South Dakota Democratic Party vice-chairman Joe Lowe is organizing a big West River town hall meeting next month for all folks interested in building a winning Democratic Party.

Party chair Ann Tornberg will lay out her vision for the SDDP. Tornberg and Lowe will present results of a statewide survey of party members and to hear the concerns and recommendations of West River Democrats. I'll even drop in, review the 2015 Legislative Session, and call for all good Dems to give Republicans a good butt-kicking in 2016.

Admission, refreshments, and discussion are free, but the party welcomes donations alongside ideas any time.

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Could Medicaid expansion happen this year? South Dakota has already given up two of the best years of the federal government's offer under the Affordable Care Act to cover most of the cost of putting 48,000 low-income South Dakotans on affordable public health insurance. But John Tsitrian notices that Governor Dennis Daugaard is hinting at a shift from his ideological excuses to an openness to accepting some form of the Medicaid expansion.

And Democrats are working hard to make that possible. AP reports that our man Bernie (that's Senator Hunhoff, D-18/Yankton) is working behind the scenes with health care providers to bring some sort of Medicaid expansion to South Dakota.

Hmm... just a thought: if health care philanthropist T. Denny Sanford can kick in $25 million to match state funds and launch Governor Daugaard's scholarships for welders, might we be able to persuade Sanford to spend a fraction of that money each year to bring hundreds of millions in the Medicaid economic stimulus to South Dakota?

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You'd think I'd spend an episode of Inside KELOLand cheering the Democrats and throwing shoes at the Republicans. But on last night's Inside KELOLand discussion with four South Dakota legislators, my Democratic friends left me as barefoot as the Republicans, as the Dems failed to attack the noodle-headed policies of the GOP regime in Pierre.

My Democratic friends seem to be stuck in South Dakota Nice. Senator Scott Parsley (D-8/Madison) talked about a Democratic amendment to the road-repair plan that would have directed the excise tax toward local governments. Local roads and bridges are in worse shape than state infrastructure. Republicans killed that amendment. But Senator Parsley didn't explain to voters how Republicans had killed a sensible Democratic plan to direct dollars where dollars are needed most. Senator Parsley mildly said, "it was a good debate, good discussion."

Senator Parsley was similarly gentle on in an argument about property tax and roads. Senator Dan Lederman (R-16/Dakota Dunes) said he thought that spending property tax for road repairs went too far (because, you know, that property you own has nothing at all to do with the roads that you use to get to that property). He said the original bill created a new property tax, and such new taxes ought to be subject to a vote of the people. Senator Parsley responded that the proposal was not a new tax, that property taxes already fund roads. But he prefaced his argument with the mild, "Not to argue with Senator Lederman...."

Senator Parsley, you are arguing with Senator Lederman. You should argue with Senator Lederman. He has it coming, because he is wrong. Let the voters know that he is wrong. Let the voters know that Republicans are costing counties money by forcing them to hold an expensive election every time they want to raise money for local infrastructure instead of leaving it to citizens to decide under the referendum power they already have whether they want to put a bridge-repair levy to a vote.

Rep. Paula Hawks (D-9/Hartford) was similarly far too gentle in the face of the Republican baloney served by Rep. Don Haggar (R-9/Sioux Falls). Rep. Haggar said he did not expect the Legislature to offer any more than the 2% increase the Governor has proposed for K-12 funding. Rep. Hawks replied, "I generally agree we're not going to see anything over that 2% as ongoing money."

Back up, Rep. Hawks. You should never open a comment on the ongoing Republican strangulation of K-12 budgets with the words, "I agree." Or at the very least, you say, "I agree the Republicans in the Legislature aren't going to give us more than 2%, because Republicans don't think our kids are worth the investment. But we should do more than 2%. We have to do more than 2% if we're going to stand any chance of recruiting teachers and maintaining educational opportunities."

Rep. Hawks misses another point-making opportunity on a question about the Governor's proposed "Blue Ribbon Task Force" on education. Rep. Haggar says the task force is "absolutely" a "great idea." He then happily babbles away from the fundamental question of the teacher shortage, saying we need to look at whether the education funding formula "promote[s] the right behaviors." Rep. Hawks, who should be rolling her eyes, who should be giving Rep. Haggar a Seth-and-Amy Really?!?, instead mildly replies that she is "pleased" that we're going to spend time looking at education. Rep. Hawks notes that she gets "a little concerned" that the task force may just be "pushing... down the road another year" a problem that we already understand. Rep. Hawks outlines that problem—years of short funding leading to teachers leaving the profession and college students not entering the field—but instead of speaking with the pain and passion of a veteran teacher who has seen the damage done by the state's neglect, former teacher Hawks states these issues somewhat nonchalantly, as if we've heard the words before and there's no need to get excited about them. She then punctuates her comments by saying she's optimistic that the task force can produce results. By opening and closing with an endorsement of the task force, Rep. Hawks sends the primary message that Rep. Haggar and Governor Daugaard are on the right track and that her concerns are secondary.

My mild-mannered Democratic friends could argue ("Not to argue with blogger Cory, but...") that they are simply drawing flies with honey. But on the big issues, these Republicans need swatting. They are neglecting critical problems, and voters need to know it. If we Democrats are going to be an effective opposition party, we need to oppose, and we need to take advantage of every opportunity (like 23 minutes on the top-rated TV station in the state) to pitch that opposition to the public.

The South Dakota Democratic Party is in the process of hiring a new executive director (that position was supposed to be filled by the end of January; we're working on that, right, Central Committee?). One can hope that the new executive director will model the sort of captivating and mobilizing fire that our Democratic legislators should be using to challenge the Republican neglect of the public welfare.

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While South Dakota Republicans chip away at the initiative and referendum, South Dakota Democrats are trying to protect the will of the people. Every Democrat in the South Dakota Legislature is backing House Bill 1175, a measure to insulate ballot measures from legislative tinkering. The bill text is brief:

If a measure is submitted to the voters of the state, legislation may not be proposed to affect the will of the voters for a period of one year after the vote on the measure, or the date of enactment, whichever is later.

Notice that HB 1175 would work both ways. If an initiated measure like our minimum-wage increase passed, legislators could not amend or repeal that popularly enacted law for one year. If a referendum succeeded and we repealed a law, legislators could not try to put that law back into effect for a year. Had HB 1175 been in effect in 2013, after we referred and repealed Governor Daugaard's really nasty and counterproductive education reform law in 2012, the Legislature would not have been able to propose bills to restore that law in full or in part; they would not have been able to resurrect the Critical Needs Teaching Scholarship, the sole productive component of that messy education reform package, until 2014.

On the other hand, if an initiative or referendum were to fail, HB 1175 would prevent legislators from revisiting those measures. If voters rejected an initiative to raise sales tax to increase funding for education and health care (as we did in 2012 on Initiated Measure 15), the next year's Legislature could not take up a bill to enact such an increase for such a purpose. I assume that legislators could take up a bill to increase the sales tax for other purposes, and they could take up a bill to increase funding for education and health care by different means.

A failed referendum vote—i.e., a vote in which voters chose to leave the challenged law in place—would lock that law in place in a way that simple legislative passage does not. Had Governor Daugaard's education reform withstood referendum in 2012, it would have become the voters' will, and HB 1175 would have protected it from any amendment in the 2013 session. Lawmakers could not have acted on a change of heart or fixed any gaps in that law until 2014.

I have argued that South Dakota Republicans are trying to weaken the initiative and referendum not for principle or public welfare but for pure political self-interest: they tend to lose initiatives and referenda, and they don't want the pesky electorate messing with GOP power and plans. My Republican readers could retort that Democrats are backing HB 1175 for the same selfish political reasons: South Dakota Democrats see initiatives and referenda as policymaking, organizing, and recruiting activities that serve their partisan interests.

But even if both sides are selfish bastards, the Democrats' defense of initiative and referendum versus the Republicans' attack thereupon demonstrates a fundamental difference in what the two parties think about Us the People. Republicans don't trust us. They cautiously let us vote for elected officials (even there, they throw up roadblocks), but they don't trust us to exercise legislative power directly. They want us, the unwashed and passion-addled mob, to trust those decisions to the elites, the elected officials in whose ears the corporate lobbyists drip their honey. They want a Republic.

Democrats do trust us. They want as many people as possible to vote not just for leaders, but for policies. They believe we the masses really can read, write, and pass good legislation. They recognize the fundamental unfairness in allowing legislators an almost immediate veto over our will while requiring us to undertake the lengthy and arduous process of gathering signatures and campaigning in a general election to challenge legislative action or inaction. Democrats say, "Let the people vote, and let their will stand." Democrats want a democracy.

House Bill 1175 poses some interesting legal questions about how the Legislature would go about fixing problems in initiated laws or laws that withstand referendum. But House Bill 1175 is the only good idea pertaining to initiative referendum to emerge yet from the 2015 Legislature. Turn up the heat on your phones and e-mails, and tell your legislators this is the one I&R bill they should support.

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Gordon Howie says the face of tyranny is right here in South Dakota, with one-party rule corrupting the South Dakota Republican Party and state government. Yet like Cardinal Raymond Burke blaming feminists for pedophile priests, Howie blames Democrats for Republican tyranny:

In South Dakota, the Republican Party has simply moved to the left, thanks to the efforts of political power brokers with lots of money and liberal perspectives.  Infiltration of the Republican Party  might have been the Democrats response to one party rule by the Republicans.  They did, indeed gain some ground with regard to policy, but at what ultimate cost?  Democrats are now so weak statewide that they have trouble finding credible candidates for most political races, thereby simply giving the offices to Republicans [Gordon Howie, "The Face of Tyranny," The Right Side, 2015.01.11].

Democrats infiltrated the SDGOP. Right.

Howie hopes for a revitalized Democratic Party (yes!) and says the key lies in re-recruiting Republicans:

If there is any hope for accountability to return to this state, it may be in a revitalized Democrat Party.  That will only happen if they can entice their own to shed the costumes, leave the Republican Party and come home. That would leave conservatives to manage the Republican Party and once again, give South Dakota voters a real choice [Howie, 2015.01.11].

I agree with Howie that part of the recipe for Democratic rebuilding is finding candidates and issues who can win votes from some moderate Republicans. But I cannot adopt the Howie narrative that the SDGOP is filled with leftists. Howie and his Republican purists need to stop labeling folks like Mike Rounds as leftists and call them what they are: opportunists. Folks like Larry Rhoden don't switch their registration from Democrat to Republican as some plot to infiltrate the SDGOP and promote leftist ideology. They switch parties to get their names on ballots, win elections, and gain power. By Howie's own thinking, those opportunists have weakened the Republican Party; why would Democrats fare any better by drawing such self-serving opportunists "back"?

Instead of trying to get Democrats to lure other people our of the SDGOP, Howie challenge tyranny by a more direct route: forming his own True Conservative Party. His pal Gary Coe already has a PAC with that name; it shouldn't be hard to turn that mechanism into a party. Get the 8,474 people who voted for Howie for Senate in 2014 to petition a True Conservative Party into existence. (Forming a new party will require 6,936 signatures.) Line up True Conservative Party candidates for at least ten Legislative districts (including every Black Hills district, an easy task for a party centered around Howie's new world headquarters east of Rapid City). Abandon the SDGOP to its soulless, self-serving opportunists, cooperate with Democrats to fire on the depleted SDGOP from both sides, and upset the balance of power.

Even conservatives recognize that South Dakota needs a real liberal party to bring balance to Pierre and check the tyranny of Republican opportunists. But the solution is not for Democrats to catch the disease Howie says debilitates the Republicans.

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Toward the end of our conversation on KSOO's Viewpoint University yesterday, Dan Peters and Todd Epp asked me what big news stories we should watch for in 2015. You have my dreamy wishlist; now let me cast a partisan eye at my crystal ball and point toward some developing stories that offer smart Democrats some opportunities for organizing and recruiting allies this year for the 2016 election.

The Public Utilities Commission certification hearings on Keystone XL are arousing serious activism among cowboys and Indians. The state Democratic Party should be talking to those activists. Among the Indian opponents, the Democrats may find tribal leaders (and candidates?) who can help activate Indian volunteers and voters on other issues. Among the cowboy opponents, the Dems may find new, unexpected allies who are open to questioning their ingrained West River Republican assumptions and seeking common ground with Dems on other issues. I'm betting the pipeline issue will be resolved this year; Dems should strike now while that iron is hot to invite anti-pipeline activists to turn their energy to other important issues in 2016.

Another issue likely to get some resolution this year will be same-sex marriage. The record in other states and the failure of the Marty Jackley's arguments so far tell me Judge Karen Schreier will throw out South Dakota's gay marriage ban this year. LGBT activists and other lovers of equality and lifelong commitment will celebrate; then they'll want to turn their energy to other equality issues. LGBT activists are holding a summit this month; Democratic Party organizers should be at the summit listening for for ideas on what we can collaborate on in 2016.

South Dakota Democrats should build on one of their only visible areas of success, their ballot measures. Dems in 2014 won the biggest raise in the nation for minimum wage workers, which by itself is a great feather in the cap. We now need to keep tickling Republicans with that feather. We should monitor wage and employment data over the coming year, and when we see economic stimulus from workers with more wages and, as in Minnesota, no sign that increasing the minimum wage hurts job growth, we should loudly and unabashedly remind voters that we were right and the Republican corporate overlords were wrong.

Democrats need to build on that policy momentum, pick another issue (or two?), and get it on the ballot by the November 8, 2015 deadline. They need to march petitions all summer, not just to get a measure on the ballot, but to recruit and mobilize volunteers. They also ned to prepare a full-tilt marketing campaign behind a killer issue on which the party and its candidates can boldly hang their brand.

Democrats won't be alone on the petition trail this year. Rep. Rev. Steve Hickey and Steve Hildebrand have announced their intention to place a payday-lender-killing interest rate cap on the ballot. Daugaardian logic would say, "Don't crowd the ballot; too many issues make voters tired and stupid." But we're not Daugaard; we're Democrats! The more opportunities for people to practice democracy, the more boxes they can mark on a ballot, the better. Dems should think about issues that can synergize with the interest rate cap, and they should keep their radar on for other groups who might be working on initiatives, just in case we need to avoid duplication or cross-purposes, but they should not be afraid to forge their path with the policy initiative they think best serves the interest of the state and the party.

Along with possible issue synergy, the interest rate cap initiative may offer South Dakota Democrats a valuable lesson in coalition-building. Hickey and Hildebrand have already made national headlines with their unlikely political union. Hickey is an evangelical pastor and Republican legislator. Hildebrand helped Barack Obama become President. By any twist of conventional wisdom, a Hickey-Hildebrand collaboration should as unlikely as Stace Nelson and Cory Heidelberger running as a gubernatorial ticket in 2018. But there they are, Steve and Steve, putting aside political opposition to forge a working relationship and solve problems.

Any candidate for SDDP exec who cannot recognize, verbalize, and actualize the lesson in that paragraph should be summarily booted from the interview.

These suggestions apply as much to the state Democratic Party as it does to South Dakota Progress, the new group forming to recruit and support local Democratic candidates. SDP and SDDP (yes, this will be confusing) both need to find new workers, new candidates, new allies, and new dollars. Both groups can find useful conversations and lessons in all of the areas of activism mentioned above. And heck, if SD Progress can grow from mid-term frustration and one good idea into an effective organization, they may offer the South Dakota Democratic Party some lessons as well.

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Last I checked, South Dakota Progress is looking to play very, very nicely with the South Dakota Democratic Party.

Maybe they shouldn't. Bill Curry, a former Clinton White House advisor who has batted .333 in his own election efforts, says the Democratic Party got beat up nationwide this election year because, since the late 1970's, it has sold out to Wall Street and shut out its problem-solving progressive voices. Curry recommends liberals take charge, go their own way, and dare Democrats to follow:

They can do it but they’ll have to take a time-out from electoral politics. They must declare their independence from the Democratic Party, its ineffectual politics and its current, clueless leaders....

Democrats in Congress seem bent on mass suicide. After their landslide loss they reelected all their leaders without challenge. After the Senate confirmed two utterly unqualified Obama donors as foreign ambassadors, they caved on a budget that opened more sluices for the rich to pour money into politics and hollowed out Dodd/Frank to let Wall Street cover its bad bets with depositors’ money. In 2013 Obama said he wouldn’t “pay ransom” to pass a budget. In 2014 he did just that.

A Progressive Declaration of Independence is a risk, but it’s safer than idling about on deck as the Democrats’ ship goes down... [Bill Curry, "Let's Abandon the Democrats: Stop Blaming Fox News and Stop Hoping Elizabeth Warren Will Save Us," Salon, 2014.12.23].

Curry sounds much like William Greider, who wrote in November that the national Democratic Party has lost its soul and called for a "rump formation of dissenters" to break the spell corporate power has cast on Democrats.

Rick Weiland tried to flex independence from national Democrats and from Big Money in his Senate campaign this year. That didn't go so well, but he is still preaching that same message to South Dakota Democrats. I continue to think that's the right message for South Dakota Democrats and for anyone willing to help them.

I do not think Curry's analysis ports neatly from the national level to South Dakota. Our state Dems are not in Washington collaborating with Republicans to gild Wall Street's throne. Our state Dems aren't in Washington, period, now that Tim Johnson is out. Unlike national Democrats, South Dakota Dems responded to the midterm election by electing new leadership. South Dakota Democrats may be in as good a position to break with Washington and sound Curry's progressive populist bugle as a separate progressive group like South Dakota Progress.

But the question remains, for South Dakota Progress as well as for anyone else hoping to restore progressive fortunes in South Dakota: do we work within the machine, or do we build a new one?

Related Reading: WaPo Fix blogger Philip Bump wonders what would happen if both Republicans and Democrats cleaved into two parties.

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Speaking of right-wing misrepresentation of reality, I find Pat Powers is out twisting truth again. Sensing a threat, Powers turns his slime gun on South Dakota Progress, the new group forming to support Democratic candidates at the local level. Ignoring most of the facts in Seth Tupper's report on the group's swift evolution, Powers digs for one little hint of change and explodes it into a portent of doom. Writes Tupper:

The woman who distributed the initial news release and who was identified in that release as the chairwoman of the group’s steering committee, Tasiyagnunpa Livermont, has already left the group. She and [SD Progress member David] Hubbard both said she underestimated the time commitment and was pulled away by other matters [Seth Tupper, "New Democratic Organization Trains Candidates for Local Offices," Rapid City Journal, 2014.12.22].

Writes Powers:

...it looks like one group formed to improve their electoral showing is already starting to dribble off members....

...Was that about 30 days, and people are already leaving? [Pat Powers, "Group Formed to Improve Dem Electoral Fortunes Already Fragmenting. And They Just Don’t Get It," Dakota War College, 2014.12.23]

Members, plural? People, plural? Tupper reports on one change, one person who participated in two meetings, accepted a leadership role, but then quickly stepped aside when she realized that this activist outlet wouldn't fit in her schedule. The situation doesn't sound much different from when I've directed plays and had one student-actor decide after a couple days that 6:30 a.m. rehearsals would not be good for her GPA. That's not mass defection or fragmentation; that's an individual making a choice that's healthy for herself and for the group. No story here.

But like a big round snowball, get Pat rolling, and he can't stop. He then takes a gratuitous and false swipe at resigning state Dems exec Zach Crago:

Interesting thing in the story about the Dem’s recent bad fortunes is that we’re not hearing about the biggest part of the South Dakota Democrat party’s problem, as illustrated by Zach Crago’s letter to activists as he quietly slipped out the door [Powers, 2014.12.22].

Never mind that Tupper's story is about the formation of a new group, not the fortunes of the state Democratic Party as a whole. (Tupper sensibly tackled that separate issue in a separate article.) Quietly slipping out the door insinuates something sneaky or shamefaced in Crago's resignation. Crago's departure was no more sneaky than SDGOP chairman Craig Lawrence's resignation announced last week. There's no sign he was punished or pushed out. Rather than quietly slipping out, he volunteers a public resignation letter, in which he says pretty much what you'd expect a good departing executive to say: our organization has had setbacks, but we've made great progress and we look ahead to a great future.

Pat, Pat, Pat, you're hearing things. Those echoes in your head are so noisy that you're missing what could be the big news in Tupper's report on South Dakota Progress. As I understood it, SD Progress originally declared its mission to include the recruitment, support, and election of Democrats in local and legislative races. Tupper downplays the legislative effort and reports the impression, held at least by our new Democratic leaders, that SD Progress will focus on local elections:

Neither the initial news release nor Hubbard, in his interview with the Journal, spoke of focusing exclusively on any particular level of politics. But there have been indications the group will keep its focus on local-level candidate recruiting and assistance.

Mavalwalla, in an interview with the Sioux Falls Argus Leader last month, said he’s proposing to focus on school board and city council candidates to create a bench of future county and state candidates.

Following a meeting of State Democratic Party officials with South Dakota Progress founders earlier this month, newly elected state Democratic Party Chairwoman Ann Tornberg said her understanding is that South Dakota Progress will recruit candidates for local-level positions like school boards and township boards. Joe Lowe, the state party’s newly elected vice chairman, expressed a similar view that South Dakota Progress will focus on city council and other local races [Tupper, 2014.12.22].

To be clear, here's how David Montgomery wrote the November comment to which Tupper refers:

The plan’s focus isn’t on winning high-profile races for governor or U.S. Senate. Instead, he’s proposing to recruit, train and fund Democrats running for school boards and city councils, creating a bench of elected Democrats who can then run for county offices and the state Legislature [David Montgomery, "South Dakota Democrats: An Idea to Rebuild," that Sioux Falls paper, 2014.11.14].

If Tupper's reporting is correct, SD Progress is staying out of direct involvement in legislative races, simply building the bench from which the state Dems can recruit legislative candidates. But as an outsider's outsider, I would suggest that limiting its mission to school board and city council races will make SD Progress's fundraising mission much more difficult. I understand the logic—build up local candidates now, field more experienced candidates for Legislature and beyond later—and some donors will, too. But some big money is going to want a big return right now, and that big return in the eyes of some eager donors will include immediate legislative wins.

South Dakota Progress is not fragmenting. Zach Crago is not sneaking away from the South Dakota Democratic Party. But the real news (i.e., actual events evidenced by actual things Tupper actually writes) may be that SD Progress and the Dems are signaling their modus accommodandi: the new group will focus on the local races where the party traditionally picks no horses, while the party will keep its jurisdiction over races for the Legislature.

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