so.

“He’s exactly what the country needs and what the Democratic Party needs,” he said. “We never really learned in the last election that we have to reach out to the working people and to rural America. Billie can do that.”

Sutton says he can and will do that. But he needs to reach out to everyone if he has a chance at winning. And while he’s a loyal Democrat, he likes his chances at attracting independents and even some Republicans, while holding his party base.

“I don’t intend to just follow party lines,” he said after his speech. “I intend to work with anyone willing to move the state forward. I consider myself a South Dakotan first. And I will work to address the needs of all South Dakotans.”

Sutton considers himself a moderate Democrat. And most objective observers are unlikely to argue much with that. State Republican Party Chairman Dan Lederman, a former state legislator from Dakota Dunes who quit the South Dakota Senate because of family considerations, is one who does argue.

Last week Lederman labeled Sutton as a “hyper-partisan” liberal, which is the first time I’ve heard Sutton described in such a way, by anyone of any political persuasion.  But maybe I’ve missed something that Lederman has seen or knows.

And I don’t know Lederman well. Fact is, I don’t know all that many residents of Dakota Dunes or much about the community itself, other than there sure are a lot of big, expensive homes down there. And it sure is a lot different than Burke, or Gregory, or Chamberlain or Reliance.

Still South Dakota, of course, but a lot different. Which doesn’t mean that Lederman’s a lot different. As I said, I don’t know him.

And it’s possible that Lederman has a sense of humor that I didn’t recognize in his “hyper-partisan” liberal comment. I guess we’ll find out in the coming campaign cycle.

Speaking of Republicans, though, I got a cell-phone call from one as I was preparing, with Walsh, to devour the ranch lunch served after the speech.

“What do you want?” I said. “This is a Republican-free zone, even for cell calls.”

The Republican caller laughed, asked if I had actually made it to the Sutton announcement and wondered how it was going. When I told him there was plenty of energy and more than a hundred people there, he was impressed.

“That’s pretty good, considering it’s out in the middle of nowhere,” he said.

This particular Republican was clearly happy to hear that Billie was off to a good start, which inspired me to ask: “Wait, you aren’t going to endorse him, are you?”

The Republican laughed and said he wouldn’t be doing that but did wish Sutton well.

“He’s a good guy,” he said, noting that many other Republicans, including some who served with Sutton in the Legislature, felt the same way.

So the hyper-partisan liberal thing? Well, maybe not so much.

In fact, there at least a few in the Democratic Party — which has been known to consume its own in South Dakota — who wonder if Sutton is too far from a hyper-partisan liberal.

I asked my Facebook friends for suggestions on writing a lede for this story, and got a pretty good offering, plus analysis of Sutton as a candidate. Winner-area blogger and farmer Doug Wiken hopes for strong Democratic values from Sutton, noting that the Democratic Party does not need “Republican lite” from its candidate.

But Wiken also offered a good headline possibility for this story: “Master of physical challenge takes on political challenge.”

And a huge one.

Former Republican state Rep. John Teupel of Spearfish, who served two terms in the South Dakota House and was majority whip for one, said he expects Sutton to follow “a long line of Democrat gubernatorial candidates who have gone before into political oblivion.”

Teupel also said: “The likelihood that Billie will beat Kristi Noem to become the next governor is not high. But he will be a good candidate for the Dems.”

How good? Well, at my urging on Facebook, former Republican state Sen. Alan Aker, who also has served as Meade County Commission chairman, chimed in.

“If I had to bet my newest chainsaw on it, I'd bet for Sutton to be elected our next governor,” Aker wrote. “I would also say that when I hear him list his priorities, the incumbent Republicans will have truly served as the Democrats' tax collectors. The Republican leadership raised taxes, paid off debt, hoarded reserve funds, and created a structural surplus for their successors to spend.”

OK, so while the GOP is dominant in South Dakota, it isn’t entirely united.

This is kind of fun, this Facebook “reporting.” My brother, Terry, a veteran reporter who is even more grizzled than I am, if age matters, informed me in that same Facebook conversation that reaching out for story material on Facebook is actually called something else:

“As I think on it, crowdsourcing your ledes is kind of new journalism for an old reporter,” Terry wrote.

Crowdsourcing? Cool. Let’s do some more, now that I know what it’s called.

Former Republican state Sen. Jim Thompson of Belle Fourche, a South Dakota Sports Hall of Fame rodeo announcer, got into the Facebook chat with this comment:

“The difference with Billie Sutton …  is that this candidacy will be less political and more inspirational. More about leadership. Than politics. And as a result the charisma that he exudes will out flank any other candidate of any party. Billy Sutton's time is now and South Dakota is lucky to have him.”

But to be fair, Thompson loves rodeo cowboys. So he’s a bit biased.

Former Rapid City Journal newsman Mike Sanborn also joined in.

“If he loses, it won't be because he wasn't charismatic enough, or had the wrong message. He'll lose because the national Democratic Party will likely throw him under the bus. And, Democrats in the state won't support him with the CASH he'll need to defeat whomever wins the GOP ticket,” Sanborn wrote.  “Having the better ideas isn't enough if voters don't hear them. We are living in a time when people are eager to throw the bastards out. A charismatic Democrat can win if he wins big East River.”

Sanborn thinks Sutton has that charisma. With enough campaign cash, he thinks Sutton could make the race close, or even more.

“I personally think he has an excellent chance,” Sanborn said. “He’s certainly the best Democratic candidate in this state since Herseth-Sandlin or Daschle. He has a good message.”

Not to rain on any parades, but even big-winning Democrats like former U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle and former U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin both the last time they ran in South Dakota.  Neither has been willing to try again.

And Sanborn touched on a key issue with the national Democratic Party, which hardly extended itself to help Herseth Sandlin when she was battling Noem in the 2010 race the Republican ultimately won. Will they buy any substantial ad space for Sutton and offer other resources, presuming he’s the party nominee?

If you look at the web page of the Democratic Governors Association, it says the association's mission is “electing Democratic governors across the country.” I’m sure South Dakota isn’t considered a good bet for big money, most years.

But what if the DGA could come up with $500,000 or even $1 million for the Sutton race? And suppose some of the $900,000 or so (I haven’t checked lately) sitting in former U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson’s campaign account ended up going to Sutton?

Then suppose Sutton raised $500,000 to $1 million himself? We could see a charismatic Democrat with $2 million to $3 million to spend on his message.

The Johnson money is an intriguing point of discussion, especially since Johnson’s wife, Barbara, is Sutton’s campaign chairwoman.

“She’s a wonderful woman,” Sutton said. “We’re thrilled to have her as part of the campaign.”

 When asked if he expects to get some of the Johnson money, Sutton said, “we’ll see.”

I’m guessing that means, “we’ll see some of it. We just don’t know how much.”

It’ll be interesting to see if former Sen. Johnson, who survived a December, 2006 brain hemorrhage that limits his speech and mobility, will make campaign appearances. Sutton was very cautious with that question.

“I don’t know. He has put in his time,” Sutton said, adding that he would love and appreciate any role the senator wanted to play.

Johnson was a tough campaigner, especially during that physically difficult 2008 Senate race when he lugged his impairments through a statewide campaign schedule while continuing his Senate duties in D.C. It was an effort to inspire anyone, and Johnson easily beat Republican challenger Joel Dykstra for his third Senate term, then retired instead of seeking a fourth.

Johnson was the last statewide office holder for the Democrats in South Dakota.

Sutton reached out to the competitive past for Democrats in naming Alcester banker Gary McKellips as his treasurer. Gary’s dad, Roger, was also an Alcester banker. And he was a fiery Democratic state senator who lost a governor’s bid to Bill Janklow in 1978, which was the first gubernatorial campaign after the Kneip era.

McKellips beat Lt. Gov. Harvey Wollman in the June 1978 primary. Strangely enough, Wollman then became governor after Dick Kneip was named ambassador to Singapore by President Jimmy Carter. Because of his primary loss, Wollman served less than half a year but remains the last Democrat to hold the governor’s chair in South Dakota.

Roger McKellips’ running mate in that general-election race against Janklow was state Sen. Billie Sutton, a rancher from Bonesteel and grandfather to the gubernatorial candidate of today. Four years after the race with McKellips, that Billie Sutton died on the ranch in a tractor accident.

So the Sutton family has had to stand its ground and not back down before in the face of life-changing challenges. Comparatively speaking, the governor’s race might be a breeze.

Former Burke Mayor Doug Pochop, one of the enthusiastic attendees at Billie Sutton’s campaign announcement last week, said he is again inspired to believe there could be hope for change in Pierre.

“You’ve got me excited again,” he said to Sutton. “You’re the candidate we need.”

Sutton spent more time listening than he did talking after the speech. And he plans a formal “listening tour” across South Dakota sometime this fall, to hear from state residents on important issues. Between now and then, he’ll spend much of his time reaching out to supporters, building a campaign structure and raising money.

And raising money. And raising money.

Lots of money, if he can.

“I don’t like that part of it, but that’s the way it is these days,” Sutton said. “I’d like to change that. But first we need to compete.”

Sutton knows the winner between Noem and Jackley will come in to the general election with a formidable campaign fund, even if both spend heavily in their primary battle.

Sutton helped mitigate an otherwise prominent campaign issue when he and other Democrats worked with Gov. Dennis Daugaard and Republican legislators to pass the most substantive funding package for education in recent history. That helped lift South Dakota up a few rungs on the national pay scale from its perennial place on the bottom.

And Sutton said education will continue to be a priority for him, as will efforts to improve overall personal income levels in South Dakota and spur job creation. Sutton will also reach out to economically-punished reservation communities that are typically strongholds of registered Democrats, most of whom don’t show up to vote in state elections.

Native voters were crucial to Tim Johnson when he defeated John Thune by 524 votes in 2002. And registration and get-out-the-vote efforts in Indian Country will be essential to Sutton if he is to compete in a general election.

After my lunch, I had a chat about Native voters with Aaron Matson, communications director for the South Dakota Democratic Party. He said the state party was matching a $10,000 grant from the Democratic National Committee to provide voter registration and outreach work, with emphasis on Native voters.

“We’re hiring seven organizers, and together they’ll be working on registering and organizing in the reservation areas and parts of Sioux Falls and Rapid City,” Matson said. “And we're getting those people hired and trying to get them out in the field as soon as possible.”

That’s important work, and not just because it could mean more votes for Sutton. There’s an even more important reason for him to pay attention to the reservations.

It’s the right thing to do.

“We’ve got four or five of the poorest counties in the nation out there,” Sutton said. “And we haven’t done a good job of giving help to the people who need it most.”

Sutton believes his ranch-and-rodeo connections give him a chance to win West River, despite an overpowering Republican philosophy in most areas off the reservations. And he understands the election-deciding power of the Sioux Falls metro area.

“We’ll sure do our darndest to win there,” Sutton said. “You know, there’s kind of been a divide between Sioux Falls and Rapid City. And we need to heal that.”

Sutton and the Democratic Party were slammed on KSOO radio by commentator Patrick Lalley, the former editor at the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, for the location of the campaign announcement. Lalley, a Sioux Falls kid grown up, argues that the Democrats “flubbed” by “putting him up on a barren stage in the middle of West River ranch country” rather than a metro area, or areas.

Well, not to pick nits, but the Sutton ranch isn’t exactly in the middle of West River ranch country. It’s about as far southeast in West RIver ranch country as it gets. Look over the ridge and you can see East River ranch country just across the Missouri. In fact, the ranch is actually east of Chamberlain, as the crow and the Piper Cub fly south.

As to the “flub” of making the announcement on the Sutton ranch, I couldn’t disagree much more. While Sutton obviously needs to do well in Sioux Falls and other population centers to compete, that doesn’t mean he needs to announce there.

The general election is a year and a half away.  He’ll have plenty of time for Sioux Falls to know who he is and what he stands for. Sutton’s choice of his home ranch for the announcement was honest. It was genuine. And “honest” and “genuine” will be key words for Sutton in his campaign.

“My values were formed on this ranch, where we prayed for God’s blessing and gave thanks for what he provided,” Sutton said.

And he was confident enough to know that most media outlets that matter — and an odd, straggling blogger or two — would show up, even far from Minnesota Avenue and The Empire Mall.

Sutton and his advisers also knew the event would produce great video and interesting anecdotes, and that real people who have been part of Sutton’s real life would be there showing real support.

It wasn’t just the right place for the announcement. It was the only place.

Now the hard part begins — asking for money, building a campaign team and issues platform and promoting Sutton as an “honest” and “genuine” candidate in a time when many voters see that as rare.

Sutton will have to talk tougher than is his normal style along the way. And the corruption issue will rarely be left off script.

“We deserve better than what the establishment in Pierre has let happen to our state,” he said. “And if you elect me governor, I’m going to change the culture of corruption.”

Whether or not you think a “culture of corruption” exists, the EB-5 and Gear Up scandals, and the tragedies they produced, can certainly be shaped into a campaign theme with wide-spread appeal, outside of the Republican base, at least.

Of course, tying Marty Jackley to that stuff directly will be a little difficult. As a the state attorney general, he can be painted as part of the Republican power structure. But he’ll argue that not only did he not have anything to do with the scandals, he and his office have so far brought the only charges in either case.

Noem was in the Legislature for two terms prior to beating  Herseth Sandlin in 2010. So there’s some negative connection there, in terms of oversight responsibility. But she can also note that she wasn’t connected to the scandals directly.

But both are Republicans tied to the machinery of the party. And there could be some liability in that, in this age of unrest and with voters still pushing for ethical upgrades.

On the Democratic side, a primary challenge is still possible, and I’d say likely, knowing the Democrats. But many familiar names in the party are lining up behind Sutton.

Beyond Barb Johnson and Gary McKellips, Herseth Sandlin sent her husband, Max Sandlin, to speak for her on stage prior to Sutton announcement. Herseth Sandlin, who is now president of Augustana University in Sioux Falls, had a previous engagement volunteering at a school activity with their son, Zachary.

At least that’s what Max said to the crowd. But you have to wonder how much the president of Augustana can get involved on one side in a governor’s race.

I’d guess we’ll see Tom Daschle back in South Dakota for Sutton campaign events. Those stops could matter. And the former Senate leader could be very helpful in fundraising.

Magazine publisher and former state Sen. Bernie Hunhoff, an unsuccessful Democratic challenger of Republican Gov. Bill Janklow in 1998, introduced Sutton for the announcement, asking “Can’t you almost feel something special, something refreshing in the air?”

Certainly, the air was refreshing at the Sutton ranch. But a stale reality for Democrats is the 43 years between now and the last time a candidate from their party won the governor’s chair. All Sutton can say about that right now is what he’s expected to say:

“We’re in this race to win.”

Well, of course. But win or lose, I’m pretty sure he won’t back down.

I didn’t need Tom Petty to tell me that.