South Dakota’s gubernatorial candidates traded criticism Thursday as Billie Sutton said Kristi Noem declined a debate, and Noem said Sutton is cozy with labor unions.

Sutton, the Democratic nominee for governor, launched the day’s first attack with a morning news release. The news release said Noem, the Republican nominee, declined a debate about education that would have occurred today in Sioux Falls with three organizers, the Associated School Boards of South Dakota, the School Administrators of South Dakota and South Dakota Public Broadcasting.

The release said Sutton had accepted the debate invitation, and that in place of the debate, he now plans to conduct a back-to-school town hall. Details of the town hall were not included in the news release.

In response, Noem campaign manager Justin Brasell said there was only one date available for the debate, and Noem had a scheduling conflict that precluded her from accepting the invitation.

“We absolutely plan to debate,” Brasell said. “We just couldn’t make this one work.”

He did not divulge the scheduling conflict, and did not immediately return later messages from the Rapid City Journal asking what Noem planned to be doing today that precluded her from accepting the debate invitation.

Noem made public appearances in Madison and Sioux Falls on Wednesday, and she was scheduled to attend a fundraiser for her campaign Thursday night in Sioux Falls. As of Thursday afternoon, Noem’s campaign Facebook page showed one future event: a Saturday morning parade in her hometown of Castlewood.

Rob Monson, executive director of the School Administrators of South Dakota, said a debate is typically held during the annual two-day convention of school administrators and board members. This year’s convention began Thursday morning in Sioux Falls and continues through 12:20 p.m. Central time today.

About four hours after the Sutton campaign sent its news release Thursday, the Noem campaign issued a news release titled, “Unions Bet Big on Democrat Billie Sutton as Big Labor Works to Overturn Right to Work.”

The news release said unions have contributed more than $10,000 to Sutton’s campaign. The release also highlighted a tweet by the South Dakota Democratic Party that celebrated Tuesday’s rejection of a so-called “right to work” law by voters in Missouri. The law would have banned compulsory union fees in that state.

South Dakota has a right-to-work law, which Brasell said Noem supports.

“That’s why we’re seeing out-of-state union heads investing thousands into Billie Sutton’s campaign,” Brasell said in the news release. “He’s their best bet to repeal the state’s decades old right-to-work laws and force South Dakotans into labor unions they don’t want to be a part of.”

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When asked to identify the contributions to Sutton’s campaign from unions, the Noem campaign listed contributions totaling $1,500 from the United Food and Commercial Workers Active Ballot Club, of Washington, D.C.; $5,000 from Teamsters Local 120 Drive d/b/a 120 PAC, of Blaine, Minn.; $5,000 from the IBEW PAC Educational Fund, of Washington, D.C.; and $500 from the United Food and Commercial Workers Active Ballot Club General Fund, of Washington, D.C. The Rapid City Journal independently confirmed each of the contributions, which are listed on Sutton’s campaign finance reports.

The Sutton campaign declined an interview request but sent a written statement to the Journal from campaign manager Suzanne Jones Pranger.

"This is just another example of a baseless Washington, D.C., style attack from Congresswoman Noem,” the statement said, in part. “The truth is that Billie Sutton stands with all South Dakota working families, whether they belong to a union or not.”

In a follow-up email and phone call, the Journal asked Mackenzie Huber, Sutton’s campaign spokeswoman, if Sutton supports or opposes South Dakota’s right-to-work law. She responded with an email saying, “Senator Sutton voted on this issue during session.” The email included a weblink to a vote by Sutton, a state senator, in favor of a 2018 state Senate resolution titled, “Endorsing the right to work provisions in the South Dakota Constitution and in the Labor Management Relations Act that prohibit forced union membership.”

Noem and Sutton are the major-party candidates to succeed Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard, who is term-limited. The only other candidate for governor to earn a spot on the Nov. 6 ballot so far is Kurt Evans, a Libertarian.

Contact Seth Tupper at seth.tupper@rapidcityjournal.com

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Enterprise Reporter

Enterprise reporter for the Rapid City Journal.