Last updated on 2014.05.29
Brookings County residents got a chance to see both Democratic gubernatorial candidates at the same podium last night thanks to an event hosted by the Brookings County Democrats and moderated by longtime SDSU political science professor Bob Burns. Though the hosts went to great lengths to clarify that Tuesday's event was a "question and answer session" and not (definitely not, really not at all) a debate, it's impossible not to use the opportunity last night's joint appearance provided to do a little bit of comparing and contrasting between the two Democrats who would like to move Dennis Daugaard out of the Governor's office.
So, for those who still haven't made up their mind on whether Joe Lowe or Susan Wismer should win the gubernatorial primary (either for the currently open Madville Times poll or the actual June 3 ballot-casting), I offer my thoughts below. If you want thoughts aside from mine, the Q&A session drew a cross-section of the South Dakota political blog community, so check out Sustainable Dakota or SoDakLiberty for other perspectives.
Intros: Both Wismer and Lowe provided the sort of biographical information that's available on their respective campaign websites; no big news here. Both focused on the importance of people to a campaign and a state, and both started the expected-of-a-challenger calls for change that would resonate throughout the event. Said Wismer, "A lot of people haven't fared too well in the last few years ... and I'm running for all those people." Lowe's pithy summary: "We can do better. That's why I'm running." No Advantage to either candidate for basic intros.
Education Funding: Not unexpectedly, the first question dealt with education funding, and both candidates asserted education was a priority for their campaigns. Lowe talked about how the property tax cap on districts for school funding is working some places but not others and proposed offering voters the chance to approve a 4-month 1% "tourist tax" earmarked for closing education funding gaps. Wismer shared that her first thoughts of running for governor came in a year of drastic cuts to the state budget that included education funding. "I'm not saying I could work wonders," Wismer said, "but the narrative [on education funding] does have to change out there." — Slight Advantage Lowe on specificity of plan and non-aversion to wonders-working.
Medicaid Expansion: Lowe and Wismer's sharpest words for Daugaard came in response to this question. The candidates agreed in their opinion that the current administration's failure to expand Medicaid as proposed through the Affordable Care Act has little to with policy. Wismer: "Funding is not the issue; it is strictly a philosophical issue. ... It's the law, and it's time for South Dakota to get with the program." Lowe: "[Daugaard] just doesn't like the guy who's in Washington, D.C.; that's who he doesn't like." Lowe used his response to this question to discuss the hypocrisy of distrusting the federal government to make good on its ACA-related promised for states that expand Medicaid while drafting a budget that relies heavily on federal government promises in other areas (more on that later) and also took a minor dig at Wismer for what he characterized as legislative Democrats giving up in the face of Republican dominance. — No Advantage when both candidates appropriately take swings at one of the current administration's worst policy positions.
GLBT Non-Discrimination: This question dealt specifically with non-discrimination protections for gay, lesbian, and transgender South Dakotans in employment and housing, and both candidates appropriately supported such protections. Lowe used the uncharacteristically non-committal language of respect for others; Wismer discussed the frustration for legislative Democrats when dealing with situations where people don't want to protect GLBT rights, saying, "It's a close-minded, life-is-simple approach. But life is not simple." — Slight Advantage Wismer for willingness to speak the complexity of issues like this one that entwine personal belief and public policy.
Death Penalty: In perhaps the biggest policy gap of the night, Wismer stood opposed to the death penalty in South Dakota (while equivocating a bit that she can't imagine the perspective of a victim's family and wouldn't want to dismiss that perspective) while Lowe cited his crisis response and law enforcement background to say, "I would definitely support the death penalty." — Advantage Wismer for keeping South Dakota out of the business of killing people (though tepidly).
Uranium Mining in the Black Hills: Lowe spoke first and addressed what, for many, is the crux of the issue: "I'm for jobs, ... but this is just wrong." He went on to discuss the environmental issues associated with In Situ Leech (ISL) mining and to call into question the benefits proponents claim offset water pollution. Citing his specialty, Lowe also discussed the fire dangers that come with mining and transporting uranium. Wismer expressed some concerns with uranium mining but left the door open policy-wise: "No, I'm not going to stand here and say I'm absolutely opposed to it, because I don't know enough about it." (this blog has questioned Wismer's seemingly newfound uncertainty)— Advantage Lowe for knowledgeable policy discussion, facts and figures, and sound argumentation.
Keystone XL: Wismer took a good position by expressing concern about the pipeline's impact on agriculture, but lets concern be as far as she'll go in public statement. "I'm concerned about the pipeline," Wismer allowed, "and I would be very leery about its continued progress." Lowe sees Wismer's concerns and raises additional ones specific to tar sands oil (which is harder to clean up than the crude many think of ... a fact Lowe knows from experience), the impact of spills (a 2010 spill in the Kalamazoo River still has major environmental impacts), the steel used in the pipeline (perhaps too thin? ... unlikely to be American-made, minimizing job claims), and the potential of breaking treaty obligations to the Lakota. — Advantage Lowe for a clear stance, specific rationales, and the night's only real mention of Native American concerns.
Economic Development: Both candidates criticized the current governor's approach to economic development (spending money with out-of-state companies to draw workers to the state, going all-in on a questionable EB-5 visa program, throwing money from many government levels into private companies that fail to live up to promises) and then pivoted toward education. Lowe proposed closer connections between industry and tech schools in the state to identify needed skills and educate potential workers to those needs. Wismer asserted that, "Education is economic development." She argued the state needs to put its money into quality education that can connect students with readily available jobs, which can help avoid the need to spend state money drawing South Dakota expatriates back or to marketing South Dakota jobs to new employees. — No Advantage for a topic where both provide good ideas.
Tax System: This question was worded to ask, "Do you believe South Dakota has a fair and adequate tax system?" This was easily and quickly answered in the negative by both candidates (Wismer: "No, of course it's not." Lowe: "We've got one of the most regressive tax codes in the nation.") The question also asked for suggestions for reform, with Wismer championing the Main Street Fairness Act, essentially an online sales tax, and Lowe discussing the precarious budget position the state is in by relying on so much federal funding and reserve spending from year to year. — Advantage Wismer for providing alternatives and for her inherent knowledge as a CPA and Appropriations Committee member to discuss tax policy.
Mass Transit: Neither candidate really had much response to this question on whether more mass transit options were a viable option for decreasing reliance on fossil fuels in South Dakota. Lowe essentially said he was surprised it didn't already exist; Wismer said public transit does exist for some populations (elderly, disabled, veterans, etc.) but questions the broad-based viability. — No Advantage for a mostly-ignored question.
Family Planning: Another question with fairly blippy answers from both, the topic was intended to be "bringing better family planning and birthing to rural South Dakota." Both candidates seemed uneager to address the question head-on, with Wismer saying, "I would be in favor of any bills that get the government out of family planning decisions," and Lowe essentially saying that Planned Parenthood was probably sufficient in the state. — Slight Advantage Wismer for coming closer to recognizing the issue and for a more direct answer to the question she thought she saw.
Moocher State Hypocrisy: Addressed somewhat above, this question asked candidates whether South Dakota's ranking as third-most reliant on federal funding for state operations has an "air of hypocrisy" when South Dakotans rail against the evils of the federal government. Lowe provided the simple affirmative answer and told the audience a story of a fire victim who busted Lowe's chops for being "a fed" (which, to be clear, Lowe was not at the time) but then was the first victim to ask if he and his neighbors would be getting any FEMA money. Wismer (who herself referred to "the feds" on more than a few occasions during the event) described South Dakotans who are proud of the seeming incongruity of an independent reputation and an ability to bang out the most federal bucks for state projects. She turned the hypocrisy argument a bit on its side by pointing out that some South Dakotans' mentalities are simply about getting the most out of nothing, not trying to game a system. — Advantage Lowe for good storytelling and for a willingness to call out, rather than excuse, obvious hypocrisy.
Democratic Unity: A questioner asked if each candidate would be willing to name the opponent to the Democratic ticket as Lieutenant Governor to build on each candidate's strengths. Both hedged on their answer (Wismer: "I'm not going to speculate on that." Lowe: "It's too early."), but Lowe did a little turn to cite his own experience choosing and creating high-performing teams. — Advantage Lowe for pulling even an out-of-nowhere question back to his talking points.
Summation: Both candidates did well to turn their summations back to their main case for being the next Governor. Lowe cited proven leadership and an ability to reach across the aisle and get things done (he's done so with the last three Republican administrations). Wismer mentioned her ability to appeal to moderate voters and her policy experience, and also made a case for the statement that voters would make in electing her the first woman to hold the South Dakota governorship. — No Advantage for either candidate; both made good cases to close out the evening.
Either Wismer or Lowe is likely to have an uphill battle in running against an entrenched incumbent like Daugaard. Each would seem to be prepared to take a different philosophical approach to that uphill battle, with Wismer taking the measured approach of the establishment candidate who's experienced in the ways of Pierre and Lowe going after his points a bit more brashly and seemingly poising himself to fight a General Election with a bit of the tenacity with which he's fought forest fires. Democrats have a decision to make which approach they think stands the best shot of setting the party up for success.