Yes, Kristi Noem is a woman, but she can do the heavy lifting herself.
As she paid for horse feed during a December trip to Runnings, Noem chatted with the cashier who was visibly pregnant, asking how she felt and if she had thought of a name for her baby yet.
But when the cashier asked if Noem needed help loading her bags of feed, South Dakota's governor-elect was already out the door, yelling, “Nope, I’ve got it!” with a wave. She threw the bags into the bed of her red pickup — still emblazoned with a Kristi for Governor sticker — and then it was back to work at the Capitol.
After eight years in Washington, D.C., Noem, 47, is returning to her home state, where she will be inaugurated as South Dakota's first female governor on Saturday.
She didn't always expect to pursue a political office. But while searching the aisles of Runnings, Noem said in an interview that her family was "rocked" in 1994 when her father died in a farming accident on their ranch.
Noem was 22 and attending Northern State University at the time. She decided to leave school to return home and take on the role of general manager of the ranch: a role she said she didn’t see other women around her in at the time, but one that she knew she would be best at out of her family members.
Shortly after her father’s death, Noem said her family took a second blow when they had to pay estate taxes on her father’s land and equipment. It’s a story Noem has repeated time and time again on the campaign trail and in office, calling for less federal government intervention and lower taxes. Her claims have been disputed, to which she penned a response in a 2017 op-ed to the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.
Noem said it was the aftermath of her father’s death that inspired her to step from the fields into public office.
“I realized we needed more people showing up at meetings talking about the real effects of policy on businesses and on families,” she said.
She started off local, attending municipal government meetings, then joining agricultural boards and climbed over the years: First, to the state House in 2006, where she served for four years and became assistant majority leader. Then, another leap to Congress in 2010, when she clinched her party’s nomination in a hotly contested primary and general election, ultimately snagging South Dakota’s lone seat in the House from Democratic incumbent Stephanie Herseth Sandlin by a 48-46 percent vote.
Though she wasn’t beholden to term limits by law as a representative, Noem vowed when she was elected in 2010 that she would only stay in Washington for four terms. So when her self-imposed deadline began to loom and Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s term limit approached, Noem mulled over the idea of returning to South Dakota to become the state’s chief executive.
Her win on Nov. 5 was historic: 100 years after South Dakota voted to allow women the right to vote, they voted for their first female governor. But Noem didn’t make a show of that during her campaign.
Even in an election year dubbed “the pink wave,” which saw unprecedented female candidates in elections nationwide, only one campaign ad for Noem noted her gender — and it was paid for by the state’s Republican party, not by her campaign.
The move was intentional. Noem and her colleagues will tell you that she was adamant throughout her campaign that she wanted to be elected for her merit, not for her gender.
But just because she didn’t emphasize her status as the potential first female governor during her campaign doesn’t mean she takes for granted the historic nature of her election.
“It is very special to be the first woman governor and the more people have mentioned it now to me, it’s pretty humbling,” Noem said.
Deborah Walsh, the director of Rutgers University’s Center for American Women in Politics (CAWP), said that the one of the important things about Noem’s election is that “she disrupts the image of what a governor can look like,” and has the power to inspire young people to run for office who may not look like the status quo.
According to data from the CAWP, 44 women have served as governor in 30 states, including those that will be sworn in this year.
Noem said she considers herself to be pro-women, but that there aren’t “women’s issues"; instead, there are women’s perspectives on all issues, she said. In an interview prior to her election, Noem said she would make it a priority to give more South Dakota women a seat at the table, saying that they bring a different perspective to government.
“It’s a voice that has to be there if we’re going to have better policy,” she said in December.
So far, Noem has appointed the state’s first female Secretary of Agriculture, Kim Vanneman, who will oversee the state’s largest industry. Six of her cabinet picks are female, and 10 out of her 17 full-time staffers are women.
It’s a trend that Walsh said is common when women take office: “Women often bring new faces into government with them. It opens up world of possibilities.”
Aside from her campaign platforms, Noem and her transition team have been coy about their policy plans as she prepares to assume office. But Noem remains a firm conservative and said she will stick to her “morals” as governor.
Socially, that means being pro-life, pro-second amendment and anti-gay marriage. She has consistently received 100 percent scores from National Right to Life and accepted $5,000 in campaign contributions from the National Rifle Association’s PAC during her gubernatorial campaign.
Noem’s conservative views and alignment with the far right are no secret. At a September campaign event, couples could pay $5,000 for a photo with President Donald Trump, and Vice President Mike Pence and South Carolina Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham appeared at a rally for Noem the day prior to her Nov. 6 election.
Years ago, in 2010, The Washington Post dubbed Noem “the next Sarah Palin,” no doubt referring to her conservative views but unwittingly also drawing the parallel between two first female governors in their respective states years before it came to fruition.
Former Democratic legislator Bernie Hunhoff was the state House minority leader while Noem was assistant majority leader, and despite their opposite political leanings, Hunhoff said he was able to work in a bipartisan manner with Noem.
“She’s obviously always good with media, and she’s the best at delivering all the conservative talking points,” Hunhoff said. “You’d think, ‘Wow I’m not going to be able to compromise with her.’ But usually when we would sit down at a table, I found her to be a moderate person just trying like everyone else to find a middle ground to solve problems.”
U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., worked with Noem years ago in Pierre while she was a legislator and he served on the state’s Public Utilities Commission, and again recently as he has transitioned into her former role as South Dakota’s at-large representative. What Johnson said he finds impressive about Noem is “how much empathy she can have, but never be pushed around.”
“She has a political courage. She has a steel that I think great leaders need to have,” Johnson said. “She is not afraid of bold things. She wants to be a change agent. She doesn’t settle for the status quo and in that way, she’s a disrupter.”
STURGIS | Cuts in fire protection and ambulance services could be forthcoming for some Meade County residents after voters turned down the establishment of new tax districts designed to help fund those services.
Sturgis City Manager Daniel Ainslie said city and county leaders will need to search for a way to provide services in an era when some patients are unable to pay or when private insurance or Medicaid or Medicare don't cover the entire cost of ambulance services.
“There’s going to be a lot of discussion,” Ainslie said. “The council is going to have to figure out what to do, because the reality is it (ambulance service) has to operate in the black.”
Last year, Ainslie said the Sturgis Ambulance operated at an estimated $85,000 deficit in spite of the city appropriating $100,000 for the service as it had in each of the last five years.
Another $100,000 yearly will be needed to buy new ambulances as the current fleet of six reaches its mileage maximums, he said.
The Dec. 18 election would have been the first step in forming fire and ambulance districts in two west-central Meade County precincts, currently served by Sturgis Ambulance.
Both proposed districts are located in the southwest corner of Meade County, excluding the city of Sturgis but including the municipality of Buffalo Chip and extending southeast of Sturgis to Tilford and north to the Butte County border.
Other areas of expansive Meade County are covered by ambulance services based in Newell, Enning and Faith to the north and east, and services based in Piedmont and Rapid City to the southeast.
According to information provided by the city, the proposed districts currently account for about 20 percent of calls for service provided by the Sturgis ambulance. Overall, calls for service have increased more than 50 percent in the period between 2011 and 2016.
If the fire and ambulance district proposals had passed on Dec. 18, another election would have been held to establish governing boards for each fire and ambulance district.
The boards would have then met and decided whether to contract with the city of Sturgis, set their own services, or go with someone else, Ainslie said.
With less than 400 voters participating in each district, the proposed districts were voted down. The tally was 178-168 in one district, with 199-171 in another.
Ainslie said if approved, the new district boards would have set a budget and a tax rate to fund the fire and ambulance services. The inability for voters to know what a new district might cost to operate could have contributed to the defeat, he said.
State statute allows a maximum mill levy of 60 cents per $100,000 of assessed property valuation to cover the cost of a fire or ambulance district.
Information presented to voters prior to the election said a levy of $137 per $100,000 of assessed valuation could have provided $250,000 in funding for ambulance services.
Ainslie said the defeat of the proposed fire and ambulance districts means the city will have to look at ways to reduce costs and/or raise additional funds.
For instance, he said, the current fleet of six ambulances will likely be reduced to four vehicles.
“There’s going to be a lot of discussion about this,” he said.
The city is not alone when it comes to funding for ambulance services.
Last month, the Rapid City Council approved a resolution writing off $1.7 million in unpaid ambulance bills deemed uncollectible.
“The reality is, this is a statewide issue,” Ainslie said. There’s a lot of places trying to figure out how to fund fire and ambulance services.”
Newly-elected Meade County Commission Chairman Tom Seaman of Black Hawk said the majority of county residents already pay for fire and ambulance services either through levies paid to established districts in rural areas of the county and through sales tax paid to the city of Sturgis.
Seaman and Commissioner Doreen Creed of Sturgis are joined by three new commissioners elected in November. The new commission’s first meeting as a group was Jan. 2.
“The county has done pretty much all we can do,” Seaman said. “We gave those (proposed new) districts the opportunity to make a decision.”
Residents of the districts around Sturgis can re-petition for another vote, he said.
“I kind of doubt the county is going to want to finance another election based on the results of the first one,” he said.
The start of 2019 will see the Sturgis Ambulance providing services in and around Sturgis, while the debate on paying for those services continues.
“We need to figure out how we’re going to sustain the system, because we can’t do it all,” Ainslie said.
Rapid City police have arrested a man on charges related to a two-vehicle crash that injured five people earlier this week.
Elijah Wright, 20, of Rapid City, has been charged with driving under the influence, four counts of vehicular battery, aggravated eluding, and reckless driving and speeding, according to a news release from the police department. Wright is in custody at the Pennington County Jail.
Police say the incident started after law enforcement learned about a possible drug transaction involving a vehicle and armed occupants. Police said Friday the investigation has yielded no evidence of drugs or weapons in the vehicle.
A deputy with the Pennington County Sheriff's Office tried to stop the vehicle near Highway 44 and Teewinot Drive, but the car fled for two minutes through Rapid Valley on the eastern side of Rapid City.
The pursuit ended just before 9:45 a.m. when the vehicle, driving southbound on Jolly Lane, ran a stop sign at the intersection with Twilight Drive and hit a pickup westbound on Twilight.
Four occupants of the suspect's vehicle, including Wright, and one occupant of the pickup were transported from the scene for treatment of injuries sustained in the crash.
The man who killed a family in a 2017 drunken driving accident near Porcupine was sent to jail and had his sentencing delayed Friday after he tested positive for marijuana.
After the hearing at the federal courthouse in Rapid City began 30 minutes late — evidently due to the positive test — Judge Jeffrey Viken announced he would not go forward with the sentencing due to the risk of Tyler Makes Him First appealing the sentence. A defendant on drugs could claim they didn't understand their rights.
"I will not do it," Viken said before Makes Him First was handcuffed and taken to the Pennington County Jail.
Makes Him First was set to be sentenced after he reached a plea deal for his 2017 drunken driving crash that killed Waylon Red Elk Sr., 42; his wife, Jaylene Pretends Eagle, 34; their son, Waylon Red Elk Jr., 1; and a child Pretends Eagle was carrying in her womb.
He pleaded guilty Sept. 7, 2018, to three involuntary manslaughter charges for killing Pretend Eagle, Red Elk and their child. Each count carries a maximum sentence of eight years in prison, but in exchange for the guilty plea, the U.S. Attorney's Office agreed to ask for no more than 16 years. They also dropped the charge against the unborn child, who was nearly due at seven and one-half months' gestation.
"It's an inconvenience, but justice is coming," Valene Pretends Eagle, Jaylene's youngest sister, said after the brief hearing.
Valene was one of about 20 members of the Pretends Eagle and Red Elk families who made the 100-plus-mile drive from Wanblee to Rapid City in expectation of seeing Makes Him First sentenced and receiving some closure on the devastating loss to their families. Some family members held photographs of their loved ones and were likely prepared to deliver victim impact statements.
Valene said she was happy to see Makes Him First go to jail instead of being out on pre-trial release. She also said that despite the inconvenience, she ultimately agreed with Viken's decision so the family wouldn't have to deal with a possible appeal.
During the hearing, Viken admitted that cancelling the sentencing was an "enormous inconvenience" to both sides.
He sent Makes Him First to jail because one of his conditions of release was to not use any drugs. Jennifer Albertson, Makes Him First's defense lawyer, said this was the first time he had any problem following his conditions.
Viken said a federal lab would verify the initial drug test and if it was a false positive, Albertson could appeal his jailing.
The fatal crash occurred when Makes Him First was driving a Nissan Titan truck northbound on BIA 27 near Porcupine on Nov. 4, 2017, according to a statement of facts document signed by Makes Him First.
Makes Him First was "heavily intoxicated" after drinking and crossed into the southbound lane near the Evergreen housing community, striking the Lexus sedan driven by Red Elk, the document says.
"The impact was passenger headlight to passenger headlight and was catastrophic," the document says.
After the crash, the document says, law enforcement found that Makes Him First smelled like alcohol and had slurred speech and red bloodshot eyes. His blood alcohol content was .284 percent, more than three times the drunken driving threshold of .08 percent. Law enforcement also found that there was nothing wrong with the quality of the road or Makes Him First's tires that would have made it difficult for him to stop.