Democrat Rochelle Hagel is running for District 33 House. Really running: the reporter turned salesperson very smartly showed up at Rickstock in Piedmont yesterday with a team of her yellow-shirted campaign volunteers to show support for U.S. Senate candidate Rick Weiland and to work the crowd herself for some coattails.
Hagel is working to light a fire under a local electorate that has very low turnout. She asks voters what issues matter to them and is surprised by how many say that aren't really sure. Among those who do have some issues at the top of mind, many talk in terms laid out by national partisan pundits. Hagel says she tries to lead conversations that lead people to think of themselves first as South Dakotans with shared needs specific to South Dakota. "We all hold the same things dear," says Hagel, things like our children, peace of mind, and doing our duties as citizens and workers. She says she gets positive if sometimes surprised responses to that effort to identify and mobilize around common ground.
Hagel resists telling voters which issues to prioritize, but she says legislators must focus on education. (She'd better say that: her husband teaches at Rapid City Central, and her sister, Rep. Paula Hawks, used to teach at West Central in Hartford.) Even if there is no extra money available for the state budget—and Hagel isn't convinced there is no extra money—Hagel says we need to get creative and compensate teachers better.
For example, Hagel notes that her family's health insurance through her husband's coverage at school has increased premiums every year. She says South Dakota families face an average premium of $10,000 a year. (We didn't have the Web with us during our conversation, but this morning I find this Kaiser Family Foundation chart indicating that the average total cost for family health insurance in South Dakota, combining employer and employee contributions, is $14,999.) Hagel suggests we could save as much as $4,000 per policy by insuring every teacher in the state through a single, non-profit health policy. (Hey—could this be a vote for the Mike Myers CO-OP plan?)
We could then plunge those savings right back into teachers' paychecks. "It's our money!" says Hagel says of the tax dollars going into school insurance plans and teacher salaries. Shifting our money from insurance payments to teachers' pockets would pour a larger chunk of that cash right back into local businesses. Hagel would like to reframe our political discussions to rouse more respect for teachers and education in themselves, but if Republicans can't shed their economic development blinders, she's ready to justify better pay for teachers on economic grounds as well.
Hagel also says South Dakota needs more pork—no, not more handouts from Washington (that's Mike Rounds's gig). Hagel grew up on a farm. She fed little pigs by hand. She recalls how her family called pigs "mortgage lifters": a sow would produce a couple litters a year, the pigs would put on meat fast, and with just a couple sows in the barn, a farmer could sell that pork faster than corn to boost the family income.
Hagel says the change in the past generation of corporate packer ownership of livestock turns farmers restrains that "mortgage-lifting" potential from keeping a few animals on the side of a mostly-crop operation, reducing livestock growers to corporate employees instead of independent entrepreneurs. Hagel doesn't jump to regulate corporations, but she'd like to find ways to support a return to small livestock side operations, such as marketing assistance through our Extension Service. Help farmers sell their product on the small, local scale, disentangled from the big global packers, and we'd improve local farm revenues and selection in our local meat shops.
Hagel lights up on environmental issues. She says our key industries of agriculture and tourism depend on a healthy environment. Wreck the land and the water, and we won't be able to raise food or entice travelers to come camp and boat and take pictures. Hagel says we cannot take risks with our aquifers, including the Madison and the Ogallala. That's why she cannot support the Keystone XL pipeline. "We're smarter than that," says Hagel. She says we can think of a better way to meet our energy needs without imperiling our water.
Hagel and her campaign team will be working to get District 33 voters to rally around those issues and other common interests. Hagel faces incumbent Republican Reps. Jacqueline Sly and Scott Craig and Independent challenger Susan Hixson in the November 4 election.