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No Republican politician has been a more powerful force in the lives of South Dakotans than former Gov. Bill Janklow.

But just how Republican was he? It depends.

Janklow, who died Thursday of brain cancer, was largely consistent with conservative Republicans of today on social issues, including abortion. Although even there he privately expressed reservations about the near-total abortion ban approved by the state Legislature and then-Gov. Mike Rounds in 2006 and later rejected by state voters.

And Janklow departed more clearly from today's Republican conservatism when it came to the role of government. Far from a disregard and even hostility toward using government for change in the private sector, Janklow embraced it.

"That's what inspired so many people like me to be fans of Bill Janklow," said former Democratic state Sen. Scott Heidepriem of Sioux Falls, his party's nominee for governor in 2010. "He believed that the power of government, properly harnessed, could be a force for incredible good. And he was never shy about that."

Nothing emphasized that more than Janklow's leadership on the railroad issue in the busy 1980s. Faced with a major railroad bankruptcy and the potential loss of half the operational track in South Dakota, Janklow pushed for a temporary increase in the state sales tax to help buy more than 1,300 miles of the line.

The idea of state government raising taxes to purchase private property is not exactly part of today's conservative Republican mantra. But the plan helped preserve critical shipping lanes that still exist today.

Janklow also pushed for another huge public-private project in the 1980s that didn't succeed. But it showed as well as any how he viewed the role of government. It was called the ETSI project.

Janklow wanted to sell 20,000-acre feet of water a year from massive Lake Oahe - and its 23-million-acre-feet capacity - to a consortium of energy companies called Energy Transportation Systems, Inc. ETSI would use the Missouri River water to mix 50-50 with crushed coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming to create a slurry for transport to the southeastern United States.

Opposed by the railroads and downstream states, the ETSI project ultimately failed. But it was the kind of idea - brassy, bright and controversial - that would mark Janklow's 16 years as governor.

That kind of work also would mark his legacy, which can be difficult to fit on a political label.

"I never saw Bill as Republican or Democrat so much as a pragmatist who really did sense that you could properly harvest the authority in government to achieve good," said Bob Burns, a professor emeritus in political science at South Dakota State University in Brookings. "On many, many occasions, I think Bill did that."

Burns was a childhood friend of Janklow's in Flandreau. They remained friends throughout their lives, despite sharing different political philosophies on many issues, Burns said.

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Burns saw it as consistent with Janklow's personal philosophy when he began his law career as a legal-aid lawyer on the Rosebud Reservation. Burns believes Janklow was motivated less by any devotion to strict Republican principles than he was by an astute understanding of the balance of power in South Dakota.

It's easier to get elected and things done at the state level as a Republican.

"I think he adopted the Republican Party label for pragmatic purposes that really enhanced the likelihood of being elected," Burns said. "If you look at the campaigns, he really didn't rely on the state party or end up indebted to it. He had his own organization, which was a network of family and friends more than anything. And he was very good at raising money to support his campaigns."

Burns said Janklow was a taskmaster when it came to efficiency in government. He was known for across-the-board budget cuts and reductions in the number of state employees. He wanted government lean and as cost-effective as possible, but he also wanted it active, Burns said.

"I don't think he had a lot of reservations about what government should be able to achieve," he said. "You don't buy a railroad with a limited view of government. You don't try to sell Missouri River water with a limited view of government."

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Former state Republican Party chairman Joel Rosenthal of Sioux Falls said Janklow was clearly a conservative Republican, but not "an extreme conservative." And placing Janklow on a political scale from conservative to liberal would be a shifting exercise, depending on the issue or project, Rosenthal said.

"He is a conservative on social issues. And he is a conservative on fiscal issues," he said. "But it's not so much that government shouldn't spend as it is that government should get the best value for the money it spends."

Janklow tried unsuccessfully to get state lawmakers to create a limited program offering dental care to the elderly, for example. He believed it was essential to the health of seniors and could save money by heading off worse, more expensive health problems. Janklow also was a powerful advocate for state involvement in early childhood development, with a program that did succeed.

Through the Bright Start for South Dakota Children Program, the state offers advice and assistance to pregnant women and mothers of newborns on proper health. It also offers health screenings, immunizations, parent seminars and a "welcome box" for all newborns. The box includes a library card, books, a video and a Mozart CD offering "music for growing minds."

Janklow immersed himself in early childhood development study and was fascinated by the effects of music on brain development in babies, Rosenthal said. His belief in the government project to help young mothers and the children was consistent with the Janklow brand of conservatism.

"He wasn't scared of government. We have so many extreme conservatives now who hate government you wonder why they even want to govern," Rosenthal said. "In Bill's case, he didn't hate government. He wanted to govern. And he wanted to help people."

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

 

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