VERMILLION – He grew up near Dell Rapids, but former governor Dennis Daugaard said he learned so much more about South Dakota during his time in public office.
Daugaard appeared Wednesday for the annual Gunderson Lecture at the University of South Dakota Law School. Instead of a lecture, Daugaard sat down for a conversation with USD Law School Dean Neil Fulton while students and others listened in the audience.
For Daugaard, the visit marked a homecoming as he received his undergraduate degree from USD. He earned his law degree from Northwestern University in Chicago before returning to South Dakota for his career.
Daugaard served as a state legislator before Republican Mike Rounds asked him to run as his lieutenant governor in 2002. The GOP ticket won two four-year terms. The team couldn’t run again because of term limits, and Daugaard went on to win his own two terms as governor from 2010-2018 with running mate Matt Michels of Yankton.
“In South Dakota, we run as a team. In some states, the governor and lieutenant governor come from different (political) parties,” Daugaard said. “In those situations, the governor could always see his lieutenant government as a potential rival, and they don’t communicate.”
In contrast, Rounds treated Daugaard as a partner ready to step into the top spot in an emergency. As lieutenant governor, he was included in Rounds’ meetings and discussions, and the GOP duo communicated often.
“It made me feel like I knew more than I otherwise would have known,” Daugaard said.
During Wednesday’s discussion, Daugaard credited the USD faculty’s support in giving him the best possible college education.
The professors also served as mentors and friends, even hiring Daugaard for work around their homes if he needed additional money.
“They were very concerned and interested in each student’s life,” he said.
After earning his law degree, Daugaard worked for a bank’s trust department. He later worked for non-profits, including the Children’s Home Society.
Daugaard didn’t aggressively pursue a political career after he returned to South Dakota. Instead, the opportunity literally came to him.
“The chairman of the Minnehaha County Republicans called me, because our farm (near Dell Rapids) was on the fringe of the county, and said they were looking for candidates. Would I run for the Legislature?”
Daugaard didn’t immediately jump at the offer. He discussed the possibility with his wife, Linda, and the Children’s Home Society. They both gave their blessing, and he threw his hat in the ring two years later and won.
“I was a green new legislator, and I met a guy named Mike Rounds,” Daugaard said, referring t the Pierre lawmaker. “You get to know someone pretty well when you’re in the same chamber, the same caucus, on the floor together and even at functions at night.”
Rounds made a run for governor in 2002, winning the GOP nomination as the third candidate in what had become a bitter GOP primary between two front-runners.
“Mike asked me to be his running mate. It was a complete surprise but a welcome one,” Daugaard said. “I was tagging along (on the ticket) and got elected as lieutenant governor.”
MAKING HIS OWN RUN
At first, Daugaard didn’t think too much about his own future run for the state’s top office. However, he began to field more questions on the subject. Eventually, he was forced to consider the possibility as he began his second and final term as lieutenant governor.
“I wasn’t independently wealthy, so for three years I started raising (campaign) money,” he said.
In addition, the family built up enough personal savings for living expenses when Daugaard quit his job with Children’s Home Society in 2009 and devoted a year to running for governor in the 2010 race.
“You’re all in (the campaign mode),” he said. “We won, and I ended up being governor.”
In response to Fulton’s question, Daugaard said he enjoyed campaigning despite the grueling schedule. He described traveling the state with his son, Chris, as they hit the trail with the goal of visiting every county.
Daugaard said he took the goal seriously, saying some politicians make the same pledge but treat it in a “shallow” way.
“They’ll take a picture of themselves in front of a town’s sign,” he said. “For me, that’s not the way to go about it.”
Daugaard visited the smaller communities as well as the state’s largest cities. He sought the help of a local resident in scheduling speaking dates with organizations, holding media interviews, touring businesses and hosting events.
“Many places, we held a free soup supper,” he said. “But in one town, the football team was in the playoffs and was at the DakotaDome or some other place on the road. There was no one at our soup supper except for me, Chris and the host.”
Daugaard laughed at the scheduling misfortune, noting the campaign rebounded with a large turnout at soup supper in another community.
He admitted built-in name recognition as the lieutenant governor, but he didn’t rest on his laurels.
“We got around the state and met people,” he said.
A NEW CHAPTER
Fulton asked him about his emotions at two historic moments: Election Night and waking up after his inauguration and realizing he was governor.
“It was like ‘Wow!’ I was feeling a sense of elation on election night,” Daugaard said.
However, he was literally caught with his pants down. When he dressed for his victory celebration in Sioux Falls, he found the pants had fallen off the hanger holding his suit.
“Chris had to run home quick (to Dell Rapids) and get my pants,” he joked, thankful their home was only about 20 miles away.
Once he took the stage on Election Night, Daugaard was overwhelmed with the number of supporters who greeted him.
“Many people from out of state, who had lived here and moved away, came to surprise me on Election Night,” he said.
When forming his cabinet, Daugaard said about one-third to one-half of Rounds’ staff remained for his incoming administration. Daugaard was also blessed with staff members who stayed much longer than was normal for their positions.
As for waking up as governor, Daugaard had little to no time for a honeymoon. The Great Recession hit in 2008 and 2009, and the state’s tax revenues fell in 2009 and 2010 as he took office.
“Most of our spending was on things like Medicaid and education,” he said. “Our first day in office, we knew the job was sobering. But in the end, it all worked out.”
During Wednesday’s forum, Fulton asked Daugaard how he approached his political agenda which included a number of “heavy lifts” ranging from infrastructure to education and criminal justice reforms.
“How did you push a big legislative package?” Fulton asked him.
Daugaard learned a great deal about developing an approach that would not only gain legislative approval but also win support from the state’s residents.
The job wasn’t easy even with strong GOP majorities in each house of the Legislature, Daugaard said. He admitted he initially may have come across as one-way and a bit heavy handed.
“I took the approach that, I identified a problem and crafted a solution,” he said. “Now it was, ‘Hey, Legislature! Here’s the solution, now get on board!’”
While he could win victories with some arm twisting, Daugaard noted the approach upset a number of people, including constituents.
“You wound up with people so upset, they referred it (to the ballot) or amended it down the road,” he said.
In response, Daugaard switched to a more methodical approach that built teamwork. On the issue of criminal justice reform, he assembled stakeholders that included judges, attorneys, police, legislators and members of the general public.
The work group looked at South Dakota’s high incarceration rate, particularly for non-violent crimes. In turn, the Rushmore State was spending more on prisons than similar states.
“We were taking people and just locking them up,” he said, noting the approach often did little or nothing to help inmates deal with substance abuse issues upon their release from prison.
The work groups formed a foundation based on facts, historical data and analysis.
“If you have all the facts on the table, you can come to a common understanding of what (the issue) is,” he said. “You can craft policy solutions that you can send to the Legislature. It’s important to have legislators as part of the group. It helps you win more fundamental support.”
A DIVIDED PEOPLE
When it comes to today’s politics, Fulton asked about the tribal impulses where different sides don’t hold the same shared set of facts.
In that respect, Daugaard noted South Dakota leans heavily Republican with the GOP and independents gaining in voter registration while the Democrats have seen a decline in their numbers.
“It helps when the Legislature and the governor are of the same party,” he said. “You can argue honest disagreements and it’s not posturing (as a member of the opposition).”
However, social media has greatly changed the landscape over the past 20 years, which has added to the divisiveness, he said.
In that regard, does he use social media in his own life?
During the 2011 Missouri River flooding, Twitter allowed state officials to provide instant updates on constantly changing conditions, Daugaard said. But now as a private citizen, he uses neither Twitter nor Facebook.
Fulton noted that appointing judges remains one of the most important functions of a governor, asking how Daugaard approached the task.
In response, Daugaard said the responsibility became of one the longest lasting aspects of his administration.
Daugaard came into office when a number of sitting judges reached he mandatory retirement age of 7o. During his eight years as governor, he appointed two-thirds of the current sitting judges and three of the five South Dakota Supreme Court justices.
The standard process starts with the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) conducting the vetting process. The JQC rates applicants as “qualified” or “well qualified.”
During his administration, Daugaard conducted interviews of finalists as a team with Michels, chief counsel Jim Seward and chief of staff Tony Venhuizen. They waited until all interviews were completed before starting any discussion, comparison or rankings.
Daugaard took the lead in the interviews. In particular, he looked for emotional maturity, self-confidence, humility and strong language skills.
The finalists reacted differently in the interview setting.
“Some candidates were so nervous they cried,” he said. “Others were too certain of themselves, and you need humility.”
On another subject, Fulton asked about the former governor’s approach to building relationships with tribal leaders and with Indian Country.
Daugaard admitted he faced a learning curve as, unlike USD, he wasn’t required to take an Indian Law course in preparing for the Illinois bar exam. When he returned to South Dakota, he didn’t understand the legal complexities of trust land, jurisdictional issues or tax and gaming compacts.
Daugaard studied such issues while preparing for the South Dakota bar exam. As governor, he credited the patience and guidance of his newly-created secretary of tribal relations, J.R. LaPlante.
“I wasn’t stupid, but I was ignorant,” Daugaard said, noting he not only learned a great deal but built relationships.
One factor created difficulty in maintaining state-tribal relations, he said.
“The chief challenge in Indian Country is the turnover (in leadership). There’s too much turnover,” he said. “There’s not enough longevity n their (tribal) executive and legislative branches.”
After conducting a fun “rapid fire” round of questions about Daugaard’s personal likes, Fulton asked the former governor how he maintained a sense of humor in the rough-and-tumble world of politics.
Daugaard said he tried to maintain a positive outlook and good nature despite the intense moments that accompanied leadership. In that regard, he said he was blessed to be surrounded with great staff members.
“They were good-hearted and intelligent. They were hard working, and they liked to laugh,” he said. “Life is too short not to enjoy it. If you’re serious all the time, it’s not fun to work in that environment.”
Daugaard said he sought to support his staff members and to provide them with praise whenever possible. In turn, the staff showed appreciation.
When asked his advice for today’s students, Daugaard recommended they commit themselves to their studies. He contrasted a “degree,” which can require minimal effort, with an “education” that takes advantage of all opportunities.
“Your degree gives you the ticket in the door,” he said. “Once you get in, it’s your education that takes over.”
While a social life remains important, studying for that important test must become the priority, he said. “My advice in college: When the books call, answer,” he added.
In conclusion, Fulton asked the former governor what he wanted as the epitaph on his tombstone.
After a moment of reflection, Daugaard responded with three thoughts.
“I would want people to say, ‘He was honest, he was a good leader and he cared about people.’”
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