There’s a new object in the South Dakota political solar system.
That’s how Jeff Barth, a self-described rebel within the Democratic Party, views the founders of a new Democratic organization in the state.
“I’ve actually compared them to an Oort cloud,” he said.
“Beyond Pluto, there are comets meandering around in the icy cold far, far, far away from the sun,” Barth said. “A couple of them somehow clumped together out there, and now they’re forming a planetesimal unit.”
That’s both a metaphor and a literal description of an Oort cloud. If you don’t speak Barth, here’s the translation: The comets are energetic, progressive Democrats on the fringes of the official party structure, and the planetesimal unit is the new organization they’ve formed. They call it South Dakota Progress, and they hope to raise money and recruit candidates and generally help pull the party away from the Black Hole it seems in danger of entering.
The party suffered a walloping in the Nov. 4 election, and since then it’s tough to pick out any Democrats in a glance around the state’s political planetarium. Democrats have nobody in any of the 10 state-level elected offices, nobody in the state’s three-person congressional delegation and only 20 of the state’s 105 legislators.
In Rapid City election results, Democrats failed to unseat a legislator whose anti-gay rhetoric has been condemned and labeled as bigotry by some in his own party. That legislator is Phil Jensen, a Republican, who trounced Democratic challenger Robin Page by 30 percentage points in their District 33 state Senate race.
Many of the founders of South Dakota Progress were involved in Page’s campaign, according to an initial news release from the group issued 16 days after the election. The release said Page’s campaign “provided a place for the energy of young Democrats leading up to the election.”
The group’s first meeting Nov. 15 drew 16 people, the release said, including the Sioux Falls consultant who developed Page’s strategy, Bajun Mavalwalla, plus “long-time members of the Democratic Party, members of the local LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community and tribal members.”
Despite the language in the news release identifying the Page campaign as a rallying point, a Rapid City member of the group, David Hubbard, downplayed its influence when interviewed recently by the Rapid City Journal.
“I don’t think it necessarily relates to any one candidate or any particular campaign,” he said. “I believe we’re kind of gathering energy from a lot of people who feel dissatisfied or feel underrepresented in the state.”
The woman who distributed the initial news release and who was identified in that release as the chairwoman of the group’s steering committee, Tasiyagnunpa Livermont, has already left the group. She and Hubbard both said she underestimated the time commitment and was pulled away by other matters.
Neither the initial news release nor Hubbard, in his interview with the Journal, spoke of focusing exclusively on any particular level of politics. But there have been indications the group will keep its focus on local-level candidate recruiting and assistance.
Mavalwalla, in an interview with the Sioux Falls Argus Leader last month, said he’s proposing to focus on school board and city council candidates to create a bench of future county and state candidates.
Following a meeting of State Democratic Party officials with South Dakota Progress founders earlier this month, newly elected state Democratic Party Chairwoman Ann Tornberg said her understanding is that South Dakota Progress will recruit candidates for local-level positions like school boards and township boards. Joe Lowe, the state party’s newly elected vice chairman, expressed a similar view that South Dakota Progress will focus on city council and other local races.
Whatever level of politics draws the group’s focus, South Dakota Progress clearly hopes to make a statewide splash in fundraising. The group intends to operate as a nonprofit with at least one associated political action committee. Eventually, Hubbard said, the group would like to operate four PACs in all, perhaps focused on fundraising in different regions of the state.
One of the questions facing the group is whether, despite its intention to help the Democratic Party, it risks becoming a divisive presence like the tea party’s splitting of the Republican Party.
Mike Wilson, chairman of the Pennington County Democratic Party, has met with the group and thinks it will be complementary.
“They didn’t split off from the party,” Wilson said. “They kind of emerged from frustration with the existing process. They weren’t part of the existing process, but they’re trying to join and they want their own voice.”
Hubbard, too, said the group is intent on aiding rather than fracturing the party.
“Some people are concerned that our efforts might redirect resources that would normally go to the South Dakota Democratic Party,” Hubbard said, “and our response has been that we’re not looking to take resources away. We’re looking at bringing new resources to the party.”
Perhaps the group’s biggest challenge will be sustaining its early energy, unlike similar groups which formed in the past. For example, Democratic activists frustrated by the 2010 election formed the South Dakota Alliance for Progress in 2011 and published a number of issues of a newsletter called the Antidote before folding in 2012.
Barth, a Minnehaha County commissioner who lost his bid for the party chairmanship to Tornberg, hopes South Dakota Progress’ effort to complement the party does not drain it of insurgent-style energy.
“I hope they don’t get burned out,” he said, “by going down too close to the Sun.”