What might be the closest race in South Dakota's 2014 election? If Nielson Brothers' polling numbers are accurate, it could be the battle for seats in the South Dakota Senate. In its July 23–28 survey, Nielson asked voters whether they would pick the Republican or the Democrat in their district for State Senate. The results of that generic question:

  • Republican: 41.9%
  • Democrat: 36.7%
  • undecided: 21.4%

That 5.2-point gap is barely larger than the 4.3-point margin of error. It's far smaller than the 13-, 18-, and 24-point gaps that Nielson finds Democrats Rick Weiland, Corinna Robinson, and Susan Wismer must surmount in their statewide races. And that gap is mde tighter by one very telling result: while Republicans and Democrats each line up for their own party's State Senate candidate at rates over 70% (Republican defections stand at 13%; Democratic defections are just 5%, with a much larger percentage who need to read this blog remaining undecided), Independents are breaking Democrat 3 to 2 (actual percentages: 24% R, 36% D, 40% still thinking).

Those numbers indicate that out of the 100,000 strong Indy voting bloc, Dems are getting more than an 11,000-vote advantage. If the remaining Indy unsures broke the same way, Dems would raise that edge to 18,000. If the partisan undecideds broke according to their partisan fellows' according percentages as well, the total vote count from the entire registered voting pool would be 255,000 votes for Republican State Senate candidates and 258,000 votes for Democratic State Senate candidates.

In other words, if all things were equal, South Dakota Democrats could have an advantage in State Senate races of less than one percentage point... and we could have recounts almost everywhere.

Of course, things are not equal. Republicans have drawn legislative district lines to herd Dem leaners into a few safe seats. More importantly, Nielson asked the generic question of Republican versus Democrat, not the specific question of Lederman versus Tornberg or Jensen versus Page. When voters put specific names and mostly Republican incumbent faces to that question, and when the SDGOP-Wadhams character-assassination machine gets rolling, those percentages will shift back toward the GOP's favor. And most egregiously, we Democrats have left 13 out of 35 seats unchallenged, so that's over a third of districts where we don't even get to test the Indy lean. (Republicans have left four Senate seats unchallenged.)

A number of factors put Democrats at a disadvantage in most South Dakota races. But the Nielson data on generic partisan preferences in State Senate races indicate that Indies like us and that with their help, we can make the battle for a Senate majority a fair fight. Let's take those numbers as cause for optimism, and let's fight hard for those Senate wins!

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In 2009, the South Dakota Legislature increased high school graduation requirements. Previously, high schoolers could graduate with Algebra I and any two other math credits and two science credits. Now students must take the standard two years of algebra and one year of geometry plus three years of science—physical science, biology, and chemistry. Illinois increased its math and science requirements in 2005 (although only to two years of science). The American College Testing folks just issued a report saying that they don't really see much difference in Illinois students' performance on the ACT:

Examining the effects of the law on students ranking high and low academically in districts that already met the new minimum and those forced to add courses, the report found about the same statistically insignificant gain on ACT scores in science and math between both types of districts and student groups [Chris Kardish, "Does Raising High School Grad Requirements Work?" Governing, 2014.08.06].

ACT did find higher math requirements nudging college enrollment up:

Another finding: college enrollment rose faster among lower-ranking students in districts that previously required fewer math courses. The enrollment rate for low-ranking students rose 2 percent in those districts and 4 percent for higher-ranking students. But the study found no positive link between raising science standards and higher college enrollment [Kardish, 2014.08.06].

I've taught high school math and science. I'm more than happy to bust kids' brains with formulas and rigorous scientific thinking. I don't think an absence of increased test scores and only a meager boost in college enrollment is a reason to scrap tough math and science requirements. But if we're crowding out other learning opportunities for students (civics, art, world languages...) without producing demonstrable advantages, I don't mind removing legislative mandates and allowing schools to return to broader offerings for their students.

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Sen. Larry Tidemann (R-7/Brookings): "Nothing to see here..."

Sen. Larry Tidemann (R-7/Brookings): "Nothing to see here..."

Senator Larry Tidemann (R-7/Brookings) says the Government Operations and Audit Committee's probe of financial misconduct in the Governor's Office of Economic Develoment and the EB-5 visa investment program are pretty much over.

Over? I didn't even notice that they'd begun.

Michael Larson describes Tidemann and GOAC as rookie cops telling us there's nothing to see here. Rep. Kathy Tyler (D-4/Big Stone City) reminds us there's plenty to see, like...

That's not an exhaustive list of topics related to the Governor's Office of Economic Development and the EB-5 program that legislators of good conscience thought they were directing Chairman Tidemann and GOAC to address. But it's a good starting list of the symptoms of the culture of corruption in Pierre. Chairman Tidemann and his Republican colleagues have ignored this list of symptoms, put their stethoscope to GOED's big toe, declared the patient healthy, and gone golfing.

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Because Chairman Larry Tidemann and the other Republican members of the Government Operations and Audit Committee treated Rep. Susan Wismer (not to mention the public) with such grave disrespect this morning in Pierre, I yield the balance of my time to the Representative from Britton to explain her call for EB-5 impresario Joop Bollen to answer to the South Dakota taxpayers who kept him employed for two decades:

Rep. Susan Wismer (D-Britton) urged the Government Operations & Audit Committee to obtain additional information about the management and outcome of the EB-5 program during a hearing Tuesday morning.

“After the Government Operations & Audit Committee meeting today, I've come to believe that this committee is not faithfully executing the charge our legislature gave us under HCR 1010. The resolution gives us the right to seek additional information, yet we have sought no information outside the parameters dictated by the Daugaard administration,” said Rep. Wismer.

Rep. Wismer finds the current answers inadequate and believes South Dakotans deserve to know if their tax dollars were mismanaged through this program. Seeking additional information ensures that all aspects of HCR 1010 are fulfilled and state business is conducted transparently and ethically.

“If the Republican legislators on this committee are not interested in looking into EB-5, it sends a message to South Dakotans that honesty and fair dealing in business doesn’t matter, “ said Rep. Wismer.

Wismer made a motion to subpoena Joop Bollen, former director of the EB-5 program in South Dakota, but the motion died for lack of a second. While reiterating the points of HRC 1010, other members of GOAC interrupted Wismer and attempted to move to other items. Wismer responded: “I won’t be bullied for tackling corruption on behalf of the South Dakota taxpayers” [Rep. Susan Wismer, press release, 2014.07.29].

We thank the gentlelady for her comments and encourage to be less gentle.

There are only two solutions for the corruption Rep. Wismer is trying to fight.

First, hope the FBI and U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson can build a criminal case against the EB-5 schemers, since our state lawmakers lack the will to investigate ills for which they or their pals might be blamed.

Second, elect every Democrat you can this fall.

Update 16:20 CDT: In a sign that Republicans are worried that you might do just that, Dick Wadhams and his new boytoy at SDGOP headquarters, Rob Burgess, push the following release attacking Wismer's challenge to the state's stonewalling as just some "bizarre claims." Notice Dick and Rob's scripted parroting of the state's insistence that EB-5 is a federal program... which doesn't explain or excuse stonewalling an investigation of state employee Richard Benda's misappropriation (AG Jackley once called it grand theft) of over half a million state dollars from a state grant.

Today, the South Dakota Republican Party called on Rep. Susan Wismer (D-Britton) to stop playing politics with the investigation into the late Richard Benda and the federal EB-5 program.

At a legislative hearing in March, at which state officials answered numerous questions, Rep. Wismer said the following to a state-retained auditor: "Your report takes up about an inch of this book or more. Could you talk - I didn't read it. Could you talk a little bit about what else takes up the rest of the inch of paper?"

Since that March hearing, Rep. Wismer has gone on to become the Democrat nominee for Governor.

Dick Wadhams, a spokesman for the South Dakota Republican Party, had the following to say:

"As a member of the committee looking into this matter, Susan Wismer didn't even take the time to prepare by reading the auditor's report. It is hard not to wonder if Susan's sudden interest is motivated by her own political ambitions - especially when the South Dakota Democrat Party is live-tweeting scripted partisan attacks as Wismer recites them in the hearing room. If Susan Wismer really cares about this investigation, she must direct her campaign and the state Democrat party to stop playing politics."

Wadhams finished by saying:

"Just today, Attorney General Jackley discussed his plans to file criminal charges as a result of the investigation that Governor Daugaard requested. It is clear that they are doing what they can to get to the bottom of this, despite Susan Wismer's bizarre claims" [SDGOP press release, 2014.07.29].

Gaacck!—hand me some soap. (And someone tell Rob Burgess how to use the em dash—it's not that hard.)

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I know better than to get my hopes up. But after mostly idle chatter on the topic at the last couple meetings, the Legislature's Government Operations and Audit Committee will hear from not just one but two state officials tomorrow on the topic of financial misconduct in the Governor's Office of Economic Development related to the EB-5 scandal.

Pat Costello, current GOED commissioner, is on the agenda for Tuesday's 9 a.m. GOAC meeting. GOAC has summoned him to follow up on the discussion of what GOED is doing to make sure folks don't double-bill their plane tickets or claim other questionable reimbursements.

But first, they'll hear from the potential man of the hour, Attorney General Marty Jackley, who sends this note to the press today:

Tomorrow July 29th at 9:00 am, Attorney General Jackley will address the South Dakota Government Operations and Audit Committee of the Legislature regarding the Attorney General's investigation into potential financial misconduct at GOED. The hearing will be held at the State Capitol Building room #413 [South Dakota Attorney General's office, press release, 2014.07.28].

In a subsequent note to reporters, the AG's office says Jackley intends to "address matters that are outside of legal advice in open session." In other words, we may actually get some interesting comments from the state's top investigator on what's happening with the GOED/EB-5 investigation.

Chairman Tidemann, Rep. Wismer, members of GOAC, tomorrow's your chance to ask some really good questions to help South Dakota understand what happened with EB-5 money and to assure the voters that their elected officials are doing everything in their power to identify, prosecute, and prevent corruption in state government.

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District 15 in northern Sioux Falls has three candidates for its two House seats. Two of the candidates are the incumbent Democrats, Patrick Kirschman and Pastor Karen Soli.

Eric Leggett, Independent candidate for District 15 House (he's the one with the whiskers). Photo: Celebrations Photography

Eric Leggett, Independent candidate for District 15 House (he's the one with the whiskers). Photo: Celebrations Photography

So naturally, I go talk to the third, Eric Leggett. The 23-year-old evangelical Christian and University of Sioux Falls history/political science major is running for his first political office on an interesting mix of conservative, Libertarian, and (dare I say?) liberal policies.

Leggett takes the standard conservative stance on health insurance. He opposes expanding Medicaid because he opposes the Affordable Care Act, saying the ACA causes "less competition, higher costs, less choices, and an even poorer quality of care for our poorest citizens." Leggett shares Governor Dennis Daugaard's concern that we might expand Medicaid, then find the federal government bailing on its financial commitment and leaving us holding the bag.

Translating that concern to the 39.6% of our state budget that comes from federal funds, Leggett sounds downright Daugaardian, advocating self-reliance in all state budget areas before the "inevitable" budget reductions from Washington:

...we should be fairly aggressive in gaining independence from federal funds. It's going to hurt, but if we can get away from federal dependence and find solutions for funding ourselves, it will protect us from a much worse budget shock in the future. I don't think we have a choice. Either we reduce the dependence on Washington ourselves, or they do it to us when the inevitable slashes to spending occur. I think we're in line for another economic winter [Eric Leggett, interview, Madville Times, 2014.07.19].

Leggett diverges from Daugaard on the gasoline tax, saying he does not support an increase. Holding a more conservative line, Leggett doesn't advocate alternative funding mechanisms for fixing our roads and bridges; he says "we're just going to have to make do."

Leggett gives off Libertarian vapors when he says the real problem for wage-earners is not raising the minimum wage (see below!) but reining in the Federal Reserve Bank and its inflationary policy of "using fuzzy math to excuse the continuance of quantitative easing." Griping about the Fed is a favorite Libertarian pastime. Leggett at least has the sense to acknowledge that legislators "have little impact on our monetary policy" and brings up the Fed simply "because it's something to [be] aware of."

Leggett also shares the Libertarian desire to decriminalize marijuana. Leggett says we waste resources incarcerating weed smokers. Throw drug users in jail of they are driving and putting people at risk; otherwise, if we can't wholly legalize, just ticket drug users. Leggett also wants to change South Dakota's policy approach to addiction:

We have a big problem with drug addiction, especially meth. Governor Janklow clamped down hard on drug use. Yet, the problem didn't get better. It got worse. Other states and countries have started treating addiction as a health issue. I think we should follow suit [Leggett, 2014.07.19].

Leggett advocates the veterans court model, a topic which was his first research assignment as an intern for the Legislature during the 2014 session, to deal with addiction issues.

But when Leggett realizes those Libertarian savings in corrections, he wants to go what we might call liberal and use those savings to raise teacher pay. Leggett did home school until high school, but, unlike the Reps. Haggar down the street, home school didn't turn him against the K-12 system:

I look forward to working with our schools and finding a way to raise our teacher's salaries. Education is an investment, and should be viewed that way. While there is truth to the arguments about our cost of living, dead last is not a place we want to be when we are talking about compensating some of the most important people in our society [Leggett, 2014.07.18].

Yet on the liberal side, Leggett supports Initiated Measure 18, the proposed increase and inflation-indexing of South Dakota's minimum wage. Leggett pulls out his USF economics minor and says the impact of higher pay at the low end will have "negligible" effect on unemployment in South Dakota.

Perhaps even more liberally, Leggett wants to abolish the sales tax on food. Reps. Kirschman and Soli have supported the reduction or repeal of the food sales tax in a variety of bills (2014 HB 1149; 2013 HB 1154; 2012 HB 1214). Leggett takes the liberal moral position that we shouldn't fund government on the backs of poor folks buying groceries. But Leggett also takes a the practical economic position that repealing the food tax would boost the economy by drawing shoppers from Minnesota and Iowa.

Ideological labels get messier when Leggett turns to the hot-button issues like the death penalty. Legislative intern Leggett was in the committee room when Rep. Rev. Steve Hickey presented his bill to repeal the death penalty last winter. Leggett says it was a very intense and emotional hearing. Leggett sides with Rep. Hickey, saying he "shudder[s] to think of how many completely innocent people we may have killed in the name of justice." He points to Texas's high rate of executions and high rate of crime as an example of the failure of the death penalty to make society safer. And he says fiscal arguments can't support the death penalty: even if the data showing that executions cost more than life sentences are wrong, killing prisoners to save money is immoral.

Leggett sounds a bit more clearly Christianly conservative on abortion and other women's health issues, but not quite. Leggett says he supports South Dakota's current abortion restrictions. He says other medical procedures require counseling and waiting periods, so making women seek counseling during a 72-hour or longer waiting period is acceptable. He says that as a legislator he will stand up for those who cannot speak for themselves, which is standard evangelical political talk for putting the rights of fetuses above the rights of women (but I told Eric I'd keep my editorializing to a minimum).

Yet Leggett, who was adopted at age 2 after being born by a 13-year-old mother, tells his fellow Christians that they could do more real good by finding ways to support young pregnant women rather than waving signs in front of clinics. He will legislate to limit abortion, but beyond the Legislature's reach, he sees the need for social change, for men to hold themselves accountable and not bail on the women they impregnate.

Leggett also says contraception should be none of the government's business. He doesn't view the Hobby Lobby decision as cause for celebration.  He says Hobby Lobby's contention that certain forms of contraception are abortion is scientifically wrong. But Leggett accepts conservative Justice Alito's assertion that the state must yield to religious believers' alternative science, no matter how demonstrably wrong that science may be.

That said, Leggett says Hobby Lobby could have avoided all this litigation in the first place by decoupling employers and health insurance. Just let companies pay their employees more and let employees buy their own insurance on the individual market.

Leggett's diverse positions support his desire to avoid political labels. While he interned for Republican Reps. Steve Westra and Kristin Conzet last winter, and while he is speaking at the Libertarian convention in August, Leggett does not want to carry either party's label. He  has been a registered Independent throughout his brief voting eligibilty. Leggett sees increasing voter interest in an alternative to the two-party dominance that they see creating gridlocking the federal government. He wants to be part of that alternative.

Absent partisan gridlock in one-party Pierre, I tried to get Leggett to clarify what alternatives he can offer that District 15 cannot get from their Democratic incumbents. But Leggett wouldn't bite. He said he won't spend his campaign talking down other people. Instead, he's more interested in finding common ground with voters on Democratic turf (like repealing the sales tax on food), then pitching his own merits and letting the voters decide. He does plan to include his youth and lack of political polish among the reasons he'd be good in Pierre. The "fresh face!" swing worked as well as a rubber golf club in South Dakota's U.S. Senate and Legislative primaries; we'll see if it comes any closer to the hole in District 15 in the general election.

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Jeff Nelson, Democratic candidate for District 8 House

Jeff Nelson, Democratic candidate for District 8 House

District 8 Democrats are back to a full slate of candidates for Legislature. Jeff Nelson filed papers last week to run for District 8 House in place of David Skoglund, the Democratic placeholder who withdrew back in April after Moorhead cops busted him in a sex sting. Nelson's press release does not mention Skoglund by name. It does mention a whole bunch of reasons that Nelson brings some serious campaign-trail power to the Democratic ticket:

  • 24 years as East River Electric GM, meaning Nelson knows utility policy and he knows people;
  • freshly retired, meaning Nelson can give the campaign and the Legislature full-time attention;
  • community service with Inter-Lakes Community Action, the Lake County Food Pantry, LifeScape (the recently merged Children's Care Hospital and School and SD Achieve), and the Mitchell Technical Institute Foundation, meaning Nelson can talk poverty relief, children's health and rehab, and funding for vocational ed;
  • work with the ethanol and wind energy industries, meaning he can campaign knowledgeably on a panoply of energy issues;
  • his wife Trudi, a whip-smart force of nature and former MHS debate coach who will keep Jeff firmly reminded of the need to kick some sense into the Legislature on K-12 funding.

Jeff Nelson joins Democratic House candidate Patrick G. Heinemann and Democratic Senate aspirant (and current state representative and East River wingman) Scott Parsley in the battle to turn District 8 full blue. Nelson faces incumbent Rep. Leslie Heinemann and new GOP challenger Mathew Wollmann.

Below is Nelson's full campaign announcement, issued after lunch today:

Jeff Nelson enters race for South Dakota House

WENTWORTH — Jeff Nelson of rural Madison has announced his candidacy for the South Dakota House of Representatives from District 8 which includes Lake, Moody, Miner and Sanborn counties. Nelson, a Democrat, was nominated by local party leaders to replace a candidate who withdrew from the race.

“With the encouragement of many friends and community members, I’m pleased to announce my candidacy to represent the people of District 8 in Pierre,” Nelson said. “I’m honored to have the confidence of local party leaders and plan to run a positive campaign focused on issues that are important to the people of District 8. I intend to bring experienced leadership and common-sense ideas to the state Capitol that will make a difference in people’s lives.”

A lifelong South Dakotan, Nelson has lived in the Madison area for the past four decades. He worked for East River Electric Power Cooperative for 39 years, 24 as the organization’s general manager, before retiring this past February.
“I’m looking forward to this new challenge.” Nelson said. “During the campaign I intend to lead a conversation focused on strengthening the investment in education, supporting broadened economic opportunity with special emphasis on workforce development and increased pay, and working to extend access to medical care.”

Nelson is active in community activities. Currently he serves on the Inter-Lakes Community Action Partnership (ICAP) board of directors and is President of the Lake County Food Pantry. Nelson is also an officer on the statewide foundation board of directors for LifeScape (previously Children’s Care Hospital & School and SD Achieve) and serves on the board of the Mitchell Technical Institute Foundation.

Nelson has been involved in state and national legislative policy for decades. In his professional career he testified before Congress on public power issues and has worked closely with state legislators and government agency officials on many legislative issues. Nelson is credited with helping the ethanol industry gain a foothold in South Dakota by creating a mechanism that allowed electric cooperative members to use co-op patronage as collateral to invest in the state’s first ethanol plants. He was instrumental in creating the Value-Added Agriculture Development Center and the SD Wind Energy Association. He also served on a number of regional and national boards as part of his role with East River Electric.

A military veteran, Nelson served in the U.S. Army’s 1st Armored Division after graduating from South Dakota State University with an electrical engineering degree. Nelson’s wife, Trudi, is a retired teacher who taught and coached debate in the Madison Central School District for 15 years. The Nelson’s have two grown children and three grandchildren [Jeff Nelson, campaign press release, 2014.07.14].

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Unlike Annette Bosworth, Denny Davis really is motivated by his Christian faith to take political action. The Catholic deacon directs South Dakotans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Davis's group supported the bill Rep. Steve Hickey (R-9/Sioux Falls) brought to the Legislature this year to end South Dakota's use of capital punishment. In an e-mail to supporters, Davis says we can expect SDADP to bring a similar bill to Pierre next year, and he wants help letting candidates know that's coming:

We continue to work for the repeal of the death penalty in South Dakota and as always we do this together. I write to you to ask two things to bring us to the 2015 Legislative Session in Pierre.

The first is to ask all of you to be talking to the candidates for the State House and Senate seats about their stand on the death penalty. The primaries are over and the candidates need to know that we will bring a repeal bill next Jan. This is vital to getting the word out in the hearts and minds of the candidates. Talk to them, write to them, call them; somehow make contact. Actively pursue them even if you have a group who wants to go to their door and ask questions. Remember to always respect their view even if it doesn’t agree with yours. Just tell them where you are at and where you will vote in Nov. If they know there are many who oppose the death penalty, it will give them time to think about the issue and whether it is right for South Dakota [Denny Davis, South Dakotans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, e-mail, 2014.06.24].

That's certainly a conversation worth having with your Legislative candidates.

Davis says he's traveling next week to Washington, D.C., for further political action against the death penalty. But instead of wining and dining donors, he'll spend four days fasting with friends in front of the Supreme Court as part of the Abolitionist Action Committee's 21st annual Starvin' for Justice Fast and Vigil.

 

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