At first blush, Mark Kirkeby looks more like an accountant than a cowboy.
During an interview in Rapid City on Tuesday, his 5-foot-9 frame is contained in a navy dress shirt and a charcoal suit jacket. He wears rimless glasses and a gold ring on each hand. The Republican state senator from Rapid City and mayoral candidate has the polished look of a businessman.
But it's his office, located on a dusty section of Cambell Street, that offers a glimpse of a different man. Horse paintings line the walls. Under the ceiling light, it's easier to see the redness in Kirkeby's cheeks; the product of decades of sun exposure. To his right, a photograph shows him astride a dun-colored steed; his cream cowboy hat bouncing against a blue horizon.
When he's not here at the Salvation Army's administrative office, where he has worked for the past six years as development director, or in Pierre, where he has served for the past seven years in the Legislature, its the open prairie that Kirkeby calls home.
"It's really hard to describe to someone who hasn't spent time in the saddle," he said. "It's therapeutic."
Right now, Kirkeby is saddling up for a different ride, perhaps one of the most challenging in his career. This June 4, the 53-year-old South Dakota native will take on incumbent Sam Kooiker in what is sure to be a spirited race for mayor of Rapid City.
Kirkeby said he was compelled to run after reading the headlines coming out of City Hall. He believes the council has devolved into secrecy and dysfunction under the leadership of Kooiker.
His examples are numerous. Pointing to a $150 million proposal by the council to expand the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center, Kirkeby charges that Kooiker has left the public out of the loop. On the controversy surrounding Council Member Bill Clayton, who made possibly racist remarks to a black television reporter last year, Kirkeby believes Kooiker should have demanded that Clayton apologize.
Perhaps most pointedly, Kirkeby accuses Kooiker of micro-managing his office. From his trip to Canada this week to attend an economic convention — "what would a mayor be doing behind a trade show booth?" — to Kooiker's attempt to impose stringent regulations on hookah lounges in Rapid City over the past year.
"A legally operating business," Kirkeby said. "And the mayor has publicly stated he doesn't like the business and he smells funny when he leaves there. That's his own personal opinion."
No clear agenda?
But while Kirkeby is articulate about what he would not do as a mayor, it's less easy to discern what he would do.
When asked about his vision, Kirkeby again returns to criticisms of Kooiker. He said he wants to make City Hall more than a "one-man show" and "fully embrace our community."
Asked how he would achieve that, Kirkeby said, "I think it certainly starts with City Hall and having that respect and dignity that translates down to our entire community."
And, while Kirkeby spares little criticism for his opponent's management style, he draws little attention to what appear to be some commonalities in their political views.
Kirkeby, like Kooiker, is a Republican. He describes his views on abortion as "pro-life." He disputes the theory of evolution. He's the proud owner of four pistols, two rifles, a shotgun and a concealed weapons permit.
Kooiker and Kirkeby, both evangelical Christians, also hold common ground on one of the city's most heated issues. In January, a church/state separation group in Wisconsin asked the city to stop praying before meetings. The group argued that the practice was violating the Constitution's requirement to separate church and state.
Kooiker declared the effort "nonsensical" and pledged that the council would fight back if the group filed a lawsuit.
Kirkeby largely agrees with that stance. "It's tradition and it's something we've been doing for decades," he said.
Through his legislative career, Kirkeby has predominantly followed party line. He co-sponsored a bill this session that attempted to render any federal ban on firearms unenforceable in South Dakota. He co-sponsored another bill that would recognize July 27 as the "National Day of the American Cowboy."
But Tom Katus, a former Democratic state senator, said Kirkeby occasionally exhibits an independent streak.
In 2011, Rapid City voters passed a referendum that place restrictions on electronic billboards. Signage companies responded by swamping the legislature with political donations, persuading lawmakers to support a bill that would nullify the city's referendum.
Katus said that Kirkeby remained resolute on Rapid City's right to restrict billboards.
"Mark, to his credit, took the lead on that, and he did a very good job," he said. "I was impressed with his tenacity."
Legislative record questioned
But it's also a streak that inspires wariness in some voting blocs. Gordon Howie, the CEO of Life and Liberty Group, a Rapid City based group that leans far right, is less impressed with Kirkeby’s record.
"I don't know if I've really figured him out," he said.
That sentiment is echoed by other groups in South Dakota for different reasons.
Cathy Brechtelsbauer, a state coordinator with Bread for the World, said she was impressed that Kirkeby attempted to pass legislation that would eliminate sales tax on food items, which would help low-income people.
However, she couldn't understand why Kirkeby had also attempted to pass legislation that would require 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."
By Kirkeby's own estimation, he shouldn't even have grown up a Republican.
Early life challenges
Kirkeby was born in Eagle Butte, a town of 1,000 in northern South Dakota. His parents moved to Rapid City when he was 3. They divorced around the same time.
His mother, Helen, raised him and his four siblings while working nights as a bartender. Kirkeby described it as a modest upbringing that fits the background of someone who should lean left.
In 1978, Kirkeby graduated from Central High School. He studied at Black Hills State University for a year but dropped out after his girlfriend, Ellen, became pregnant. He married her seven months before she gave birth.
"That was something that's a responsible thing to do when your girlfriend gets pregnant," he said. "That's no question. That's just what you do."
Kirkeby sold his motorbike to pay the bills. He mixed cement during the day. At night, he studied for his real estate license.
In 1983, Kirkeby joined his father's firm, now known as Coldwell Banker Lewis-Kirkeby-Hall Realty. He and Ellen divorced around the same time.
Over the next 20 years, Kirkeby would spend most of his career at his father's firm. He entertained brief stints as a salesman for Cellular One and a warehouse manager in Chicago. He married his second wife, Sheryl, in 1989.
During this period, Kirkeby experienced one of the bleaker moments in his life. When he was 34, he was arrested for drunken driving after having three beers at a social function.
"It was an irresponsible act on my part," he said. "It was a long time ago, and I learned a valuable lesson."
That same year, Kirkeby would have another seminal experience — a much more positive one. He returned to Black Hills State University to study political science and interned in Pierre during the 1994 legislative session.
The experience inspired Kirkeby to launch his political career. In 1997, he was elected to the Pennington County Board of Commissioners. He ran on a platform to clean up dysfunction within the Central States Fair Board. He unseated Kathy Work, the board's last Democratic commissioner.
In 2006, he took a seat in the South Dakota House. In 2012, when a seat opened up in the state senate, he threw his name in the ring. Wary of Kirkeby's name recognition and established support, no Republican, Democrat or independent candidate ran against him.
"I believe that is the highest compliment I have received in my political career," he said.
Expects tough battle
This June, Kirkeby knows his mayoral bid won't be so easy. He's already deploying fliers attacking Kooiker. Later this month, he will appear at a campaign event at Ifritz Hookah Lounge.
Kirkeby is expecting a fierce campaign.
"It's the make-up of the voters," he said. "There will certainly be those citizens who will believe that where we are sitting right now is the stable thing to do. There are those other educated voters that believe the position demands a higher level of respect and credibility."
For some voters, like Howie, it's going to take more than that to convince him that Kirkeby has a better vision for Rapid City. "If you're going to replace somebody," he said, "there should probably be a reason for it."
[This story has been changed to reflect a correction to the spelling of the name of former South Dakota state senator Tom Katus and the marriage date of Mark Kirkeby and his first wife, Ellen Lea.]