It has been more than 30 years since a Democrat sat in the seat of the governor of South Dakota.
A Democrat who fashions his campaign on the past actions of former Senator George McGovern, a Harvard man named Scott Heidepriem, hopes to open that door again.
"When McGovern decided to run for the South Dakota senate, 102 of the 105 state legislators were Republican," Heidepriem said. "McGovern started to go to all of the communities in the state, large and small, and found ways to get on the platform at Kiwanis meetings, hardware stores and other community meetings reminding the audience that honest competition has always been a hallmark of South Dakota politics and by the time he was done talking, a lot of heads were bobbing up and down."
McGovern rebuilt the Democratic Party and eventually brought the number of Democrats and Republicans in the House to a tie, according to Heidepriem.
"The relationships between the Indian Nations and the State Government have been tenuous under the Republicans. The gaming compacts have worked against the tribes in that they have been limited in the number of gaming devices they are allowed to carry in their casinos. The National Indian Gaming Regulatory Act called for the tribes and the state to sit down and negotiate the compacts in good faith. This is not being done in South Dakota and it has created an adversarial position between the tribes and the state," Heidepriem said.
One tribe, the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe in eastern South Dakota, believes it is the victim of what they consider to be discrimination. They have filed suit against the State in an effort to increase the number of gaming devices they can employ in their casino. With the state of Iowa about to open a casino a few miles from Flandreau's largest customer base, Sioux Falls, the tribe is now negotiating with the city of Sioux Falls to purchase land in the city and put it into trust so they can build a casino to compete against the Iowa casino.
Heidepriem, who has served in the house and senate as a Republican and now as a Democrat, recalled introducing legislation that would have amended the state's constitution to clearly identify trust lands and to open the way for tribes that wanted to place land into trust for the sole purpose of opening a casino to better improve their economic conditions. "Unfortunately, the bill died in the House," he said.
"Under former Governor William Janklow the Native American job position in the Capitol was a cabinet level position, but it was reduced to a liaison position. Theresa Two Bulls, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, suggested to me that it be returned to a full-cabinet position again in order to elevate the profile of that position and I agree with her," Heidepriem said.
When the current front runner for governor, Lt. Governor Dennis Daugaard said in a fundraising letter that South Dakota does not have a budget problem, Heidepriem immediately responded. "We believe there is definitely a budget crisis in South Dakota and we believe that these two distinct positions represent the fundamental question that will be decided by voters in South Dakota in November," he said.
"I think the Indian people are really sick and tired of hearing nothing but words. I believe that what they want is fewer words and more action and that is what I will bring to them when I am governor of the State of South Dakota," Heidepriem said.
He said he intended to visit every Indian reservation in the state and hold listening sessions with the tribal leaders. "I think it is time for the tribal leaders to speak and for the candidates to sit and listen to their concerns," Heidepriem said. "And by the way, I like my odds of overcoming my opponent and I will follow in the path of George McGovern so you can expect me to pop up at drugstores, supermarkets and city events across South Dakota right up until election day," Heidepriem concluded.
Trailing Daugaard in the most recent polls, Heidepriem expects that he will start closing the gap as we get closer to the Primary Elections in June. The Natives of the nine Indian reservations of the state could make the difference.
Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the publisher of Native Sun News. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1990. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985. His book Children Left Behind was awarded the Bronze Medal by Independent Book Publishers. Giago was inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2007. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)