She drives fast.

Or at least, she used to, before her 27 traffic citations became a public issue in the U.S. House campaign.

Now Kristi Noem is apologizing publicly for a string of tickets for speeding and other infractions over the past 21 years. The Republican state representative from Castlewood also is promising to do better.

But responding to questions about her driving record takes time and focus away from issues she would rather discuss, such as the federal deficit and U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin’s role in making it bigger. Noem’s history of a heavy foot and failure to pay some of her fines on time may have put the brakes on her so-far-impressive run to unseat the Democratic incumbent.

And the longer the speeding issue lives in public discussion, the worse it is for Noem, said Joel Rosenthal, a former state Republican Party chairman from Sioux Falls.

“I think her momentum has been stopped by this,” Rosenthal said. “I think we’ve got a really tight race now.”

It isn’t just the news stories of Noem’s driving record over the past 21 years that have kept the issue alive, Rosenthal said. It’s also the fight-back response from Noem supporters, who provided state records showing that Herseth Sandlin’s father, former state Sen. Lars Herseth, had a string of 17 speeding tickets himself.

Republican bloggers followed that by playing up a guilty plea in June to a charge of driving under the influence by Herseth Sandlin chief of staff Tessa Gould, who was stopped in Brookings.

The collateral damage didn’t end with those tied to the House race. Democratic bloggers revealed that 28-year-old Jason Lutz, a staffer for Republican Sen. John Thune in Aberdeen, also got a DUI recently. Thune doesn’t even have an opponent for re-election.

The tit for tat over driving records brought negatives to both sides, but Rosenthal said it hurts Noem more than Herseth Sandlin. It was a mistake for Noem supporters to fire back after the Herseth Sandlin camp pushed the story on Noem’s driving record, he said.

“They couldn’t just have their day or two of bad stories and let it go. They wanted to discredit the Democrats,” Rosenthal said. “They should have moved on. Kristi Noem is really good on the issues. The deficit is the No. 1 issue, and Herseth Sandlin voted to add to the deficit. Instead of focusing on that, the Republicans turned this into a two-week story.”

It’s a story that some argue is overblown. Former Republican state Sen. Don Frankenfeld of Rapid City, who ran for the U.S. House in 1986 and 1990, said the prominence of Noem’s traffic record in the public discussion is an indication of overwrought political rhetoric and poor coverage decisions by news outlets.

“This says a lot more about the state of politics than it does about Kristi Noem,” Frankenfeld said. “This seems like trivia. And I can’t believe we’re spending this much time on it. Somehow, it has become a major issue of the campaign.”

Frankenfeld said he speeds and sometimes pays fines for it. Many South Dakotans do, as well. Even Noem’s penchant for being late in paying her fines -- in two instances to the point where warrants were issued for collection -- isn’t a serious detriment to her campaign, Frankenfeld said.

“I just got a speeding ticket about three weeks ago, and I just made the deadline to send in my money because I forgot about it,” he said. “I think she’s got a sympathetic audience with a lot of people.”

In terms of impact on the campaign, Frankenfeld said: “My prediction is that it benefits her in some very small way. I can’t imagine many people will condemn her for something this minor and forgivable.”

Noem apologized after the story broke and promised to be a better driver. She repeated that pledge Friday in an e-mail comment to the Journal.

“These traffic violations were the result of haste and carelessness on my part, and I apologize,” she said. “Trying to make up time on a flat, empty country highway is never an excuse to ignore the speed limit. While all the deserved fines and penalties have been paid, I have to work on setting a better example going forward.”

Noem’s last recorded ticket was last February, on Interstate 29 in Moody County. The ticket says she was doing 94 mph in a 75 mph zone. Many of the other speeding tickets appear to have been on two-lane highways, where she was typically said to be doing 75 to 80 in a 65 mph zone.

Whatever the highway or circumstances, Rosenthal said, Noem’s speeding history is “an issue that wins you no friends. It only loses you votes.” But he also said it is not an election-defining factor, either.

“It’s certainly become a bit of an issue, but it’s not a dominant issue of the campaign,” he said.

Noem hopes it isn't. And she argues that it is time to focus on campaign issues that have profound and direct impacts on the lives of South Dakotans.

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“Our state and country are facing important issues, such as how to grow our economy and create jobs, and this election should be focused on those issues instead of my poor driving record,” she said. “For that I apologize and pledge that I will work every day from now until the election, like I have been doing, addressing the issues that matter most to South Dakota families.”

Herseth Sandlin’s campaign team continues to argue that Noem’s traffic history is an important issue that goes to the character of the candidate. Voters are watching and considering what such a driving history means, Herseth Sandlin campaign spokesman Russ Levsen said.

“Kristi Noem’s arrest warrants and failures to appear in court are serious red flags to voters,” he said. “It’s not just her long record of breaking the law, but it’s the idea that the law somehow doesn’t apply to her. A lot of people get speeding tickets, but not many have more than one warrant issued for their arrest.”

Along with speeding, Noem’s 27 citations include not wearing a seat belt, two instances of running a stop sign, expired license-plate tags and no driver’s license. She missed court appearance or payment dates seven times. And in two instances, the court issued a warrant to force payment.

It is the missed court deadlines more than the speeding that could bother some voters, Rosenthal said.

“In South Dakota, speeding really isn’t an issue because people do it,” he said. “Maybe they don’t get 20 tickets, but over the years, people who travel around get some. But the average guy pays his fines. And people would have a little more difficulty if they think she hasn’t been owning up to them.”

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Noem points out that she did end up paying all of her fines, even if some were late.

Missed court dates and fine deadlines on traffic citations have become more common in recent years because of the way the courts handle traffic tickets, said Terry Mayes, a former South Dakota Highway Patrol captain from Rapid City. Citations used to come with a court date only, giving the violator the option of appearing in court on the assigned day to pay or stopping at the courthouse before that, Mayes said.

“Now, you get a ticket and an envelope and you sign a promise to appear; then you’re supposed to mail it in,” Mayes said. “You have both options now. And people can misplace the letter or forget about it.”

Noem’s total of 20 speeding tickets in 21 years is “certainly above average, but really not all that uncommon.”

It isn’t that uncommon in Noem’s family, based on court records since 1989. Noem’s husband, Bryon, had 18 recorded traffic citations during that period, 11 of them for speeding. Noem’s brother, Rock Arnold, had 34 citations during that period, 25 of them for speeding. He also missed court or fine payment dates four times and had warrants issued three times. Another brother, Robb, had 21 citations, including 12 for speeding.

And Noem’s mother, Corinne Arnold, had 11 citations, nine for speeding.

Mayes agreed with Frankenfeld that too much is being made of the speeding issue in the U.S. House campaign. But he also says that a pattern of speeding is something people need to change.

“This is the kind of speeding that’s pretty common with a lot of people out on the road,” he said. “Driving is a series of habits, and if you’re habitually speeding, you have a bad habit.”

It’s a bad habit that Noem has pledged to break. How that plays with voters remains to be seen.

Herseth Sandlin has used that speeding issue to help regain ground during a difficult campaign against a strong challenger, Rosenthal said. Since Herseth Sandlin had just one speeding citation on her state record in the past 21 years, the speeding issue was a logical one to push, he said.

“She’s got a real race on her hands. The polling isn’t good. The political environment is terrible for her, so the Herseth Sandlin camp is looking for way to define the opponent,” Rosenthal said. “So they get those driving records and say, ‘Geez, we’ve got one speeding ticket and she’s got 20, and she’s been negligent in varying degrees in paying them?’ That’s a pretty good contrast.”

Noem’s challenge now is to move on, he said.

“I hope Kristi wins this thing, because I think she shares my values,” Rosenthal said. “But she needs to get back on message and talk about the deficit.

Contact Kevin Woster at 394-8413 or kevin.woster@rapidcityjournal.com


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