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The bill was withdrawn by its sponsor before Buhl O'Donnell could formally submit her petition.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 A new bill was proposed Thursday that is similar to the withdrawn measure, with some additional stipulations.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.
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.
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."