A long-running local Republican feud over social issues and the definition of conservatism has been inflamed anew by an invite-only event that seven legislators hosted last week.
Rep. Taffy Howard, R-Rapid City, was not invited and said she felt excluded because of her conservative beliefs.
“Those of us who are more conservative, we looked right away at who was going and who was not invited, and we could see pretty clearly that the conservatives were not invited,” Howard said Monday.
Howard went to the event anyway and said she was allowed to go in and listen. The event was described as a Legislative Roundtable and was attended by about 40 invited community leaders Friday evening at the Black Hills Business Development Center, which is on the campus of the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology but is owned by the Rapid City Economic Development Foundation.
One of the event’s organizers was Rep. David Johnson, R-Rapid City. He acknowledged a split among local Republicans and said it is has been caused by those who lay claim to an exclusive right to label themselves as conservative.
“They’ve branded themselves as conservatives and anybody who is not in their clique as something other than conservative, and it’s offensive and it’s ridiculous,” Johnson said.
According to one independent analysis, Johnson actually ranks as slightly more conservative than Howard. The American Conservative Union Foundation analyzed the votes of legislators during the 2017 session and gave Johnson an 85 percent conservative rating, compared to 81 percent for Howard, while recognizing both as winners of the foundation's "award for conservative achievement."
Johnson organized Friday’s invite-only event with six fellow Rapid City Republican legislators: Reps. Sean McPherson, Craig Tieszen and Kristin Conzet, and Sens. Alan Solano, Terri Haverly and Jeff Partridge.
Johnson said 107 invitations to the event were distributed to community leaders, and the 40 attendees included Republicans, Democrats and independents who hold local or area leadership positions in realms including business, education, city government, public safety, law enforcement and health care. Johnson declined to release the list of invitees, saying he would rather allow the invitees to identify themselves if they wish. He said the event was funded by the legislators out of their own private funds.
Topics discussed at the event, according to Johnson, included poverty and its impact on early childhood education and the workforce; infrastructure problems related to airports, highways and railroads; and taxation.
Johnson said the seven legislators who organized the event wanted to hear nonpartisan ideas from local leaders about community and economic development. Johnson said the organizing legislators also wanted to set aside — for one evening — heated arguments about controversial social issues including transgender bathroom use and gun rights, which have been frequent topics of debate in recent legislative sessions.
Johnson said there are many other opportunities for the discussion of such issues, including cracker barrels (the annual wintertime public forums in legislative districts statewide) and local Republican Party meetings.
“That’s where those issues can be discussed, and they have been discussed,” Johnson said. “The point is that we didn’t want those controversial social issues to override the economic and community development issues that we wanted to talk about at this event.”
Inviting certain other legislators to participate, Johnson said, might have caused the event to veer into a discussion of those social issues and taken the focus off the intended topics.
Howard disagreed with Johnson’s assessment.
“I find it just really sad that within our own party we have people such as Representative Johnson who is ready to label fellow Republicans as single-issue legislators,” Howard said.
Rep. Lynn DiSanto, R-Box Elder, (who received an 84 percent conservative rating this year from the American Conservative Union Foundation) felt similarly slighted.
“I would say I think the concept of having a cracker barrel specifically related to ideas around business and economic development is a fantastic idea,” DiSanto said. “And I believe that if it would’ve been presented to us that way, everybody would’ve been respectful of keeping it within those parameters.”
DiSanto said it was wrong for seven legislators to host a meeting similar to a cracker barrel while excluding other legislators and the general public.
The controversy over the Friday event is the latest of several conflicts between local Republicans who consider themselves true conservatives and other Republicans who are accused of being insufficiently conservative. The animosity was particularly apparent during last year’s local and area primary election campaigns, when some Republicans accused fellow Republicans of taxing and spending wildly, dodging decades-old military drafts, and even enabling rapes by being insufficiently committed to gun rights.