Phil Jensen: South Dakota's most conservative lawmaker?

2014-03-16T06:00:00Z 2014-06-24T12:44:17Z Phil Jensen: South Dakota's most conservative lawmaker?Daniel Simmons-Ritchie Journal staff Rapid City Journal

It was July 10, 2003, and Phil Jensen, a life-long Kansas boy and red-blooded Republican, was set for a big move.

Jensen and his wife were relocating from Wichita to Rapid City to live closer to family. It was then, while piling up furniture, clothes, and a thousand household trinkets into the back of a U-Haul, that an idea struck him.

Using a black marker and a 6-foot chunk of poster board, he taped a sign to the truck's driver's side: "Moving to South Dakota to Vote Senator Daschle Out."

At the time, Sen. Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat and a party leader, had led filibusters against two judges nominated by President George W. Bush — a move that had grated Republicans like Jensen.

His sense of irritation was shared, apparently, by other motorists across the northern plains. Jensen said he was greeted by honks and waves for the entirety of his 700-mile journey — culminating in a particularly warm display of gratitude from a man who approached him at a Nebraska truck stop.

"He said, 'well, God bless you, God bless,'" Jensen said with a laugh.

After he arrived in Rapid City, stories of Jensen's playful stunt helped ingratiate him into local Republican circles. He made friends and built contacts. In 2008, encouraged by those connections, he ran for the state Legislature and won, serving in the House from 2009-2012.

Today, Jensen, 61, a state senator representing District 33 in Meade and Pennington counties, also works as a dealer for Saladmaster cookware. Politically, he checks many of the usual Republican boxes: He believes in a free-market economy, backs small government and supports few, if any, regulations on guns. He and his wife are evangelical Christians.

But where Jensen differs from many of his Republican colleagues in the state house, he says, is that he is a true conservative.

While he doesn't like to point fingers — "you're going to get me in trouble" — Jensen believes too many members of his party are Republicans in name only.

Conservative to the core

As his case in point, Jensen said he is appalled that only a handful of senate Republicans, like himself, are fighting the implementation of Common Core education standards. Those standards are being rolled out across the country, including in Rapid City, to create a set of testing standards for what K-12 students should know in math and reading.

Jensen opposes Common Core because he sees it as mandate that conflicts with South Dakota's autonomy. He still struggles to understand why more Republicans aren't fighting with him.

"It's unbelievable," he said. "Some are Republicans because that's the only way they can get elected in their district."

Jensen's strong views occasionally draw heat from his colleagues. This session, Jensen sponsored Senate Bill 128, which would have allowed businesses to deny service to people based on their sexual orientation and not fear a lawsuit.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocates, and even some Republicans, decried the legislation as discriminatory. Sen. Mark Kirkeby, R-Rapid City, called it “a mean, nasty, hateful, vindictive bill.” It was killed in committee.

But Jensen remains a supporter of SB 128. He calls it a bill that would have ensured the freedom of businesses to choose their clientele.

"It's a bill that protects the constitutional right to free association, the right to free speech and private property rights," he said.

Jensen goes so far as to say that businesses should have the right to deny service based on a customer's race or religion – whether that's right or wrong, he says, can be fairly addressed by the free market, not the government.

"If someone was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and they were running a little bakery for instance, the majority of us would find it detestable that they refuse to serve blacks, and guess what? In a matter of weeks or so that business would shut down because no one is going to patronize them," he said.

David Patton, president of the Black Hills Center for Equality, calls Jensen's argument deeply flawed.

He said that the bakery used in Jensen's example would have flourished a century ago, before the passage of civil rights legislation that helped protect African-Americans and other minority groups from discrimination.

"The free market didn't do away with slavery," Patton said.

Courage of his convictions

A glance at Jensen's Senate web page shows he was prime sponsor on a litany of bills rooted in deeply conservative ideals.

One bill would protect South Dakota's sovereignty when it comes to federal gun laws; another would have ensured "parents may direct the rearing of their children without undue governmental infringement"; another would have petitioned Congress to audit the Federal Reserve System; and still another would urge the federal government "to enforce United States immigration laws and not grant amnesty to those who have entered the United States illegally."

His bill that would have removed the prohibition against carrying guns in the state Capitol drew significant attention before failing.

On some occasions, it appears Jensen acts on his beliefs without considering the full impact of a proposed legislative measure.

Jensen supported another bill this session, killed last month, that would have required drug testing for welfare recipients. He said he believes that taxpayers have a right to know that their money is being spent appropriately.

But asked whether he thinks recipients of other forms of government assistance should be drug tested, like farmers who receive subsidies, Jensen wasn't so sure.

"You got me there," he said with a laugh.

It's that kind of political stand that groups like the liberal American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota find poorly thought out and particularly troubling.

Heather Smith, the group's executive director, calls it a policy based on the false premise that welfare recipients use drugs more than other sectors of society.

"Mandatory drug testing for public welfare recipients is a really backhanded way to target poor people," she said.

While Jensen's views may not be popular with civil rights activists, some of his bills are less political. He successfully pushed for a ban on exploding targets that have started fires in the Black Hills; he pushed for but lost on an earlier archery season for deer; and tried but failed to get free fishing licenses for state residents over 85. 

Some of his business-friendly legislation has earned him a few fans.

Jensen pushed a bill this session that would make it easier for producers to sell raw milk. He's a big supporter of the unpasteurized product: he's been drinking it for three years, and he believes it offers nutritional benefits that are absent in pasteurized milk.

The bill was ultimately tabled and a working group was set up to produce a new set of raw milk regulations. But his advocacy for the legislation has earned him plaudits from members of the raw-milk lobby.

"He's a strong advocate for raw milk and food freedom in general," said Gena Parkhurst, secretary of the Black Hills chapter of Dakota Rural Action. "And we couldn't ask for a stronger supporter. He's awesome."

At the end of the day, whether you agree with him or disagree with him, Jensen hopes, at the very least, you can respect he's a lawmaker who has the courage of his convictions.

"Six years ago I ran as a conservative, a Reagan conservative," he said. "And I'm still a Reagan conservative."

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

(27) Comments

  1. Revelation
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    Revelation - July 15, 2014 8:33 am
    Wow, "sorry asses" ---I am surprised the Journal printed that. I believe that NOT PC is correct that the Journal would have never printed that if it was different.
  2. Buck
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    Buck - March 22, 2014 5:49 am
    Nuts on both sides. They are they only ones that vote. We need a check-box that says: None of the above.
  3. farmer
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    farmer - March 21, 2014 10:54 pm
    every human rights .................aaaaaahhh.............. I'm going to bed..........
  4. NOT PC
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    NOT PC - March 21, 2014 11:34 am
    To: Black & proud.....Can you imagine the outright rage if you changed your comment from black to white instead? If your comment portrayed a white person talking about another culture, first, the Journal would have never posted it, but if they had, this country would be in absolute anarchy!
  5. ZAR
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    ZAR - March 20, 2014 1:42 am
    As a life long resident of district 33, I find it very disturbing that this is the best we can do.. This child drove from KS with a moving to SD to vote out Daschle sign attached to his vehicle, what kind of man does something so childish?
    I hate to say it, but he will probably be re-elected until he is term limited for my neighbors see Republican and that's all...
  6. ZAR
    Report Abuse
    ZAR - March 19, 2014 11:58 pm
    Nice post angler, who do you think you were kidding?
  7. Roger Cornelius
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    Roger Cornelius - March 19, 2014 11:26 pm
    Yes the Ku Klux Klan was started by Democrats, we all know the history, or should.

    In the years since Jim Crow the roles have been reversed, Democrats support Civil Rights and Republicans like Jensen and many others don't.

    What made the Republican Party/Tea Party become that of intolerance, bigotry, prejudice and racism? Something happened somewhere along the line, what was it?
  8. B-Rock
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    B-Rock - March 19, 2014 2:52 pm
    The current US Census reports would disagree with you. 63.0% of Americans reported themselves as white alone, not Hispanic or Latino, and not a combination of white and a second race. Another 14.9% of Americans identify as white and Hispanic or Latino or bi-racial with white being one of the races.
  9. Obtuseangler
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    Obtuseangler - March 19, 2014 11:08 am
    B&P, please keep posting.
  10. Black and Proud
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    Black and Proud - March 19, 2014 8:00 am
    Black People wake up! Here again this racist white man want to take us back. They are afraid that they (white man) are now the minority. We need to open our own businesses and tell them keep it moving. Their children and grandchildren are making babies with our black and brown men and women and they hateful butts will have to deal with the future of their white behinds will be like the balded eagle. We will have to search for their sorry asses. Rise up my people and demand this idiot sit his butt down somewhere. ...And I approved this message..
  11. Andio
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    Andio - March 17, 2014 9:44 pm
    You make republicans and Christians look bad. I cannot believe you profess to be a Christian. You are doing us believers of equal rights a big favor Mr Jenson because now we are going to rise up and fight for equality.
  12. darma2u
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    darma2u - March 17, 2014 8:15 pm
    He is a prime example of what the GOP said it was not going to do or be. Yet here he is along with the like of Paul Ryan, supporting more HATRED and division among people? The old divide and conquer? It must be true that he really has no personal ideals, how sad, again a person of talk but no walk. God help you all if you put this person in office, he has shown what his core values are, while he will try to muddy the waters with lots of gobbledygook, nonsense to attempt to confuse some. Hopefully the majority will see through him and elect someone that works for them.
  13. Roger Cornelius
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    Roger Cornelius - March 17, 2014 7:30 pm
    Phil Jensen is the newest poster child for the tea party.
  14. Centerfield
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    Centerfield - March 17, 2014 4:59 pm
    Send the carpetbagger back to Kansas!
  15. FreedomToast
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    FreedomToast - March 17, 2014 1:59 pm
    "If someone was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and they were running a little bakery for instance, the majority of us would find it detestable that they refuse to serve blacks, and guess what? In a matter of weeks or so that business would shut down because no one is going to patronize them,"

    Mmm-hmmm, like all those restaurants in the south in the 60's. They were just about to go out of business before the Civil Rights Act started infringing on their rights.
  16. Black Hawk
    Report Abuse
    Black Hawk - March 17, 2014 8:55 am
    Invoking Regan's name is a sign of someone who has a weak argument. Regan wouldn't have supported any of his "ideas".

    Eligible Americans should be required to vote and the fringe of both parties wouldn't exist.
  17. lpsilver
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    lpsilver - March 17, 2014 8:09 am
    As registered voters in District 33, we are so embarrassed that Mr. Jensen is so-called "representing" us. He does NOT speak for our views on legislation or religion. If the Republican Party thinks persons like Jensen are the best candidates to support with Party funds, they are WRONG.
  18. morningstar
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    morningstar - March 17, 2014 7:17 am
    In truth both Reagan & Goldwater would be RINOS To Jensen; but for Moderates and Liberals this current path of the GOP should be pleasing.
  19. farmer
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    farmer - March 17, 2014 5:44 am
    Nice attempt to harm Mr. Jensen, I doubt he want your orgs. votes or support ......The Klu Klux Klan was started by "Democrats" to keep Sothern Blacks from voting "Republican" after the civil war.
  20. Spot200
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    Spot200 - March 16, 2014 3:33 pm
    I for one wish he would go back to Kansas. This was the man who proposed a bill making it legal to kill abortion providers. I agree with the other persons post. These men and women are elected to represent the view of those who voted for them. It is hard to believe we have that many crazies in this state that they voted this guy into office. Down right embarrassing if that is the case. Keep your religion to yourself.
  21. RabbitEars
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    RabbitEars - March 16, 2014 3:02 pm
    In a recent American History class with high school kids, they questioned the bill about denying service to people. They had just finished a unit on the Civil Rights movement and asked how this bill could be legal, it sounded like the Jim Crow laws to them. They haven't had much life experience yet, but that looked like out and out discrimination to them.
  22. Report Abuse
    - March 16, 2014 9:53 am
    A Regan conservative?

    I don't think so. This guy is determined to legislate his religious positions on us, and is trying to use the ghost of Regan to smokescreen this effort.

    He is too quick to use the term "RINO" when he himself is unrecognizable as a republican when compared to the pragmatic Republicans of the 70's and 80's. He certainly shows no signs of being able to think things all the way through.

    Singularly unimpressed.
  23. RabbitEars
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    RabbitEars - March 16, 2014 9:35 am
    Ours is a representative government, you are elected to represent the views of your constituents. Many of this legislator's constituents are NOT represented by the legislation that he proposes. He represents himself as a Reagan conservative, I would suggest even Pres. Reagan would not have agreed with some of Mr. Jensen's proposed legislation. Voters in this district are listening and are appalled at some of his proposed bills.
  24. farmer
    Report Abuse
    farmer - March 16, 2014 9:04 am
    This is a grown up !!!!!! the kind of leader this country desperately needs!!!! yes rc I am shouting...Farmer MB@L
  25. freedom1865
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    freedom1865 - March 16, 2014 7:49 am
    Mr. Jensen
    I loved your article, I like your views. The only questionable thing is your lack of knowledge of the TRUE Invisible Empire, Traditionalist American Knights of the Klu Klux Klan. We are not a hate group, this is not the 1800's nor the 1930's. Renegade Klans have existed throughout history we are sorry for that. Today we help the needy, regardless of color, creed, etc. We follow the Geneva Bible, and live honest lives. Yes we do believe in the preservation of the White Christian Race, our Government that was formed by White Christians many years ago, we support our Flag, our Government and will stand behind our lawmakers and die if necessary to protect our Constitution and our Freedom, and our Language. We have helped poor families here in SD with food baskets during the Holidays, sometimes much needed Money etc. Please we ask that people start reading the truth about the new Klan. We'd be more than happy to send you information or you can read at
    Thank you sir our votes will most likely be with you.
  26. skyvue1
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    skyvue1 - March 16, 2014 6:43 am
    There is nothing wrong with a conservative approach but when you take an issue to extremes and loose all common sense then you cross the line of not being in touch with reality. Senator Kirkeby and others were correct in their opposition to SB 128 and Senator Jensen's extreme conservative views. Next time do an in kind article for a South Dakotan born and raised who is a common sense conservative like most SD citizens and is working hard to make a difference.
  27. skippy
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    skippy - March 16, 2014 6:22 am
    Remember Reagan cut taxes twice and raised taxes eleven times.
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