The South Dakota Democratic Party has several heroes whose names and faces are regularly referenced.
All served the state for years, with McGovern, Abourezk, Daschle and Johnson all serving in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Johnson also was a state legislator, with two terms in both the state House and the state Senate.
Kneip, who was a state senator from Salem, was elected governor three times, 1970, ‘72 and ‘74.
But their days have passed. Kneip, who was defeated in a 1986 primary when he tried to return to the governor’s office, died in 1987. He was just 54.
McGovern, a World War II aviator and one-time professor who served two terms in the U.S. House and three in the Senate, ran for president in 1968, ‘72 and ‘92. He was the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972, losing in a landslide to Richard Nixon.
McGovern, who died at 90 in 2012, remains the most revered figure in the state party. Its chief fundraising event is named for him, and he is evoked by older Democrats on a regular basis.
Abourezk, who is retired and lives in Sioux Falls, served one term in both the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate before leaving politics. At 90, he spends time at his wife’s restaurant, where he holds court.
Daschle, who campaigned for McGovern and was an aide to Abourezk, served four terms in the U.S. House and three in the U.S. Senate, where he rose to the post of Senate Democratic leader and twice served as Senate majority leader, the highest job ever for a South Dakota resident.
Daschle was defeated in a bid for a fourth term in 2004 but has remained a vital presence in Washington, D.C., where he offers advice to both clients and politicians. He was close to President Barack Obama, who nominated him to serve as secretary of Health and Human Services before tax woes forced Daschle to step aside.
Daschle, 73, is the founder and CEO of The Daschle Group, a public policy advisory of Baker Donelson.
Johnson, after eight years in the Legislature, was elected to Congress in 1986, filling the seat vacated by Daschle when he moved to the Senate. Johnson, 74, served five terms in the House before moving to the Senate in 1996, and he retired in 2015 after three terms there.
His health was impaired by a 2006 brain bleed, causing him to depart from public life in 2015. He and his wife Barb live in Sioux Falls and devote much of their energies to their family, although the retired senator still supports the South Dakota Democratic Party.
There are others who had worthy careers, including Frank Denholm, a former Day County sheriff and FBI agent who served two terms in Congress. He practiced law in Brookings for nearly four decades before he died in 2016 at 92.
Stephanie Herseth Sandlin was the up-and-coming star in the party two decades ago. The granddaughter of a governor and a secretary of state, and the daughter of a longtime legislator, Stephanie Herseth burst on the scene in 2002, running a competitive race against Gov. Bill Janklow for Congress.
She lost that race, but when Janklow was forced to resign in the wake of a fatal crash, Herseth won the job in a special election. She served three full terms before losing to state Rep. Kristi Noem in 2010.
Herseth Sandlin — she married former Texas Rep. Max Sandlin while she was in Congress — has worked as a college professor, a corporate lawyer and now as president of Augustana University.
Just 50, she is still seen as a potent political force in the state, but Herseth Sandlin has said that chapter of her life is over. Still, Democrats hope she reconsiders.
So who are the future leaders of the party? I caught a glimpse of some of them at the party’s McGovern Day fundraiser and celebration on June 25.
Berk Ehrmantraut, a 24-year-old Aberdeen native, introduced himself to party members at the annual fundraiser. He had been the senior digital communications manager for the Friends of the Global Fight Against AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, based in Washington, D.C.
Ehrmantraut worked for former state Sen. Billie Sutton’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign and Sutton, in a video message, offered high praise for his former staffer, whom he said had great skills and a strong work ethic.
“So excited to welcome Berk back to South Dakota,” he said.
It’s a big job for a young man. But the state party is rebounding, according to Chairman Randy Seiler, who said an infusion of cash from the Democratic National Committee has helped keep offices open in both Sioux Falls and Rapid City and hire Ehrmantraut and two other staffers.
The new executive director said he liked a Rapid City Journal story that said the party was poised for a comeback.
“I want to make that a reality with each of you,” he said as he spoke to wrap up the event.
Thomas Elness was given the Richard F. Kneip Youth Award.
Elness, the associate director of enrollment marketing at Augustana University, was nominated for the honor by state Sen. Reynold Nesiba of Sioux Falls.
Elness is a Windom, Minn., native and Augie graduate. He has worked on campaigns for Nesiba — an Augustana economics professor who also taught classes he took — and other Democratic candidates and displayed a talent for the game. He was surprised by the award, but still delivered a brief speech pledging to help the party grow.
The party handed out several awards and listened to speeches, including a funny, sharp and powerful keynote address from Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan. She is just 41, and another rising leader for Midwest Democrats.
Several Native American party members were at McGovern Day, including former legislator Kevin Killer, now president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe; Remi Beautiful Bald Eagle, intergovernmental affairs coordinator for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and a 2020 Public Utilities Commission candidate; Cante Heart, the party’s Native American outreach director and West River field director; and Carl Petersen, just 23, the chairman of the Dewey County Democratic Party and District 28 Democrats.
There were several other young people at the event, blending in with the familiar faces who have worked for and supported the party for decades.
The South Dakota Democratic Party needs to find more young, energetic, committed people to run for office, win elections and help steer state policy. They have icons to admire, but the party needs fresh faces if it plans to compete and win in South Dakota.
Fourth-generation South Dakota native Tom Lawrence has been writing about the state since 1978. Reach him at [email protected], and read his blog at sdprairie.blogspot.com.