Billie Sutton, the Democrat's candidate for governor, used the first moments of his address Friday to the Black Hills Forum & Press Club to answer a question he joked was burning in the back of every South Dakotan's mind.
“Can I ride a horse and shoot a gun?” Sutton, 34, quipped, referring to the Republican gubernatorial primary that saw Attorney General Marty Jackley and U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem jockeying in television ads to appear more cowboy-esque than the other. A cacophony of laughter echoed inside the Hilton Garden Inn in Rapid City.
“The answer is 'yes,' and at the same time,” the former professional bronc rider answered.
From there, Sutton focused his opening remarks and responses to a bevy of questions on the themes of compromise and bipartisanship.
“We have a lot of work to do, but we’re only going to achieve those by working together,” Sutton said early in his speech. “Party affiliation does not matter to me. What matters to me is that we get things done.”
Party affiliation, though, has determined much of South Dakota’s gubernatorial history. The state hasn’t elected a Democrat to the governor’s mansion since Dick Kneip served from 1971 to 1978. If Sutton can overcome the long odds and prevail against Noem in the general election on Nov. 6, he hopes to tackle teacher pay, justice system reform, and increasing the state’s affordable housing stock. Other key policy goals include improving workforce development, lowering the cost of state universities, strengthening the state’s economy, making health care more accessible, and implementing an early education program.
When a horse flipped over and onto Sutton in 2007, breaking two of his vertebrae, damaging his spinal cord, and permanently paralyzing him from the waist down, the life he’d envisioned as a professional on the rodeo circuit was also turned upside down. But it was the support he received from family and friends that helped him recover and instilled in him the importance of community. It also led to his desire to return the favor. Three years later, he ran and won a seat in the South Dakota state Senate.
“Sometimes life deals you different cards than you thought it would,” he said. “I can honestly say I would not change a thing and that’s because of what I know now.” Sutton credited his family, wife, Kelsea, and young son, Liam, as the lights in his life.
At the end of his speech, the room of nearly 200 offered Sutton a standing ovation. Then, they peppered him with questions.
Asked about his pro-life view and support for the Second Amendment, Sutton said he believed people want action and results from their representatives, not people who blindly subscribe to politically expedient party lines.
“I’m not going to subscribe to labels,” he said, calling the abortion debate “an issue that has so often divided us to a degree that I think a lot of people find frustrating.”
Sutton said that unlike others, his pro-life stance trickles down to issues like his support for better access to contraceptives, family planning services and, more generally, health care.
On a day when the Noem campaign claimed Sutton supported raising taxes and possibly implementing a state income tax, Sutton said that was not the case. The state simply needs to find better ways to allocate their money and discontinue the practice of “leaving money on the table” by storing surpluses in reserves, he said.
Sutton commended Elevate Rapid City, a new local economic development partnership between local groups and governments, as an example of the type of public-private partnerships that must be better utilized to help the state’s economy, gross domestic product output, and workforce shortages. Such partnerships are also important in the state’s effort to create an early education program, Sutton said. Studies, he said, pointed toward a return on investment of up to $20 for each dollar spent on such endeavors.
“The reality is you’re going to pay for it now or you’re going to pay for it later,” he said.
Asked about the Keystone XL pipeline that is expected to make more than 300 water crossings in South Dakota alone, Sutton said the state needed to demand more financial bonds from foreign companies conducting the operations in order to cover the costs of potential spills and other environmental disasters. Sutton also criticized Noem’s proposal to dismantle many state task forces and committees, which Sutton said are vital to understanding complex issues and soliciting input from the public.
”I don’t have all the answers,” he said. “But I know a lot of smart people that do have the answers.”
Sutton also characterized previous state Legislature attempts at bills barring transgender students from using bathrooms and locker rooms that don't match their biological sex at birth as "a solution in search of a problem." If such a bill passed the Legislature like it did in 2016, Sutton said he would follow Daugaard's lead and veto the bill.
Finally, Sutton addressed the elephant in the room. If elected, how would he push his policies through a Republican-dominated state Legislature? He won’t be successful in everything, he quickly admitted. But by making an effort to listen to his opponents' views, priorities and ideas, Sutton said he believed much could be accomplished.
“We’ve lost that willingness to find common ground,” he said. “Compromise should not be a dirty word. We should figure out ways to work together to get things done. Together, we can build a stronger South Dakota where tomorrow is better than today.”
The crowd rose once more as Sutton wheeled his way off the stage, smiling, and returned a cowboy hat to atop his head.