South Dakota's youngest senator leads fight against gay marriage bill

2014-02-02T09:00:00Z South Dakota's youngest senator leads fight against gay marriage billDaniel Simmons-Ritchie Journal staff Rapid City Journal
February 02, 2014 9:00 am  • 

In a Legislature that skews decidedly male, older and conservative, Angie Buhl O'Donnell brings a fresh perspective.

At age 29, the female Democrat from Sioux Falls is the youngest member of the Senate and describes herself as a "pragmatic progressive."

In a Legislature where some older lawmakers admit they don't spend much time on computers, Buhl O'Donnell used her generational advantage — and understanding of social media — to effectively rally opposition to a recent bill that rubbed her and some others in a very unconstitutional way.

That measure was Senate Bill 67, which would have exempted from lawsuits any clergy member or business operator who refused to participate or provide services to people arranging a gay marriage ceremony.

Shortly after learning of the measure, Buhl O'Donnell began an online petition against the bill. Last Wednesday, only a few days after initiating the petition, Buhl O'Donnell had collected 4,046 signatures.

At the same time, as part of a concerted social media campaign by the Democratic Party, bill supporters were hit by a slew of emails from South Dakotans who viewed the bill as discriminatory. 

The bill was withdrawn by its sponsor before Buhl O'Donnell could formally submit her petition. She believes the social media effort was a deciding factor in its withdrawal.

"I didn't really know what to expect for a number," she said by phone Friday from Pierre, referring to the number of petition signers. "But that was definitely more than I expected."

Buhl O'Donnell's fight isn't over. A new bill was proposed Thursday that is similar to the withdrawn measure, with some additional stipulations.

Buhl O'Donnell sees that bill as just as discriminatory, if not more so. And she hopes her petition and her continued advocacy on the issue will lead to its defeat.

Ultimately, the state's youngest senator said her philosophy is simple: She wants to give a voice to groups who are largely drowned out by the din of politics as usual in Pierre.

"I like to see myself out there, most of all, for those folks who don't have a paid lobbyist working for them," she said.

Humble beginnings

Buhl O'Donnell was born in Aberdeen in 1985 but grew up in Yankton in southeastern South Dakota. In 2007, she graduated from the University of South Dakota with a Bachelor of Science in psychology and a minor in music.

Buhl O'Donnell became interested in politics during high school and became a consultant for nonprofit groups like Equality South Dakota, which fight for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

In 2010, she decided to enter politics herself.

"I have always believed that the work that happens here is important," she said. "It's a chance to take big ideas and move them forward."

Buhl O'Donnell ran against incumbent state Sen. Kathy Miles in the Democratic primary. She won 398 votes to 276.

At age 25, she became, as far as she is aware, the youngest woman to be elected to the state senate. Although the Journal couldn't independently verify this claim, she is the youngest current member of the senate.

Buhl O'Donnell said a key to her leadership style has been the use of social media, like Facebook, to connect her with constituents and rally around causes like fighting Senate Bill 67.

"I think social media is particularly important in a state like South Dakota when our state capital is geographically so far removed from our population centers," she said.

It's a strategy that seems to have worked. In 2012, Buhl O'Donnell faced Miles again. This time Miles ran as an independent in the general election.

Buhl O'Donnell won 2,973 votes to 2,455. She now serves as the Democratic Party's minority whip.

This session

In addition to fighting against bills she sees as discriminatory, O'Donnell said she has a number of priorities in this year's legislative session.

Her biggest is advocating for the expansion of Medicaid, a key element of President Obama's 2010 health care overhaul. States have the option of accepting millions in federal funding to expand their Medicaid rolls to other low-income people. So far, 26 states have chosen to expand.

Gov. Dennis Daugaard has ruled out expansion this year, though he said recently he may try to offer benefits to the most needy of those not now on Medicaid. But that doesn't mean the Legislature can't take action itself.

Buhl O'Donnell said there are few reasons not to expand Medicaid, since she said it would improve the quality of life for 48,000 poor South Dakotans.

In addition, she said she believed it would limit the growth of insurance premiums for the rest of the state's population. The 48,000 who would be covered by the expansion are the same group that can rarely pay their medical bills. As a result, clinics and hospitals shift those costs to patients with insurance, she said.

"I think the most compelling reason for the expansion is that it's such a better use of taxpayer dollars," she said. "Realistically, those 48,000 people don't just go away."

Buhl O'Donnell is also advocating for increased public school funding. The state slashed its school budget by nearly 10 percent in 2011 and, while there have been increases, the funding hasn't been restored to prior levels.

"I think our schools have really been operating on a skeleton budget for a while, even before 2011," she said. "We have been asking them to do more with less every year."

Copyright 2015 Rapid City Journal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(20) Comments

  1. ChristiansHaveRights2
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    ChristiansHaveRights2 - February 18, 2015 8:06 am
    People need to give their thanks to those willing to stand tall when others are willing to bend over! Our Country needs more Bills that protect family values! What a distrust of our system if it would allow a boy to claim he was a girl then break all the current girls sports records and we are supposed to accept them for the choice they made? What a crock!!! It was wrong for law makers to recognize the gay way as a minority! African Americans, Asians, Hispanics and Natives all have a heritage, a culture, a cuisine, what do gays bring? Some argue that this is a religious issue but it is really a family issue. In all our scientific advances we’re obtuse to think people are born gay. Science has not found a gay gene. Further proof of this is within the gay community: If only .0001% of the population are “born gay” how is it that children raised with same sex parents are 50% likely to choose that lifestyle? Which brings it back to being a family issue and our reason against gay marriage which will increase adoptions to gay couples. What are these children being expose to that they make this life choice, Dr. Dobson, Dr. Spock or Kinsley? And it is a choice! A person can choose to come out and claim they are gay then transgress to Bi or Transgender and once there they can choose to go straight. Can a Zebra choose to be a Mustang? We need to thank everyone willing to stand tall.
  2. ZAR
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    ZAR - February 09, 2014 11:49 am
    Finally a candidate who wants to represent all of her constituents! And doesn't bow down to special interest groups She will have my vote.
  3. Ironshield34
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    Ironshield34 - February 08, 2014 7:11 pm
    Awesome senator lets hope more will follow!!!
  4. PizzaDriver
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    PizzaDriver - February 07, 2014 2:46 pm
    you go, girl!
  5. PizzaDriver
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    PizzaDriver - February 07, 2014 2:07 pm
    actually, supremacist religions cannot exist in a country that professes to support freedom of religion. if you don't want to be gay, don't be, but you don't have any right to use your religion as an excuse to discriminate.
  6. matyowambo
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    matyowambo - February 06, 2014 10:04 am
    Good job Angie!
  7. Roger Cornelius
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    Roger Cornelius - February 04, 2014 12:10 pm
    Gays share that same opinion about you
  8. Roger Cornelius
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    Roger Cornelius - February 04, 2014 12:09 pm
    SB28 is an act of bully unto itself.

    Discrimination is against the law!
  9. Buldog
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    Buldog - February 04, 2014 8:43 am
    @rudedog--are you speaking from experience? If so, are you a "Homosexual activists" or are you a "Christian or Catholic businesses?"
  10. Rhudedog
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    Rhudedog - February 04, 2014 5:55 am
    Homosexual “rights” and the free exercise of religion cannot coexist. Homosexual activists target Christian and Catholic businesses and organizations for the sole purpose of bringing legal action against the leaders when they predictably refuse to acquiesce to their demands (Then they lie about their agenda and intentions)
  11. Blackhillsbooklady
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    Blackhillsbooklady - February 03, 2014 12:34 pm
    What a breath of fresh air! Let's hope that the South Dakota legislature joins Buhl-O'Donnell and many of its citizens in the 21st century.
  12. Buldog
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    Buldog - February 03, 2014 11:39 am
    Just how can you say "that forcing, intimidating, and coercing people" is "not indeed bullying?" Is that something they teach at your tea parties?
  13. Buldog
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    Buldog - February 03, 2014 9:10 am
    Please enlighten us and let us know just what has given you the impression that Ms. O'Donnell was in the "closet"? Jake does not look real feminine to me.
  14. Rhudedog
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    Rhudedog - February 03, 2014 7:37 am
    Why is it so hard for some to understand that forcing, intimidating, and coercing people to embrace immorality that goes against sincerely held religious beliefs is not indeed bullying?
  15. Buldog
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    Buldog - February 03, 2014 7:06 am
    Reading other comments of farwalker it is obvious he/she believes it is better to be regressive than it is to be progressive.
  16. ScreamingEagle
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    ScreamingEagle - February 03, 2014 5:29 am
    Maybe she has not thought about becoming a grandma yet. Her ideals and values may prevent it. Let's see how she does now that she is out of the closet.
  17. nlgale
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    nlgale - February 02, 2014 6:25 pm
    I fully support her on this issue.
  18. Farwalker
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    Farwalker - February 02, 2014 3:03 pm
    Progressive doesn't mean better. What was wrong 33 years ago is still wrong today.
    These people want us to think what they do is normal but it'hs abnormal and it's a biological mistake.
  19. delivered_rag60_68
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    delivered_rag60_68 - February 02, 2014 1:06 pm
    When I moved away 33 yrs. ago, I thought SD was 10 yrs. behind the progressive states, but I suspect they have regressed even further.
  20. paperboy
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    paperboy - February 02, 2014 11:48 am
    Good for her! I ain't no spring chicken myself, but some of the old fogies in the legislature need to get realistic with the times. When I moved here 33 yrs. ago, I thought SD was 10 yrs. behind the progressive states, but I suspect we have regressed even further. In the meantime I have switched from Republican to Independent/Democrat because of the Rep. selfish attitude today.

    Time to get real!
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