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:
- Dale Bartscher, Jennifer Utter, Amy Willson, and Norman Woods lobby for Family Heritage Alliance Action.
- Mark Chase lobbies for Family Policy Council.
- Concerned Women for America fields Linda Schauer, Terri Jorgenson, and Cindy Flakoll.
- South Dakota Eagle Forum sends Kitty Werthmann and Rita Houglum to lobby.
- South Dakota Right to Life sends Debbie Pease to Pierre.
- South Dakota Gun Owners have Weldon Travis Lasseter.
- Americans for Prosperity (representing the plutocrats, not the theocrats) has four lobbyists infesting Pierre—Chad Krier, Benjamin Lee, Matt Eric, and Matt McCaulley.
- South Dakota Campaign for Healthy Families shares lobbyist Mitch Richter with four other organizations.
- Dakota Rural Action has one full-time lobbyist, Sabrina King.
- The private lobbyist register shows no one roaming the lobby on behalf of Equality South Dakota.
- American Civil Liberties Union has two lobbyists, Libby Skarin and Heather Smith.
- Mark Anderson carries labor's colors for the South Dakota AFL-CIO.
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.