Last updated on 2012.05.05
Tom Nelson torqued me off more than once this year. During this year's Legislative session, the District 31 Senator artfully rationalized a GOP effort to take Referred Law 14 off the ballot rather than calling it the straight-up assault on democracy that it was. He peddled the myth that the Legislature overhauled House Bill 1234, the Governor's education bill, into a "completely different animal," even though a close reading of the bill shows it still contains almost every word and policy that the Governor's people wrote into the original proposal. Senator Nelson also killed a sensible pipeline indemnity bill that I thought was a pretty good idea.
But if I were voting in the GOP primary for District 31 Senate (and that's the vote that matters, since no local Dems have stood up to challenge Nelson), I'd be voting for Nelson, because he's got ten times the knowledge and political skill of his sole challenge, Lawrence County Commissioner Bob Ewing.
Again, as is the case with my assessment of the local county commission contest, I speak with no malice toward Commissioner Ewing. I met him for the first time Monday evening at the GOP candidates forum here in Spearfish. I have no reason to dislike him personally. His ten years on the county commission show his commitment to public service.
But if we look at a campaign as a job interview, Nelson showed he's much more qualified to continue doing the job than Ewing is to replace him. Nelson knows policy, and he knows how to communicate that knowledge. He can point to experience on the Senate Taxation and Commerce committees. Throughout Monday's forum, Nelson peppered his answers with examples of specific bills and policies—guns-on-campus bills, the $50K threshold for no-bid contracts in local government, the $127 million in budget cuts and the use of federal stimulus dollars in our state budget.
Against Nelson's well-informed and well-polished performance, Ewing demonstrated a simple inability to keep up. As a commissioner, he's bumped up against state policy. He manages to note that the state balanced its budget in part by dumping responsibilities and costs onto county governments. He also contends the state hasn't done enough to back Lawrence County in fighting the pine beetle. Those are great, experience-based campaign points for Ewing to make. But Ewing struggles to make them:
Ewing declared his candidacy three months ago. He's had time to read up on legislative issues and prep these responses. But from his opening statement onward, Ewing confesses he's not really ready to answer questions about state-level policy.
I understand we're all busy people. But we're not all running for State Senate. If I apply for a job teaching French, I need walk into the interview and say, "Here's why I'm ready to teach French." If you apply for a job legislating, you need to walk into the interview (the candidate forums) and say, "Here's why I'm ready to legislate." Ewing manages that in a couple of responses, but he never manages to do it better than the other guy applying for the job.
I don't particularly care for the policies of the other guy applying for the job. But Senator Tom Nelson showed he's the better candidate on the District 31 Senate ballot.
But does that mean Nelson can coast to victory in June? I've heard rumblings that there is dissatisfaction with Nelson's performance in Pierre, particularly on Deadwood gambling issue. Maybe there is some local issue on which Ewing can quietly win votes... but I'm going to need to see some serious surge of anti-incumbent crankiness to think Ewing has a chance of upsetting our sitting Senator.