Today marks the 25th anniversary of the one of the worst air crashes in South Dakota’s history.
Eight men died in the April 19, 1993, crash, including Gov. George S. Mickelson. In an instant, the course of South Dakota political history was changed.
Mickelson had assembled the men to fly to Cincinnati where they met with representatives for the parent corporation of the John Morrell meatpacking plant in Sioux Falls. During the return to South Dakota, air traffic control at Chicago received a message from the plane at 3:40 p.m.: “Chicago ahh sierra delta we had ahh a decompression.”
The controller asked him to “say again.”
A man in the plane replied, “Mayday, mayday, mayday, six sierra delta we’re goin' down here. We need the closest airport we can get to here.”
The controller said Dubuque, Iowa, was about 25 miles away. The plane began heading that direction. At about 3:48 p.m., the person in the plane told the Dubuque tower: “Yeah we’ve got an engine out and ah, ah decompression.”
At 3:49 p.m., Dubuque lost the plane on radar. At 3:52 p.m. came the last radio contact from the plane. The plane struck a silo near Zwingle, Iowa, killing everyone aboard. They were about 8.5 miles short of the Dubuque airport. The National Transportation Safety Board received word about the crash at about 5:30 p.m. from a state official.
The board didn’t have a public-use agreement with South Dakota, but state officials wanted the board to examine the crash and they sent a team to Iowa but didn’t have a public hearing.
While waiting for the safety-board’s investigation findings, the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee had a hearing on the National Transportation Safety Board and the FAA because of the South Dakota crash.
The agencies reported a solid relationship and downplayed the differences. Larry Pressler, South Dakota’s Republican senator, pushed on what he thought was a split. South Dakota’s two Democrats, Sen. Tom Daschle and Rep. Tim Johnson, weren’t as aggressive.
The crash affected political decisions for three decades in South Dakota. Walter Dale Miller decided to run for a full term as governor. That put him into a Republican primary against the former governor, Bill Janklow, who wanted to return for a third term in 1994.
The state Senate however was in Democratic control for the first time since the 1970s. By that point Mickelson had become something of a wounded duck. Senate Democratic leader Roger McKellips of Alcester would negotiate deals with the Republican governor during the 1993 legislative session, only to find neither one had support among the senators of his party.
In the ’93 session Democrat Lars Herseth of Houghton was the Senate president pro tem, a position of some power. That too seemed odd given that Herseth and Mickelson had faced off in 1986 for the governorship. Each was the son of a former governor.
South Dakota faced other problems. The state Supreme Court declared video lottery to be unconstitutional in 1994, which led to a special legislative session so voters could decide whether to amend the state constitution. Meanwhile another ballot measure proposed reducing property taxes to 1 percent of the property’s assessed value, a reduction of about 30 percent statewide.
Janklow defeated Miller in the June primary. Democratic candidate Jim Beddow proposed a 30 percent reduction of property taxes during his first term. Janklow matched Beddow on the 30 percent but wouldn’t give a specific timetable.
That November, Janklow won the general election. Voters supported the constitutional amendment for video lottery and barely defeated the property tax cut. They also returned Republicans to the state Senate majority, ending the Democrats’ power after two years.
Janklow began 1995 with a new school-aid formula that generally equalized per-student support and cut property taxes 20 percent. He gradually reached 30 percent in his second term.
In the 1996 general election, Democrat Johnson defeated Republican Pressler for the U.S. Senate seat. In 2002, Janklow won election to the U.S. House of Representatives, while Republican U.S. Rep. John Thune nearly defeated Johnson.
A bust of George Speaker Mickelson will be installed later this year in the House lobby. It will be a match for one in Senate lobby of Peter Norbeck, who was a legislator, governor and U.S. senator.
A facsimile of the Mickelson bust is currently on display.