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Matt Varilek

Matt Varilek, a member of Sen. Tim Johnson's staff, says he is pondering a run for the U.S. House of Representatives. (Photo by David Montgomery)

Matt Varilek, 36, of Sioux Falls announced Friday that he will run for the U.S. House seat now held by Republican Rep. Kristi Noem.

Varilek resigned Thursday as a staffer specializing in economic development issues for Sen. Tim Johnson, saying he wanted "clear separation between my work as a public servant for Sen. Johnson on behalf of South Dakota and this new phase in my role as a candidate."

Johnson offered support and praise of Varilek in a statement released Friday, pointing to his South Dakota roots and extensive experience in economic development issues.

"Matt knows South Dakota inside and out from growing up in Tabor and traveling around the state as my staffer," Johnson said. "If there were more Matt Varileks in Congress, we would be passing jobs bills and finding ways to help working families and the middle class."

Varilek, a Yankton native who also lived in Tabor, is the second announced candidate in the Democratic U.S. House primary, joining Minnehaha County Commissioner Jeff Barth. Varilek spoke highly of Barth on Friday but was predictably less complimentary of Noem.

"Jeff is a friend of mine. That was true before the campaign, it's true now, and I'm sure it will be true all the way through," Varilek said. "He has some good experience that I'm sure voters will want to take into account, but I feel I bring a different set of experiences that will make me the better candidate."

Barth offered similar sentiments to Varilek.

"I think Matt's a fine young man and a good candidate, but I'm the right candidate," Barth said.

Varilek and Barth both criticized Noem, who defeated former Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin in 2010.

"Kristi Noem is a leader in the tea party movement, and that movement seems to have a focus on protecting the interests of the powerful corporations and individuals," Varilek said. "She has voted to privatize Medicare and protect subsidies for the oil and gas industry. I think she wants the wrong people to sacrifice."

Noem spokesman Joshua Shields declined to make a direct response to criticism from Varilek and Barth.

"Rep. Noem is focused on the job South Dakotans elected her to do, which is to cut spending and remove unnecessary regulations for businesses and job creators," Shields said. "After the Democrats complete their primary campaign process, Rep. Noem will be ready to run on her experience and record of fighting the status quo in Washington."

Like Varilek, Barth focused his criticism on Noem rather than his primary opponent.

"I think Matt's candidacy shows there is plenty of opposition to the tea party woman who is in office currently," Barth said. "I think you could see more candidates enter the race."

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Herseth Sandlin has been the subject of some speculation about the 2012 House race but hasn't yet announced her intentions. She didn't return a Journal call Friday seeking comment about her plans. Barth, however, doubts she will run next year.

"I think she's looking at 2014," Barth said.

Varilek said he had spoken to Herseth Sandlin "several times during the course of my decision-making process" and sent her an email announcing his decision.

"I have no idea what her intentions are," Varilek said, adding that he is in the race to stay, regardless of what Herseth Sandlin does.

Contact Kevin Woster at 394-8413 or kevin.woster@rapidcityjournal.com.

 

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