Rapid City Mayor Sam Kooiker is a man on a mission — which he says is to help Rapid City grow and help its citizens prosper — and he seldom slows down in pursuit of his goal.
Kooiker overcame a series of early personal tragedies and challenges — including being stricken by cerebral palsy — to earn his master’s degree in public administration from the University of South Dakota, marry, father three daughters, serve on the Rapid City Council and, most recently, manage two hectic and sometimes controversial terms as mayor of South Dakota’s second-largest city.
“My family refers to me as a bowling pin,” the soft-spoken Kooiker said with a smile last week while sitting in his City Hall office. “I get knocked down and I get right back up again. My disability has given me a special empathy and perspective to serve others.”
To his fervent supporters, “Sam,” as they call him, is a cost-cutting, time-saving savant filled with his faith and love of family, coupled with a mandate to make city government more responsive to Rapid City residents. Conversely, his detractors describe him as a duplicitous backstabber and meddlesome micro-manager with a penchant for retribution when he perceives he has been slighted or challenged.
Nonetheless, Kooiker takes it all in stride, believing that bold change is never without its critics.
“I view my role as mayor as empowering people and bringing people together,” he said. “And, I freely admit my leadership style is a little bit different.”
Support runs deep
That leadership style was honed on a farm in Boyden, Iowa, where his family raised sheep and grew corn and beans. As a child, Kooiker met another boy born with the same condition as he. Kacy DeVries and Kooiker became best friends and planned to attend nearby Dordt College together. On the way home from a visit to the college in January 1993, DeVries was killed in a car accident, but Kooiker has never forgotten him.
Leaning on the wall behind Kooiker’s desk are two crutches, and the source of a story he has told many times. The first crutch, which stood in a closet for 18 years “because it was too painful to look at,” belonged to DeVries. The second crutch belonged to Lee Ann Roetman, an occupation therapist and friend to both Kooiker and DeVries, who had polio and died last year. The 41-year-old mayor says the two solitary crutches remind him of his close connection to two outstanding individuals and keep him grounded amidst political squabbling. And that's good, for Kooiker has seen his share of that.
In 2005, the city council privately reprimanded then-councilman Kooiker for badgering the finance officer at the time, Jim Preston, and accusing Preston of lying. In 2010, the city council censured Kooiker, declaring his conduct unbefitting an elected official in his dealings with Rapid Transit manager Rich Sagen. Former human resources manager Tammie Krumm filed a complaint against Kooiker over the way he managed certain affairs in 2011. In 2012, former landfill worker Randall Meidinger filed a civil suit against Kooiker, the city and others, for their unsuccessful push for criminal prosecution of Fish Garbage Service.
The censure has been credited by some with rallying Kooiker’s supporters, who felt Kooiker was being picked on by the political establishment. It helped propel him to victory over then-incumbent Alan Hanks in a bitter 2011 mayoral election.
Kooiker says his latest attempt to win a third two-year term against opponent Steve Allender, a former Rapid City police chief, has been among his easiest campaigns to date.
“This is my fourth run at mayor and the first two involved runoffs, so this has been much less contentious,” he said. “We’ll do a dozen debates and it’s easier now that I’ve built a strong record. There is a lot that has been achieved together.”
In addition, the mayor said he is running against an opponent whose platform lacks a foundation.
“My opponent has offered two specifics — he doesn’t like me and he doesn’t like my bolo ties,” Kooiker said, with no trace of a grin. “I am the only candidate in the race with private sector experience, which I believe has helped us adopt a customer-service focus to city government.”
Among his successes, Kooiker cites an overall streamlining of city government that he says has become decidedly more user friendly. He asserts that financial restructuring has expedited payment to city vendors, and considerably reduced time the city council previously devoted to what were more appropriately administrative duties.
When he arrived in the mayor’s office, Kooiker discovered 86 city committees, boards and commissions, not all of which were active.
“Now we’re at approximately 42,” Kooiker said. “Over the last four years we’ve transformed many facets of city government. It’s been a team effort with the city council, city staff and citizens. We streamlined the processes and we cleared a lot of clutter.”
That dedication to “open, accessible, accountable and inclusive city government,” is what many of Kooiker’s supporters cite as the reason they stand behind Sam.
Veteran State Farm Insurance agent Andy Ainslie said he was most impressed when Kooiker ran for mayor four years ago and sought input from the business community.
“As a small business owner with three full-time employees, I told him to stop talking like a community organizer and start talking the language of small business,” Ainslie said. “I think he has done well on the subject of streamlining, particularly as it relates to contractors and building permits. We don’t need roadblocks in our way. Sam helped cut red tape.”
Kooiker noted that building permits issued in March exceeded all months since 2000, attributable, he said, to a streamlined permit process, a sound local economy and a welcoming business environment.
Mike Roesler, who retired as battalion chief in 2010 after 31 years with the Rapid City Fire Department, said he had always admired Kooiker’s sincerity, concern for others and strength of character.
“Early on I was just impressed with Sam’s regard for and interest in city employees,” Roesler said. “I think Sam is a uniter because he’s bold. If you’re always riding the middle ground, riding the fence and not trying to offend anybody, you never make any progress. In the process of uniting people, some will resist and think you’re doing it the wrong way."
Contacted last week in Washington, D.C., where he was attending a conference of the conservative Family Research Council, Dale Bartscher of Rapid City said he has always thought highly of Kooiker’s core values.
“Faith, family and freedom are important to Sam Kooiker and I admire that completely,” said Bartscher, executive director of the Family Heritage Alliance, which he noted is not endorsing a candidate in the mayor’s race. But Bartscher said he personally respected Kooiker when he stood up to a Wisconsin group called the Freedom from Religion Foundation that sought to prohibit prayer prior to meetings of the Rapid City Council.
“Sam Kooiker was a champion for people of faith when it came to this issue and we appreciated his stand, as well as the city council which voted to uphold prayer as an important part of our city council agenda,” Bartscher said.
Critics abound, and entrenched
But, not everyone is an unbridled fan of Kooiker.
Ward 2 Councilman Ritchie Nordstrom, who said he is staying neutral on the mayoral race because he has to work with the eventual winner, said he recognizes strengths and weaknesses in both candidates.
Norstrom credits Kooiker with reducing the unwieldy number of boards and commissions and resultant meetings, but claimed the city could do far better building public-private partnerships. He also said there was a perception that Kooiker’s stance on issues was rarely transparent.
“There is the perception that if Sam is not on board with a project, the snake in him comes out,” Nordstrom said. “The perception of Sam is that saying 'no’ is a bad thing. But, sometimes you have to tell people 'no.’”
Ward 1 council member Charity Doyle said she started her relationship with Kooiker on a positive note and initially thought of herself as a supporter. Today, she is among the mayor’s harshest critics.
“I feel let down as a former Sam supporter,” Doyle said last week. “Although I didn’t know him well, he came across as honest and fair and it ended up being the exact opposite. He has a habit of throwing anyone who criticizes him under the bus. Now I believe it’s a personality trait."
She said Kooiker projects inclusiveness, but doesn't follow through on that.
“He also is divisive as mayor,” she said. “One of the most important traits as a leader is to unite people and bring them together. I haven’t seen Sam build consensus on anything.”
Whether voters consider recent incidents with racial overtones at the Rushmore Place Civic Center, the stalled downtown Presidential Plaza project, the failed vote on the $180 million civic center expansion, or the aftermath of the Aug. 2, 2011, shootings in which two Rapid City police officers were killed and Doyle’s husband, officer Tim Doyle, was wounded, the common denominator, Doyle said, was a mayor who played no leadership role.
“In wake of shootings, Police Chief Steve Allender was the only one who stepped forward, and not just for the police department, but for the entire community,” Doyle said. “He got out front to help heal the hearts and minds of the residents of this community. That’s what leadership is and what this community needs.
“In the aftermath of the shooting, Mayor Kooiker gave Allender an outstanding leadership award,” Doyle added. “Now that he has Allender as an opponent for mayor, he is painting him as a racist. And he does this at a time when everyone knows how high racial tensions are across the country. He knowingly is creating a tense working environment for those who protect and serve us. It begs the question, why on earth did he keep Allender on until his retirement?”
Looking forward to next term
For his part, Kooiker said his award to Allender “was sincere,” and rather than concentrating on the deficiencies of his opponent’s platform, he would renew his focus on his top priorities for his third term. Among those priorities, he said, were to continue addressing aging streets and utilities; addressing the issues at the civic center in a manner consistent with the will of the voters expressed on March 10; keeping up efforts at streamlining processes; and improving customer service at City Hall, and continuing to build a strong foundation for race relations.
When questioned about the city’s role in preventing racially charged incidents and improving the relationship between whites and Native Americans, Kooiker equated the process to that occurring at the Sanford Underground Research Facility in Lead.
“They’re doing that work deep underground for the sake of research in hopes it leads to scientific breakthroughs,” Kooiker said. “Race relations are similar. Life is about relationships. You develop relationships in hopes it leads to positive achievement. We need to approach the topic of race relations with open arms, knowing it will take years."
Kooiker touts ongoing discussions with Native Americans, revitalization of the city’s Human Relations Commission in April 2014, establishment of a polling place in Lakota Homes in 2011, and a unanimous resolution by the city council encouraging the federal government to return tribal trust land as recent evidence of the city’s intent to improve racial relations.
In noting his long-time infatuation with Native culture, Kooiker said that, as a white man, he had not encountered racial discrimination. But, as a man with cerebral palsy, a disease that has left him with a pronounced and conspicuous gait, he does understand prejudice.
“Because of my life’s experience I haven’t felt racial discrimination obviously, but I know what prejudice feels like,” he said. “Prejudice for race or for physical limitations had given me a perspective that I believe is important as mayor.”
And, after surmounting myriad challenges and reaching the top job in Rapid City politics, Kooiker said he’s still taking the critics in stride.
“I believe I am a facilitator, bringing issues and people together,” he explained. “When that happens, there is going to be friction. Without friction a car doesn’t go down the road. It’s important to have an accessible administration, one that’s open to constructive and unconstructive criticism.”