I like Oren Lesmeister. The Democratic District 28 Senate candidate took time to talk to me about his politics in the middle of a hard-driving campaign. He spoke freely about most issues, and I can roll with most of his positions. On sheer image, he brings a rugged cowboy ethos that challenges the stereotype of Democrats as something other than true South Dakotan. With hat, cattle, and the mustache that I maintain would have added ten points to Larry Rhoden's and Chris Nelson's tallies, Lesmeister projects the image of the cowboy that many South Dakotans think they are.
But on two important question in our conversation, Lesmeister showed no desire to take the bull by the horns, exemplifying an uncowboylike weakness too common among South Dakota Democrats.
What sparked my interest in interviewing Lesmeister were the embarrassing racist comments of his opponent, Republican Representative Betty Olson. Democrat Joe Lowe of Rapid City has said her blanket insult to all Muslim Americans, as well as her perpetuation of the racist lie that President Obama is a Muslim, warrants her resignation.
I thought maybe Lesmeister would have something to say about Rep. Olson's racism. He did not. When we set up the interview, Lesmeister's diligent campaign manager, Ethan Marsland, ruled out any comment on the topic. When I spoke with Lesmeister directly, he maintained that line. When I asked if Lesmeister at least recognized that the President of the United States is a natural-born citizen, Lesmeister declined comment.
It's one thing not to want to get involved in another candidate's media storm. It's a similar thing not to want to go negative. But it's a whole 'nother thing to decline comment on a statement of fact, documented time and time again against a vile campaign of racist myth-making. We have a moral obligation to defend basic truth against both ignorance and malice. John McCain had the guts to challenge the "Obama is an Arab" lies of his own supporters in 2008; Oren Lesmeister should have the guts to challenge his opponent's lingering birtherism in 2014.
Lesmeister also let me down with his response on abortion. I ask candidates about abortion with trepidation, because I recognize that South Dakota Republicans like to use abortion to dog whistle their base and use emotion and pictures of babies to distract us from all their other awful policies. But abortion deserves attention, because Republicans (and some complicit Democrats) have imposed insulting, paternalistic, and dangerous restrictions on women's constitutional rights.
When I posed the general question about women's rights, Lesmeister's campaign manager paused our conversation for a muted confab with his candidate. When Lesmeister opened the line again, he spoke of the need for better enforcement of laws to protect women from violence and trafficking. When I redirected the question toward abortion restrictions like our 72-hour waiting period. Lesmeister said a legislator should never decide such issues. He said abortion is too big of an issue. He said he would not support any further legislative interference with abortion and would want any abortion measures submitted to the ballot so all voters can decide.
Lesmeister's response sounded very much like District 14 Democratic House candidate Chris McClure's position of leaving the status quo alone and not presuming as one man to comment on the appropriateness of legal restrictions on abortion. Like McClure's position, it sounds like a poorly cloaked dodge:
- You cannot say, "Legislators should not decide abortion," and then accept the decisions legislators have made on abortion.
- If abortion is so "big" that the Legislature should defer all rule-making to ballot initiatives, then what about gay rights, Medicaid expansion, education funding, or the state budget in toto, all of which were bigger issues in the 2014 Legislature than abortion? I see no constitutional or philosophical provision setting a bar of "bigness" over which the duly elected representatives of the people are incapable of intelligent discourse and lawmaking. I see political calculation that says, "I'm afraid voters will disagree with me, and I don't have the guts to defend my position."
- Candidates have an obligation to lead intelligent conversations. To shrug off a major question of the day by saying, "Let's do whatever the people want" avoids an intelligent and necessary conversation.
- Democrats have an obligation to change the narrative. Republicans like Betty Olson bank on our cowardice. They bank on our leaving their restrictions and stigmatization of abortion unchallenged. They bank on casual observers voting on unexamined emotional responses to shouts of "We love babies!" instead of vigorous public debate of the real constitutional implications of treating women as second-class citizens.
Rick Weiland is in a very different race from the Lesmeister–Olson tilt. Abortion hasn't figured prominently in the U.S. Senate race, but Weiland has not been afraid to distinguish himself from the field by saying he's the only candidate who would not repeal Roe v. Wade. He may not win on that issue, but he's getting the support he needs to have a fighting chance... and he's saying the right thing.
Weiland doesn't run around in a cowboy hat, but he isn't afraid to cowboy up on the issues.
When faced with misogyny and racism, "no comment" is not the right answer for cowboys, Democrats, South Dakotans, or anybody. When Betty Olson spreads a racist lie about the President, and when Betty Olson passes laws that hurt women, we have an obligation to point those facts out and encourage voters to reject her racism and misogyny.