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South Dakota Millennials Edge Into the Political Fray
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Drew Dennart

Drew Dennert is 22-years-old and has already served a full term as a Republican state representative for district three, in northeastern SD that includes most of Aberdeen, the state’s third largest city. He’s one of the youngest legislators to serve in the statehouse.

Dennert was born on a small farm north of Aberdeen where he grew up and was homeschooled.

Dennert’s grandfather took him to Pierre as a child, to observe the legislative process. Dennert says the life of a bill as it turns into a law always intrigued him. Once elected, he started authoring legislation of his own.

Like an amendment to a bill that allows ballot selfies…

“I’d love to be able to take a photo of my ballot and share it on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram to encourage my other friends to get out and vote, by the way I’m voting for these candidates and here’s why,” Dennert says. “Where, some of the people that are older than I am, they’re just not as comfortable with that.”

His amendment did not pass. 

Last session, Dennert sponsored a bill that would give independent voters the ability to vote in primary elections.

That bill died on the house floor, but it started a discussion that challenged the status quo.

“Some of the people in the political class, I’ll say, it was something they weren’t too fond of,” Dennert says. “When they see a 22 year old legislator bringing something to Pierre they don’t like, you know, sometimes they can get pretty frustrated.”

Dennert says he thinks he had the support of his district for that bill. Especially, given that Independents in South Dakota make up 23 percent of the state’s active voters.

Representative Dennert is certainly not unique when it comes to millennials affecting state policy.

Take direct democracy advocate Doug Kroniazl. The 24-year-old was a spokesperson for the infamous Initiated Measure 22. He’s also involved in the Anti-Corruption Amendment, which is modeled after IM22 and up for vote in November. That ethics reform package approved by South Dakota voters in 2016  sought to change the way South Dakota political campaigns work. The ballot measure drastically reduced contribution limits for campaigns, enacted new rules for lobbying, created an ethics board and established a publicly funded campaign finance system.

“When the legislature is dragging its feet or doesn’t want to address our concerns, single issue concerns, we can place those measure before the voters.

The debate whipped the political establishment into a frenzy, resulting in an immediate lawsuit and was quickly overturned by the legislature. Critics argued it was unconstitutional… but Kronaizl says it got the conversation about ethics in government started.

And there are more millennials jumping into politics.

“Jenae Hanson, and I’m running for the House of Representatives in District 2.”

Hanson is a 27-year-old Democrat running in a district near Drew Dennert’s. Hanson says it was the perfect time for her to run for office.

“You really have to think about the different elements going on with your life, the politics, your personal life, professional life. This year just kind of set up with Representative Tulsen term limited out, I saw that opening as an opportunity.”

Hanson’s introduction to  politics came while getting involved in 4-H and with the South Dakota Farmer’s Union. She wants to bring a fresh perspective on agriculture to the statehouse.

“Not just the farmers and rancher who had been doing this for years, but people my sister, my brother and my age, my generation that are coming into it.” 

Hanson says there’s constant change in agriculture, with precision technology, farming practices, and issues over newly developed herbicides and pesticides. Hanson says she’s focused on policy that helps farmers be good caretakers of the planet.

Candidate Hanson and Representative Dennert reflect a national trend. Ed Gerrish is an Assistant Professor of Public Administration at the University of South Dakota. He says political and cultural changes in the past decade have drawn new people into politics.  

“But you have to remember, in 2008 when Barack Obama was elected, and also before that as the financial crisis starts getting kicked off leading to massive budget deficits, we have the Tea Party arrive in the US. The Tea Party was, primarily, I think what people don’t remember, was a driving force for a number of new candidates.”

Gerrish says many of the tea party candidates were young men and women in Midwestern states who were primarily focused on financial issues. 

Now, he says, it’s the next generation’s turn.

“You have a lot of millennials who now are in their mid-thirties, seeing them getting involved in public service and public life because they haven’t been asked to do that before and it seems like now a good time to do that. Many of them have stable careers and jobs and maybe even families and kids, their kids have grown up a bit, and so they can start taking on these responsibilities.”

 Gerrish says a run for statehouse is a natural political beginning even if they have higher ambitions.

For some older voters there may be uncertainty as a new generation takes charge that barely knows a world without internet access. Listen closely, and they have many of the same goals and values. 

Erin Healey is a running for District 21 in Sioux Falls. Healey, a 31 year old democrat, interned for Representative Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and worked for Senator Tim Johnson.

She’s had the chance to live other places, but always came back to South Dakota.

“Even when I didn’t live here I always considered it home. My whole family is from here and I’ve grown to love a lot of people here. I can’t imagine running for office anywhere else in South Dakota because these are the people I care about and these are the people I want to represent.”

Healey says the millennial generation has seen political polarization for the last decade and half.

“I think people my age are just realizing it’s time for a change and it’s time to not be so polarizing,” Healey says. “That, most people don’t sit on the far right or far left and we’re a lot more like each other than we’re not.”

Millennials now represent a sizable portion of the country’s workforce. As many millennials enter the political arena, Ed Garrish says he expects them to start winning more elections. That’ll result in a younger political class, and policies that reflect their values.