Emily Duke Hargan
Exclusive: Interview and Profile of South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem
“Take it Home and Make Your Corners Wide”
Over the last few months, many governors have suffered huge blows to their reputations. By contrast, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem seems to be faring quite well. She was one of a handful of governors who did not enact a mandatory stay-at-home order, but kept businesses open and relied on South Dakotans personal responsibilities. And a few weeks ago, she took to social media to promote her response to the coronavirus pandemic. In the video, she discusses the lessons she learned over the last 3 months. The key takeaway—more freedom, not more government—is the answer.
The media has been relentless in their attacks on Noem’s handling of the coronavirus, and she has been quick to point out that “one size doesn’t fit all”. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow lambasted Noem, as have others including the Washington Post and the Daily Kos. But Noem has punched back, "South Dakota is not New York City."
She has remained consistent throughout the pandemic—maintaining that she would not dictate to the people of South Dakota what they could and could not do. She would lead and help them in their decision-making, but ultimately it was up to them to make the best decisions for themselves, their businesses and their families. In one of her coronavirus news briefings, Noem said, “the people of South Dakota are the source of the power and legitimacy of our government—not the media, not politicians and not political parties. That’s a healthy perspective for any elected official to keep in mind.”
So, how did Kristi Noem develop into this independent-minded and self-assured leader? She owes it all to her upbringing. Raised on the ranch she continues to live on and run, her parents taught her and her siblings to face life’s challenges head on.
“My parents would say to us, ‘You don’t complain about things. You fix them’,” she told me a few weeks ago when we spoke over the phone, “my parents gave us huge challenges.” She recalled, “my dad taught me how to drive a semi when I was 12 years old. He just jumped out of the door, said take it home and make your corners wide.” That is, it is your responsibility, but be safe. Not a bad lesson for a governor steering her state through a pandemic.
And, there were plenty of other challenges. Forced to drop out of college when her father passed away, she got married at age 22 and built a successful ranching business. She decided to run for the state legislature at a time when there needed to be more younger people with a business perspective contributing to policy, but she found that breaking into
South Dakota politics proved difficult.
“There needed to be a different perspective,” she explained, “but I wasn’t in the good old boys club.” Yet she prevailed, and served for four years in the state house. There she focused on agriculture and property rights and served as assistant majority leader. However, she was still widely unknown outside Republican circles.
“I just look different and am different than probably any other politician. People always looked at me and assumed that I wasn’t smart, or well-spoken, or strong and didn’t necessarily take the time to get to know me and know what kind of person I am,” she reflects.
Yet in 2010, she ran as the Republican candidate for South Dakota’s At-Large Congressional seat and unseated the Democrat incumbent. Noem then went on to serve three terms in Congress and held key committee positions, including on the House Ways and Means Committee, where she was instrumental in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed in 2017.
But after spending 8 years in Congress, Noem was ready to head back to South Dakota. She said to me, “I could vote for bills and serve on committees but as a governor I could drive an agenda. I would be able to have a real impact on the lives of the people in South Dakota.” She was elected South Dakota’s first female governor in 2018.
To be sure, the last few months have been hard for Governor Noem. She admits that the position of governor is a lonely one. No one wants to be the one to make those tough decisions. She recounts the days at the beginning of the pandemic when all her advisors would gather and present their reports and recommendations and then how the room would go silent waiting for her to make her decision.
“I must have thought a thousand times about the state constitution and the U.S. Constitution,” she went on, “I took an oath to uphold it. That was always paramount.” And ultimately, Noem would be guided by these principles as she made those tough decisions but she also wanted the people of South Dakota to know that she trusted them.
“For me, I could overstep my authority or I could trust them. I could give them the facts and make them teammates,” she explained.
Throughout the pandemic, Noem has worked to be transparent with the people of South Dakota. She has given them the bad news up front. She’s told them that people will get sick, people will need to be hospitalized, and that people may lose loved ones to the virus. She encouraged them to find ways to be innovative so they could keep their businesses open and take care of their families.
Noem says she remained focused on “doing good rather than doing things that feel good,”and because of her leadership during this crisis, South Dakota was prepared for the coronavirus pandemic. Their hospitals have never been overburdened, their healthcare system has held up, and South Dakota has experienced less job loss compared to most states. They also continue to have one of the lowest regulatory and state tax regimes in the country, making it pretty darn attractive to businesses who might want to move out of their current more restrictive environments.
As I watched the spectacular fireworks show at Mt. Rushmore on July 3rd, it was clear that South Dakota had a story to tell. And it is no doubt a good sign for her future that Noem hosted the President for what has been called the best speech he has ever made. According to Governor Noem, the state of South Dakota is an example to the nation of what is possible.
“In the end,” she said, “maybe these challenges and how we faced them and the results we’ve gotten can be that example to the rest of the states about how important it is to hang onto the values that built America into the greatest country in the world.”
Watch Governor Noem's Lessons Learned from COVID-19 video
Read interview here on Bourbon and Politics.