As the 2013 Rapid City mayoral campaign enters its final days, the choice has become clearer for voters between the two candidates: stay the course with energetic but sometimes combative incumbent Sam Kooiker; or go with challenger Mark Kirkeby, a seasoned state and local politician not known for making bold moves as a lawmaker.
As they head to the polls on Tuesday (or through early ballots), city voters will decide whether Kooiker has done well enough to deserve a second term. Or they may choose state Sen. Kirkeby, who served in the past on the county commission. Both are vying for a two-year term as a strong mayor in a job that pays $93,000 a year.
Through several debates, public appearances and in advertisements, Kooiker and Kirkeby have tried to draw distinctions from their opponent on city business, leadership styles and several issues that have arisen during the campaign. Here is a brief look at their takes on some of those issues that arose in debates or interviews:
On economic development
Supporting economic development is like being for kittens or rainbows: everyone favors it. So how do you judge two candidates who both say they want economic development?
If openly promoting growth is a measure, then Kooiker comes out on top. He talks relentlessly about attracting jobs to Rapid City and fixing the city’s scourge of underemployment in which people are working but for low pay and poor benefits.
And he is optimistic. Kooiker points to the unusually robust 333 housing permits issued in the first quarter this year. He cites the lists of local job openings on various websites. He celebrates the industrial permits for new manufacturing sites in the city. He plays up Rapid City’s location near energy deposits in neighboring states, where it could potentially land more energy-related business.
The mayor talks often about selling Rapid City to outside investors and finding new ways to create jobs. Kooiker traveled to Canada earlier this year to a petroleum conference to drum up interest in Rapid City. And the mayor touts his hand in consolidating numerous city boards to make planning and business issues easier to understand and manage.
How would Kirkeby set the economy afire? He’d like to see a local model of the economic development funds that the state legislature passed this year.
And he mocks Kooiker’s travel to economic development conferences like the one in Canada, which was paid for by the Rapid City Economic Development Partnership.
“What would a mayor be doing behind a trade show booth?" Kirkeby told the Journal earlier this year. In an earlier debate, Kirkeby said he would have to check his schedule to determine if he would attend trade conferences.
But the fact remains that despite gaining workers and population over the past five years, the Rapid City metropolitan area boasted fewer jobs this April than it did in April of 2008 before the recession, according to state data.
On infrastructure needs
Last summer, the city civic center board of directors announced a proposal to spend a more than $100 million to build a new arena with 15,000 to 20,000 seats. Among the reasons cited was the need to make the Barnett Arena compliant with federal law but also to draw bigger acts and a regional audience.
A more recent report estimated it would cost up to $37.9 million to bring the Barnett Arena into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Either option is a big expenditure of sales tax dollars.
Kirkeby has called the replacement arena too expensive and called for limited improvements. Calling the proposal the "$150 million question," Kirkeby has alleged that Kooiker spent months working on the project without the involvement of the full council, a characterization the mayor disputes.
At a mid-May debate, Kooiker did not fully endorse building a new arena. But he said he does support bringing the building into compliance for accessibility for disabled people and making improvements as finances allow.
“At a minimum, something needs to be done regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act violations and the lack of parking,” Kooiker told the Journal in an email. “Right now all the options are on the table.”
But Rapid City could be spending more money and attention elsewhere, too, according to a citizen survey released in May 2011.
In the survey report of 1,200 local residents, 39 percent of respondents gave street conditions the lowest possible grade. Another 38 percent said the city did only a “fair” job keeping its 350 miles of streets in decent condition.
Kooiker says he wants to focus more on repairing the “streets where quiet people live.”
Kooiker has said that if people don't ask to have their streets repaired, “the chances of getting the street repair on a list was small.”
“We are shifting away from a ‘squeaky wheel’ method of street repairs and shifting to a process where the needs are assessed and programmed without the entire neighborhood having to show up to complain about neglect of a street,” Kooiker said in an email.
On Council Member Bill Clayton
In Rapid City, talking about race usually leads to the long-simmering tensions between whites and Native Americans. But Councilman Clayton’s racially insensitive remarks to a Jamaican-American TV reporter last August have refocused the mayoral debate in a new way. Petitioners on Friday handed in about 7,000 signatures to kick off a potential recall of Clayton.
Kooiker took heat in one of the last debates on Thursday night for not taking a stronger stance against Clayton and his remarks.
“I don’t control the words people say. I don’t control the emails they send. I don’t control the books they write,” Kooiker said when challenged in a question by former state legislator Tom Katus. “I control my own heart, my own tongue.”
Kirkeby, however, says Kooiker should have taken a more active role in disciplining Clayton.
“You demand some accountability, some action, some responsibility,” Kirkeby told the Journal. Kirkeby added he “certainly would never offer any means of protection or sheltering, which there is no question Sam Kooiker is doing for Clayton.”
Kooiker denies that. Both he and Kirkeby say they signed the petition for the recall election.
On leadership style
In debates, Kooiker has a stronger command of his ideas and talking points than Kirkeby. Anyone listening on the campaign has heard his justification of his veto of a property tax increase that would have brought about $400,00 to city coffers: “It wasn’t left on the table; it was left in your pockets.” And Kooiker provides more detail about what he’s done, and more about what he wants to do.
Kirkeby, on the other hand, can come off as disjointed at times, and has occasionally lost his train of thought in debates. His position on issues is sometimes muddled.
Take, for instance, Kirkeby's statements on the $400,000 in annual property tax increase that the council usually approves. In one debate he proposed that Rapid City could have used that money to hire the additional police officers. In another debate, he suggested putting that money into affordable housing. In yet another debate, Kirkeby agreed with Kooiker’s veto of last year’s increase.
Where Kirkeby draws a distinction from Kooiker is when he points to the mayor creating a “culture of intimidation” by bullying people in government.
“I’m honorable, respectable,” Kirkeby said. “I have that history of uniting people and supporting them.”
Kooiker, indeed, has ruffled feathers throughout his political career.
In 2005, the city council privately reprimanded then-councilman Kooiker for badgering the finance officer at the time, Jim Preston, and accusing Preston of lying. In 2010, the City Council censured Kooiker, declaring his conduct unbefitting an elected official in his dealings with Rapid Transit manager Rich Sagen. Former human resources manager Tammie Krumm filed a complaint against Kooiker over the way he managed certain affairs in 2011. In 2012, former landfill worker Randall Meidinger filed a civil suit against Kooiker, the city and others, for their unsuccessful push for criminal prosecution of Fish Garbage Service.
“I have had a few grievances filed against me over the years,” Kooiker said in an email over the weekend when asked about Krumm's complaint. “They were frivolous.”
On affordable housing
In a recent survey by the city Community Development Division, 6,430 households — or one-third of the city's households — pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing. More than 10 percent of households pay more than 50 percent for housing.
Both candidates acknowledged in a debate last week that affordable housing is becoming a more serious problem for working-class residents.
“I think we have a responsibility to work with the public and private sector to enable the creation of more housing,” Kooiker said. “And we also have a responsibility whenever possible to keep property taxes low.”
Kirkeby said the city could have used the city property tax increase Kooiker vetoed to invest in affordable housing.
But one nonprofit representative has said Kirkeby has some troubles in his record on helping low-income people.
Cathy Brechtelsbauer, a state coordinator with Bread for the World, told the Journal earlier this year she didn’t understand Kirkeby’s attempt to pass a bill requiring recipients of Medicaid and food stamps to be drug tested.
"They're sad bills," she said. "To single out one group that uses drugs no more than the general public, it demeans the programs and the people who use them."
On open government
South Dakota ranks somewhere between near the bottom and dead last on open access to government. Kooiker is a rare example of a politician who is very vocal about opening up government to citizens, and he never misses a chance to jab Kirkeby on the senator’s recent legislative votes to keep government actions secret.
Kooiker pushed this year for Senate Bill 167, which would require meeting minutes to be kept in executive sessions, the times when councils and boards can discuss personnel or contract issues outside the public purview. Kirkeby voted against such a bill, saying it was too broad by applying to every level of government like rural water boards.
For his part, Kirkeby says Kooiker’s move to shutter or consolidate government boards, which are often staffed at least in part by citizens, is anti-open government.
Each candidate takes a different approach to what open government issues they’d tackle in office.
Kirkeby has called for more openness regarding the security changes at the Rapid City Library. Kooiker would like Rapid City to draw up a Home Rule Charter, which allow the city to make more decisions without going through the state legislature.
“That would include keeping minutes in closed sessions, and the ability to bring pre-defined issues to a public vote like Sioux Falls does,” Kooiker said in an email. “That would include the ability to vote on term lengths, term limits, etc. That would improve public access and transparency.”
On the campaign trail
The campaign has heated up in recent days. Kooiker has ramped up an under-the-radar negative Facebook advertising campaign with headlines like “Kirkeby Burns Firefighters” and “Kirkeby attacks Teachers.” It’s a model similar to the advertising tactics he made in his 2011 mayoral campaign.
Kooiker also has more money at his disposal. As of last Tuesday’s campaign finance filing deadline, Kooiker raised $59,534 so far, according to his disclosure records. Some of it has come on the strength of developers like Pat Hall and the South Dakota Realtors Political Action Committee. Kooiker spent about $23,000 on advertising.
Kirkeby raised less than half that during the same time period, records show. As of the deadline, Kirkeby has raised $24,009. More than a quarter of that money came from political action committees and contributions from other lawmakers, plus one transfer of $2,250 from his senate campaign account. Kirkeby spent about $12,700 in advertising.
Hedging its bets, the Black Hills Homebuilders PAC donated $500 to each campaign, according to city records.
The increasingly negative tone of the campaign has turned off some voters.
“I don’t really like anything negative,” said Lasey Sheurger as she left Thursday night’s mayoral debate.
The 72-year-old retiree said the negative campaigning was the reason she hadn’t yet decided for whom to vote. “I really wish that candidates could just stick to the facts.”