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Dems 2015 To-Do List: Tap Keystone XL, Gay Marriage, Ballot Initiative Energy

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.


  1. Paul Seamans 2015.01.01

    Concerning the issue of Indian candidates for the state legislature; the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and the Ogalala Sioux Tribe already have tribal members in the legislature. The Standing Rock and the Cheyenne River Sioux have capable people that should be running for office as have other tribes. The Lakota/Dakota/Nakota tribes have a history of not trusting state government and instead mostly deal with the federal government. I think that is changing and I look for the Oceti Sakowan people to become more involved in future elections.

  2. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.01.01

    Paul, thanks for that observation! I hope that's the case. Kevin Killer has done good work. I understand how any tribe could be suspicious of a state government deeply imprinted by Bill Janklow. Still, I'd contend having more tribal reps in Pierre would only be good for the tribes. I look forward to seeing more tribal members step forward to help run the state we share. Mituyake oyasin!

  3. grudznick 2015.01.01

    My good friend Harold Pretty Weasel, nephew of his famous uncle Lyman, would be a wonderful representative from the CRST.

  4. Donald Pay 2015.01.01

    I guess I'm a purist when it comes to ballot issues. I would have to be convinced that a political party should propose measures and run ballot issue campaigns. Here's the Constitutional language:

    "However, the people expressly reserve to themselves the right to propose measures, which shall be submitted to a vote of the electors of the state, and also the right to require that any laws which the Legislature may have enacted shall be submitted to a vote of the electors of the state before going into effect, except such laws as may be necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health or safety, support of the state government and its existing public institutions. Not more than five percent of the qualified electors of the state shall be required to invoke either the initiative or the referendum."

    Ballot measures should be proposed and run by "the people," not political parties. I don't think it is unconstitutional for a political party to propose a ballot measure, but it seems not to be what the I & R Amendment envisioned.

    Political parties inhabit the the Executive and Legislative branches, and the I & R was meant to act as a needed check on Legislative and Executive action. I would keep the SD Democratic Party out of the mix, and organize separate groups to propose and run ballot measure campaigns.

  5. grudznick 2015.01.01

    Mr. Pay, does all of that mean that if the legislatures pass a law with a two-thirds winning margin because it is an emergency that the coffee-shop referred measure quarterbacks cannot initiate a revote by the public?

    With the libbies running so low in Pierre these days I could see some things getting passed by huge third margins.

    It is like the mountain has slipped off the hill. The supermajority has become so behemoth that it will start to snowball upon itself. There is likely no stopping that beastie unless Mr. H grabs the reigns of your party.

  6. Donald Pay 2015.01.02


    There is a difference between passage by a two-thirds vote and the Legislature claiming an "emergency" and the Constitution. The constitutional language is this: "...except such laws as may be necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health or safety, support of the state government and its existing public institutions." "Immediate" is a key modifier here, and it envisioned responding to natural disasters or similar matters. These days we have FEMA and state government agencies that are set up to respond to such "immediate" needs. I can't see the Legislature being able to shoehorn in some imagined "emergency" to get around the Constitutional language.

  7. qlz 2015.01.02

    Re. your advice to "prepare a full-tilt marketing campaign" on important issues: a brief article in the Dec 30 Brookings Register notes that Professor George Langelett's marketing research class is looking for projects for the 2015 spring semester students. This would be free marketing research. If anyone is interested contact Professor Langelett at 690-2084, or email

  8. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.01.02

    QLZ, good suggestion! Connect those students with practical issues in the state! Get them interested in politics!

  9. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.01.02

    Donald, that's a reasonable point on framers' intent. But any initiative or referendum will come from a subset of the people. Is the SDDP not just another subset of the people? Is an initiative somehow less authentic if the two people who come up with it are Ann Tornberg and Joe Lowe rather than Steve Hickey and Steve Hildebrand?

  10. Jeff Barth 2015.01.02

    Minnehaha County has a substantial population of tribal members. Our voters would welcome fresh faces from that community as candidates for office in this area. I hope they'll give it a shot!

    Natives have consistently supported Democrats. It is past time for our friends to assume a larger role statewide... not just in their sovereign areas.

  11. Donald Pay 2015.01.02

    I have no problem if one, two, many Ds, or Rs, or Is or Ls, or any combination thereof propose an initiative, but running it out of any political party as a marketing campaign is just wrong on so many levels.

    On a practical level, you probably could have 3-5 good initiative ideas and several referral campaigns in any one election cycle. A party is going to want to focus down on one or two "marketable" issues that are good for the party, not necessarily important issues that need to be addressed.

  12. Paul Seamans 2015.01.02

    Jeff Barth, that is interesting that Minnehaha County has a large population of tribal members. Pennington County also has a good many tribal members. I recently have heard that there are more Oglala Tribal members in Rapid City than there are on the Pine Ridge Reservation. I believe that South Dakota has the second highest percentage on native people in the country. I believe the figure is around 10 percent. I could argue for more native participation in our state government on strictly selfish reasons if nothing else. Their tradition of protecting the environment is something that fits right in with my beliefs.

  13. Deb Geelsdottir 2015.01.02

    So get someone like Robin Page on the SDDP central committee, or whatever it's called, to learn about native issues and mobilize those voters.

  14. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.01.02

    Deb, the party should certainly be talking to Robin and her supporters.

  15. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.01.02

    Among other good reasons to find some of those urban leaders Jeff mentions, a tribal member representing a Sioux Falls district could do some good in knocking down stereotypes.

  16. JeniW 2015.01.02

    May I suggest contacting the Sioux Falls Diversity Council?

  17. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.01.02

    Donald, I do agree that running an initiative purely as a marketing campaign to promote one's interests is skeezy. But is it skeezy for the Democratic Party to (let's step toward the possible moral/civic ill):

    1. survey the public to identify issues they'd vote "Yes" on?
    2. help circulate an initiative petition?
    3. run an I/R petition drive (including handling all that tricky legal stuff involved in drafting an initiated measure and submitting it to the LRC, the AG, and the SOS)?
    4. spend money on ads/GOTV to support (or block!) a ballot measure?
    5. run a campaign for (or against) a ballot measure?
    6. seek synergy between popular ballot measures and Democratic candidates?
    7. gloat mercilessly and take credit for successful ballot measures?

  18. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.01.02

    JeniW, you most certainly may suggest. That's these folks, right? Do they have any political inclinations? Do they dare get political?

  19. JeniW 2015.01.02

    Cory, I will send you a personal e-mail sometime tomorrow.

    The SFDC is not a political organization, but there might be people who are involved who might be interested.

  20. Deb Geelsdottir 2015.01.02

    Cory, I doubt there would be much need to oppose ballot measures. Since Republican money owns the legislature, they don't need IRs. In fact, history shows Republican IRs fail.

    Of course, there is always the wacko far right that may propose something very strange.

  21. Donald Pay 2015.01.02

    Cory, let me take your points in order:

    1. This, I think is the problem. Starting with polling skews everything toward what's easy to do, rather than what is important or right to do. When I was involved in this, the issues bubbled up naturally from the frustration of grassroots citizens. We had no idea what would pass. We knew that certain issues were important to a segment of the electorate, because we were involved with them. We tried to address those issues in reasonable ways. We hoped the electorate would see it our way. We knew if we lost, we would modify our approach to the issue, but we wouldn't give up. A party-run approach to ballot measures would be unserious. Now, we did have access during a few ballot measures to the results to a couple questions in polls that candidates had run. That turned out to not be that useful. Focus group testing might have helped in several campaigns, but that's expensive to do.

    2. Sure, directing some volunteers and some minimal professional assistance to help a separate organizing effort is fine for any party, but it shouldn't be a major part of either a party's effort or the initiative organization.

    3. Lawyers are helpful. If there are some volunteer attorneys willing to provide some professional guidance toward drafting a legally defensible initiative, that's great. Still, I think most initiatives benefit from being run through the LRC. They are, after all, the drafting experts. As we found out, the LRC is not perfect either.

    4. No. The I/R campaign needs to run independently, and that means minimal party money spent by the campaign.

    5. No. There should be an independent committee composed of folks who are committed to the issue to run the campaign. You develop grassroots buy-in and leadership first. If the party runs it, it's top-down.

    6. No. Candidates and parties are free to endorse or oppose an independent measure.

    7. No.

  22. judy judy 2015.01.03

    Donald Pay,

    I agree with you on every point. In the long run, the Party run initiative campaign seems like a very dead end to me. The Party has run two initiative campaigns now, one in 2012 and one in 2014. Both were successful in themselves, but the Democratic Party is less well organized than it had been and its share of offices federal, state, or legislative has declined steeply. The results seem to speak for themselves. The Party should build the party and support its candidates. Independent groups and individuals should promote Initiatives and Referendums.

  23. Deb Geelsdottir 2015.01.03

    Mr. Pay, I'd like further clarification please.

    2. Why shouldn't it be?

    4. What is the benefit of it being run independently?

    7. I disagree strongly. Gloating is fun!

    My #8. Can SDP do any of the things on this list and still be affiliated with SDDP?

  24. Donald Pay 2015.01.03


    An initiative or a referral campaign revolves around an important single issue. If you are serious about the issue, as opposed to making it part of a party marketing campaign, you want everyone (Democrats, Republicans, everyone else) to feel they have a stake in the issue, can volunteer to help, and can be a part of leadership. A party can't be focused on just one issue. It has to be focus on a lot of issues, candidate recruitment, etc.

    I agree with judy judy. Party run initiatives are bad for the I & R process, but also bad for parties. Sure, there might be a few successes on rather obvious issues, but did winning the minimum wage issue, which is great, make any difference in the Democratic Party's outcome this year.

    Don't get me wrong. Putting the minimum wage issue on the ballot was a great idea. But developing a grassroots based group to push such legislation might meet with more success, ultimately.

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