It's the Saturday morning after Rapid City's third legislative crackerbarrel at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, and Rep. Brian Gosch is about to drive across town so he can jump into a Dumpster full of water.
The Dumpster's outside and the water's freezing, but that's the point: Gosch is helping raise money for Special Olympics South Dakota as part of the Polar Plunge.
It's been a busy weekend on the heels of a busy week. Gosch, a Rapid City legislator and Speaker of the House of Representatives, often does 14-hour days during the session.
There are committees to chair, House staff to hire and manage, arguments to resolve between legislators, industry flacks to glad-hand, emails to check and calendars to schedule.
Gosch surprised people around the state in early February with his last-minute texting-while-driving bill that has drawn fire for being too weak.
"It's an emotional issue for some people," Gosch says as he explains his rationale for the bill.
It's obvious he's had these conversations before, made the same appeals and arguments. But from his surprise appointment to the legislature to his swift rise to the top of Republican leadership, Gosch rarely seems caught off guard.
Growing up in Aberdeen, Gosch spent his college years at the University of South Dakota, where he received undergraduate and law degrees. Work brought Gosch west to Rapid City in 1997, where he started with Black Hills Legal Services. Less than two years later, Gosch moved over to South Dakota Advocacy Services, where he remains today.
Gosch says he had never given much thought to politics until one Friday in 2007 when then-Gov. Mike Rounds called and asked if he'd be willing to fill the House seat being vacated by Alan Hanks. Winning a close campaign in 2008 brought a feeling Gosch describes as "euphoric." So he ran for a leadership slot and became the House whip.
Those who have worked with Gosch describe him as professional and on-the-ball. Thomas Geu, the USD law school dean who taught Gosch in business law classes, calls him "pleasant" and "always prepared."
Lobbyist Larry Mann has worked with Gosch since the appointment.
"He's very smart, he knows the rules, runs good committees, and I think he has gained a lot of credibility," Mann said.
"You don't rise to become speaker if you don't have some really special skills," Mann said.
House Minority Leader Rep. Bernie Hunhoff, D-Yankton, described Gosch in an email as "patient and good-humored."
He's also a pro at killing or advancing legislation, Hunhoff said.
"I've seen him work with all elements in the legislature to try to advance some tough issues, from compromises on economic development and non-meandered waters to the texting bill that is now making its way through the body," Hunhoff writes.
Surprise texting ban
Gosch's proposed texting-while-driving ban caught people by surprise. He'd originally introduced a bill to prevent local governments from imposing their own bans, which several South Dakota cities had done in the past few years. In the bill's first hearing in early February, however, Gosch swapped out that bill with a statewide ban.
The speaker's bill reflects his belief that the legislation won't have much impact in reining in crashes caused by texting. It makes texting while driving a secondary offense, meaning law enforcement can't pull someone over for doing it. And Gosch's bill sets the penalty at $25.
The move riled Sioux Falls lawmakers, since it would dismantle that city's ban, which is a primary offense with a $95 fine.
"This dumbed-down version of the [texting ban] really flies in the face of what citizens have been asking for," said Sioux Falls Councilwoman Michelle Erpenbach. "It seems like the Legislature is saying 'yes, here's your little itty texting ban, now go away.'"
Erpenbach says state senators have told her to be patient while they find a consensus but she isn't optimistic.
"I'm kind of losing faith," she said.
Gosch dismissed those complaints and insisted that state law already forbids cities from passing their own driving regulations and that texting bans in other states haven't reduced crashes. He said the bill will help best with public awareness.
"I'm hoping to get that big splash, a write-up in the paper, 'texting's illegal,'" Gosch said. "Like we did with seatbelt use, and then maybe you get that three-month bump, that reduction (in crashes)."
After that, Gosch wants to see targeted public awareness campaigns to try and keep that momentum going.
Nuts and bolts
On other issues, Gosch isn't as straightforward. When asked whether the Legislature needs to have more oversight over the state's economic development schemes like the EB-5 immigrant visa program, Gosch demurs.
"Possibly," he said. "I don't know enough about it."
"It's frustrating anytime you see tax dollars wasted," he added. "It's a pet peeve that most of us have."
When asked whether there should be equal rights protection for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, he said, "I haven't given it a lot of thought."
If multiple businesses around Rapid City were refusing service to people, Gosch said, then maybe it would be time to have a policy discussion on discrimination.
Answers like those frustrate Jackie Swanson, a 58-year-old teacher who ran as a Democrat against Gosch in 2012 and came up 700 votes short. Swanson wishes Gosch would talk more about poverty, education and sexual assault.
"He speaks well around the issues," Swanson said over the phone from Cairo, where she and her husband live.
When Gosch walks into the Capitol, he focuses on the nuts and bolts of keeping the Legislature running. He talks about keeping debates civil and focused and keeping lawmakers humble.
He wishes he were sometimes more profound in debating bills. He wishes he were sometimes quicker at recalling or looking up answers to procedural questions. He wishes sometimes he could divine the unintended consequences a proposed law may have.
"I'm pretty hard on myself," Gosch said. "So I always try to find ways to improve."
Asked about his biggest accomplishment, Gosch says it is having helped "keep South Dakota a place that we all like to live in."
"Most people, I think, generally like how we do things here," he said. "And so a lot of what I have done is help keep it that way."