Woster: The Changing Tides of South Dakota Politics – Mitchell Republic

I laughed the other day when I saw a political spot naming state Rep. Jamie Smith as one of the most liberal members of the Legislature.

Well, he’s a Democrat, and I think he’s interested in education and social progress. I guess that makes him a liberal in South Dakota. But in this state, there isn’t much competition for the title of most liberal, especially in the Legislature. It’s loaded with Republicans, and most of them range from fairly conservative to really conservative.

I used to report on the Legislature for the newspaper. I did it for 40 years. I like to think I still understand the site somewhat, even though it’s been a while. Only a handful of the 105 members of the House and Senate are Democrats. It’s barely enough for a decent political debate. If Republicans want to argue, it looks like they have to fight each other. They start calling themselves RINOs (or Republicans in Name Only).

When I hear that expression, I sometimes wonder if former Governor George Mickelson would be considered a RINO these days. I wonder if former Governor Bill Janklow would be too. I doubt Bill would mind. I’m just wondering.

When you think about it, former President Richard Nixon would probably be labeled a RINO. He is the man who created the Environmental Protection Agency and who signed the Endangered Species Act.

I don’t think I’d like to cover the Legislature these days. From the outside, it appears that many of the members are mean-spirited and unwilling to listen to opposing viewpoints. I could be wrong, I suppose, but it seems that way.

There’s always been that element, but I think it was less prevalent in my early years of covering sessions. Maybe he was just a naive farm boy with a notebook and pen who didn’t recognize what he was seeing. All I know is that it seemed less toxic, kinder, even neighborly.

Of course, my early years of coverage coincided with a rare period of nearly equal strength between Republicans and Democrats. I arrived in Pierre in the fall of 1969.

Republicans had super majorities in both houses then, just like today. Things changed after Democrat Dick Kneip won the governor’s race in 1970. I was young, as I said, not yet 27 years old. He knew little of the history and politics of the Legislature. But it never occurred to me that when I turned 78, as I did in January, Kneip would still be the last Democratic governor elected in South Dakota.

He faced a two-thirds Republican legislature during his first term, but after the 1972 election, Democrats held an even split in the House (35 members each) and an 18-17 advantage in the Senate. The legislature was fairly even for four years.

Finally, the Republicans roared back. They did so, in part, by attacking the “tax-and-spend” liberal Democrats, most of whom had supported Kneip’s proposals for personal and corporate income tax legislation. In fact, for years and years after Democrats stopped talking about income taxes, Republicans still beat them over the head and shoulders as liberal tax-lovers.

Fair enough I guess, although continuing to use “liberal” for the few Democrats left in public office seems like a stretch. I don’t know Jamie Smith, but the most liberal Democrat in South Dakota tends to be pretty conservative. I saw him at the Lower Brule powwow a week ago. I didn’t meet him, but I saw him at the grand entrance. I couldn’t tell if he was liberal or conservative.

I’ve seen ads in the past calling Democrats, even in South Dakota, radicals and leftists. When the two parties were about even, yes, there were some pretty liberal Democrats, maybe even a low-grade radical or two. A good number of Republicans back then were also quite liberal. But that was a long time ago.

If people don’t want to vote for Democrats, that’s fine. It seems unnecessary to scare people about “liberals”. There aren’t that many here in South Dakota, and I’ve never known one to bite.

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