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Surrounded! Conservative Religious Activists Drive Discourse in Pierre

During my visit to the Capitol Wednesday, I found myself surrounded by the Religious Right. Concerned Women for America, Family Policy Council, Family Heritage Alliance... and those are just the three I encountered in my brief intersection with the right wing in our discussion of the demerits of Common Core before House Education Wednesday. Dale Bartscher came up and introduced himself, his assistant Family Heritage Alliance associate Norman Woods, and his communications director John Dennis. He told me their big Josh Duggar event at the Capitol on February 5 went wonderfully, bringing (if I recall correctly) 81 pastors and "ministry leaders" to Pierre to hear FHA's message of theocracy. He told me about FHA's plans to open a third office in Aberdeen.

As I made a mental note to add that ribbon-cutting to my blog coverage, I thought, "Good grief! This one group can send these guys to spend the whole session in Pierre and support three offices around the state? That's political muscle!"

Search the South Dakota lobbyist register, and you see why a good liberal like me or even a mild-mannered moderate might feel outnumbered at the Capitol:

This list is not exhaustive; I invite attentive readers to submit their favorite right-wing and non-right-wing organizations to append to this list.

But it's not just the head count that puts the right wing at an advantage; it's their activity. The right wing doesn't just lobby; they bring bills. They testify avidly, double- and triple-teaming on the legislation they like in committee. And they are far more committed to pushing their legislation, even when they know their bills, like the Common Core repeal, won't pass.

My center and left-leaning friends are less numerous and more cautious in Pierre. They don't put forward lots of bills. When they do, they are darned careful about spending their spare political capital on proposals that stand a fair chance of winning bipartisan support.

And while it's easy to identify the hard right-wing bills promoting God and guns and threatening to send women and homosexuals back to the Stone Age, where are the comparable crazy liberal ideas that turn into proposals for South Dakota legislation? No one in Pierre proposes legislation like my moonshot plan to raise teacher pay $10,000. Legalizing medical marijuana can't even find a sponsor in Pierre. The non-ultra-conservatives among us don't get to cheer many bills; we spend most of our time counting out blessings for the occasional grudging victory of common sense over bad bills.

So put all that together, and who drives the discourse in Pierre? The Chamber of Commerce corporate colonizers may be in the driver's seat, but the Religious Right, the culture warriors, are riding shotgun, talking their ear off and locking the radio on that mind-numbing praise music. And we progressives are in the back seat asking politely if the driver could crack the window so we could get some fresh air.

There's some fire here that we—Democrats, Independents, liberals, moderates, Libertarians (real ones, not fakers like Chad Haber)—need to fight with fire. We need to put more resources toward groups like Campaign for Healthy Families, the AFL-CIO, and Equality SD to lobby in Pierre, not just against the wild, destructive legislation that humiliates our state in the national press each legislative session, but for positive legislation that fights for the interests of South Dakota women, workers, and minorities. We need organizations like those, operating independently of any party, to lobby in Pierre, to speak in committees, to press for specific bills, and, most importantly, to light up legislators' phones and e-mails with lots and lots of messages of voters saying, "Vote our way, or you won't win your next election."

The Capitol is teeming with religious conservative lobbyists who can credibly make that threat. The rest of us (and there are more of us; we're just quieter) need to rally some force to counter that threat.


  1. larry kurtz 2015.02.21

    Was just reading Mercer's take on public cash for private schools: the hypocrisy of the religionist right know no bounds. "supporters of the bill generally are the Christian schools, the Rapid City Catholic schools and the Sioux Falls Catholic diocese."

  2. Bob Newland 2015.02.21

    Maybe if we're quiet, they won't come for us.

  3. mike from iowa 2015.02.21

    Excellent defining of fiscal conservatism,Cory. Left of Center has it. Wingnuts have no clue.

  4. Tim 2015.02.21

    Larry, everybody that's actually paying attention knows republicans want to privatize schools so they can start pumping that public money into the private sector for profit. They will do this in small chunks so the low-info majority won't notice until it's too late. In the mean time, the legislature continues to break the public school system so it's easier to switch when the time comes. Cory, don't get your hopes up for that "blue ribbon" panel, it's just a stalling tactic.

  5. Tim 2015.02.21

    Larry, when I get ready to retire is there a place in NM I should be looking at, or should I pick a small town just north of the CO-NM border?

  6. Tim 2015.02.21

    NCLB is just another one of Bush's domestic failures, one of many.

  7. Steve Hickey 2015.02.21

    There are lots of lobbyists up there this time of year– 600 plus. Many of them are really helpful. Interestingly, over 300 of them are full-time employees of the administration and agencies of the state and they are by far the strongest force. If second floor doesn't like something they come out in force. When it's my bill they are closing in on it's really frustrating because I only have one lobbyist working my bills, me. The second floor can veto it later if they don't like it, but they come out to kill it early. I think if you check, the Christian or conservative lobby groups you mention give zero to candidates in terms of money. I'm not sure that's the group you ought to be pushing back against.

  8. larry kurtz 2015.02.21

    Taos is too cold, Las Cruces too hot, ABQ too big and too violent, Santa Fe too expensive, Las Vegas too poor, Gallup too racist, Farmington too remote.

    Abiquiu is a cool place, so is Madrid, Dixon and Pecos. There is affordable property for sale in rural areas, Tim.

  9. Tim 2015.02.21

    Rep Hickey, you can't be the only one in Pierre that is sick of the way things are done. Any way you could join with some of the others, regardless of political party, and form a coalition of sorts to try to change things for the better? I fear that if these changes have to come at the ballot box, we're all screwed.

  10. Jenny 2015.02.21

    People have to realize that the whole country is run by lobbyists and that includes (for goodness gracious) your beloved SD. I am thankful I left SD when I did and moved to MN. Yes, it is worse in SD economically, racially, and for the hidden corruption (SD voted one of the the top for most corrupted). People don't want to believe this, but ask any out of stater that moves into your state and they will see the mentality. Racism is everyhere but one thing that disturbs me a lot is that in SD your leaders won't even talk about it! In MN, our leaders talk about racism and getting along as a community all the time! Such a stark difference! Hello Thune, Daugaard, Rounds, Noem - the ball is inyour plate to take the lead on racial issues. Yes, I do blame the 'pubs on this also - they have all the power and not one word spoken denouncing racial incidents.

  11. Tasiyagnunpa Livermont 2015.02.21

    How did DRA get thrown into the conservative mix, Cory? They're the most progressive organization in the state if one holds to old school notions of progressive activity meaning he board is at least 50/50 split or close with Republicans and Democrats.

  12. Steve Hickey 2015.02.21

    And I should point out it's the left leaning social issue lobbyists who are putting thousands of dollars toward certain legislators - such as Equality SD. The Christian groups are giving zero to candidates.

    Yesterday I came home to my State Legislatures magazine in the mail and it had this article on Gift Bans.

    SD has no monetary limits. The main benefit to me, the Republicans, and every Democrat as well, is we have various receptions and dinners every night where the food is free. Maybe others are getting the bigger gifts. I get free pens and coffee mugs. The meals are actually a blessing for those of us who lose money serving in Pierre. Beer and brats from the AFL-CIO the other night doesn't influence me either way. The conversation around the table does though. That's what they are after.

    Maybe all that is a diversion from the topic at hand. My point, the Christian groups hold very little sway in Pierre compared to the bulk of lobbyists who are there.

    Example: yesterday we smoked out the Common Core bill. Proponents had 40 minutes to make their case in committee. Opponents (the administration) held three different forums for us on their vantage point prior to the committee hearing. It's hard to compete with it. I'm in favor of a stronger legislative branch.

  13. Bernie 2015.02.21

    I agree with Steve. Be careful not to stereotype all those social issue lobbyists. Some have helped to fight gambling expansion against the money lobby, they've helped us with prenatal care legislation, some have helped with payday loan reforms and other programs for the poor. They call it the "strange bedfellows" but in Pierre everybody knows everybody, and you never know where your next friend is going to be found.

  14. larry kurtz 2015.02.21

    Who pays the prostitutes?

  15. Jenny 2015.02.21

    The Roman Church of Kiddie Diddlers spent millions to try to stop gay marriage in MN, Steve, so don't try telling me that Christian Lobbyists are clean.

  16. Caitlin Collier 2015.02.21

    The only way that progressive groups can get lobbyists to Pierre is if they can raise money to pay someone who can take 2 months out of their life and pay the person room and board as well. I used to do it but most progressive groups cannot afford to hire anyone. Poor people cannot afford representation. Add Denny Davis for the groups wanting to repeal the death penalty.

  17. Donald Pay 2015.02.21

    If you spend much time in Pierre during session, you quickly figure out who has the power. The Executive Branch and the business/industry lobbyists are vastly more powerful than anyone else. Social issue groups have a lot of firepower, however, and generate a lot of heat, take up a lot of time and do "drive discourse," as Cory said. That doesn't usually translate to bills that pass. The powerful lobbyists don't drive discourse. They drive legislation.

  18. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.02.21

    Rep. Hickey, you're right: I did notice that the list of public lobbyists is longer than the list of lobbysits maintained by any one private entity (see private lobbyists). The private lobbyist list has 592 entries; the state's public lobbyist list has 343.

  19. mike from iowa 2015.02.21

    dumbass dubya implemented portions of NCLB in Texas while he was goobernor. Dropouts,which increased under dd,were counted as graduates. Poor performing students were transferred to other schools and counted as bad students against the new school,not the one that failed them.

  20. Richard Schriever 2015.02.21

    One problem with your "call to arms" Corey - Libertarians - REAL ONES - are all in favor of government hands off of the right to lobby/influence using $$$$, or any other means. They will not sign up to an opposition movement. Koch Brothers - Ron and Rand Paul, come to mind of the top of my head.

  21. Richard Schriever 2015.02.21

    Steve Hickey - of course you won't find any BIG donations to candidates from those lobbying groups. But the small ones - from various "individuals"........ You've heard of the concept of bundling - no?

    And then there are the out-of-state donations that are generated by the various nutty bills. $20 here, $40 there. From places like Idaho, or Virginia. That's the one thing that Bosworth understands. Just too flaky to hide them well enough, and too poor a business-person to have the process run by someone not skimming 90% off the top. for "administrative" costs.

  22. Richard Schriever 2015.02.21

    Tim - try Silver City.

  23. MC 2015.02.21

    you know the key is to know who is who before the sessions starts. build those relationships while fishing or golfing. it called marketing and sales.

  24. larry kurtz 2015.02.21

    Silver City is a GOP Whiteopia.

  25. K 2015.02.21

    I'm all for supporting progressive lobbyists, but in some cases that's just throwing money down a hole. There are better uses for progressive money than paying a suit to sort of advocate (often poorly) for our causes year after year. It's kind of irresponsible to suggest people support orgs that in some cases can't point to a single accomplishment in recent years...perhaps ever.

  26. Roger Cornelius 2015.02.21

    These Christian lobbyist seem to have forgotten where they came from and dismiss this country's earliest history.

    These Christians are usually the ones to wave the flag in your face and condemn anyone that doesn't salute the flag. Their Christian ethic requires them to believe in the Bill of Rights, the Constitution and the founding fathers.

    What these holier than thou types are remiss of is that those same founding fathers came to this country to escape religious tyranny and suppression.

    So what is their religious answer to the misdeeds of others, legislate the hell out of women's rights, attempt to legalize discrimination, suppress voting rights, and deny the LGBT community their civil rights.

    Talk about religious tyranny, it is alive and well and living in Pierre.

  27. Rasputin 2015.02.21

    I would be very, very careful around Mr. Bartscher. He will smile and shake your hand, all the while looking for the perfect spot to slip the knife in.
    He has the ears of powerful people and won't hesitate to use them to hurt you.
    I posted this anonymously for that very reason. Good luck sir.

  28. Spencer 2015.02.21

    Cory, it's also the quality. SD Campaign for Healthy Families acts like they accidentally got locked in the committee room to testify almost every time. I don't think they actually read the bills they oppose. The ACLU girls act like law school dropouts...STILL. Whatever happened to that high school page/NARAL rep? Now she was funny. They are doing everyone a disservice by eating up committee time with their silliness.

  29. leslie 2015.02.21

    extremely well blogged cory! we need to act.

  30. leslie 2015.02.21

    RS-i believe you just nailed the state's EB5 FORMULA-90% OFF THE TOP IS LIKELY THE NUMBER WE HAVE BEEN SEARCHING FOR IN THE SIZE oF THIS statewide fraud. sorry 4 caps

  31. leslie 2015.02.21

    thx 4 your perspective rep. hickey@9:46

    tim/larry-that CO/NM border is a hard travel, rico up in the sno is nice; how about reserve, magdalena, glenwood NM?

  32. larry kurtz 2015.02.22

    Magdalena, rather.

  33. Tim 2015.02.22

    I have no problem with remote, as long as I have high speed internet. ;-)

    Latterell has done a nice job of making SD look like the hick state most believe it is.

  34. grudznick 2015.02.22

    Mr. Bartscher Is a fine fellow from what I am told.

  35. Richard Schriever 2015.02.22

    That's funny Larry - my VERY HISPANIC grad school classmate Dr. Monica Carbajal was from a family that has lived in Silver City for 3 centuries. Oh, maybe you mean the touristy areas, not the working class parts of town.

  36. Richard Schriever 2015.02.22

    FYI - Silver City population data from 2010 census: Hispanic or Latino of any race were 52.43% of the population.

  37. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.02.22

    Sorry, Tasi: to clarify, I list conservative orgs first, then non-conservative orgs like Campaign for Healthy Families and DRA... although do you notice I'm having trouble with my terminology? I would include Dakota Rural Action among progressive allies, but they demonstrate the difficulty of defining progressive. DRA is all about conservation, a classically conservative concept. DRA is fighting for landowners' rights against eminent domain, which serves the liberal environmentalist aim of fighting Keystone XL but relies on a conservative protection of property rights.

  38. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.02.22

    K, Spencer, I agree that if lobbying the Legislature is a necessary front in the war for political sanity, it must be done by effective lobbyists and organizations. Is it more effective to follow the Dakota Rural Action model, having its own staff lobbyist instead of hiring one of the "suits" who work for multiple organizations?

    I won't begrudge any organization that looks at its limited budget and decides it can achieve more mobilizing the grassroots to swamp legislators' inboxes or undertaking other means of influence than sending someone to committee. (Remember: DRA does both, backing its lobbyist in Pierre with efforts to involve and empower the grassroots.)

    Curious, K and Spencer: from what you've seen, what do those sub-par lobbyists need? Public-speaking practice? Issue briefings? What can I do to help?

  39. K 2015.02.22

    What do they need? To be fired.

  40. grudznick 2015.02.22

    If this blog hired one of the suit lobbies can you imagine the power you would wield? The first blog with a lobbier. Maybe ever. Even the Argus Leader would have to do a story about you. So would PBS because you could lobby to make them run your bloggings on their web site.

  41. K 2015.02.22

    I'm happy to tell you my entire reasoning sometime not on an open forum.

  42. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.02.22

    I'm all ears, K. Check your e-mail!

  43. caheidelberger Post author | 2015.02.22

    Grudz, if I may take your suggestion seriously, does an organization gain more influence by hiring a "suit lobbier" or by DIY?

    Actually, SDPB and I should have a talk about producing a weekly program. Jon Stewart is going to leave a TV void....

  44. Curtis Price 2015.02.22

    Rep Hickey, the Christian groups don't need money to influence elections - they just threaten to move votes from their churches.

    By the way thanks so much for your wonderful words re 1195 (which I heard on the audio recording. It's all to rare to hear some truly honest reflection like that on the floor of the House.

  45. Tasiyagnunpa Livermont 2015.02.24

    Thank you for the clarification, Cory. That's why I think we need a better word than 'progressive.' DRA is absolutely ecologically conservative. I truly don't have a problem with real conservatism, since I don't think liberal nor progressive work does well if it doesn't reflect on the values and mores that our ancestors came by honestly, while still looking to the future.

    Also, as far as their lobbyist, while they do a lot of footwork, they are meant to be the 'cruise director' of sorts for DRA's members to come lobby for the various work the members are engaged in. I have taken part in one of those legislative days as a DRA staff member, and it was very informative and a great benefit to any member.

    PS Rita Houglum from the Eagle Forum teaches 'Sunday School' at the former church I attended during legislative session. Don't give me the crap that Christian groups don't get a lot of pocket money from people after the church service, etc. Most of the Republican machine is run out of churches. #recoveringevangelical

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