The South Dakota Democratic Party is poised for a comeback.
The Democrats recently hired a new executive director, Berk Ehrmantraut, who worked with the Billie Sutton gubernatorial campaign in 2018. S.D. Democrats also opened a new West River field office in downtown Rapid City in May.
Ehrmantraut, a South Dakota native originally from Aberdeen, begins in his new position June 28. He’ll work out of the party’s Sioux Falls office. Prior to his start date, Ehrmantraut will be attending the SDDP’s George McGovern Day celebrations in Sioux Falls on June 25 and 26.
A graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., Ehrmantraut has been working in digital communications at Friends of Global Fight, which advocates to Congress for global health initiatives. The 24-year-old is no stranger to the South Dakota political scene, however. He started working on state legislative campaigns when he was in high school.
Ever since, Ehrmantraut spent his summers home from college working on campaigns in the state and worked as an intern in the state Legislature for the House Democrats.
“I met a ton of great Democrats in that time and got to know people. I knew I wanted to come back and do this when the time was right, and it just worked out,” he told the Journal on Thursday.
He was a finance staffer for Sutton during his run for governor in 2018, traveling with him to 44 of the 66 counties in the state.
"Berk is smart, hardworking, diligent, and a great organizer. He is committed to South Dakota's future. He will be a terrific asset to South Dakota in this new role," Sutton said of Ehrmantraut in a news release.
During those trips around the state, he noticed citizens’ enthusiasm for something new that brings people together.
“I was shocked; it didn’t matter how small the town was, people were excited, they wanted to meet Billie and share how they believed in his vision,” he said. “My favorite thing was meeting all the wonderful people across the state who know there’s more that brings us together than divides us.”
Unity, rather than division, is what Ehrmantraut seeks to bring to the Democratic Party. For citizens who are feeling hopeless about the future, he sees a new opportunity to show them the party has a vision and a path forward to bring people together.
“We need to tell people about our vision and find a new way forward,” he said. “I’m making sure I’m [visiting] communities all across the state. We care about everyone.”
Candidate recruitment is one of Ehrmantraut’s main goals as executive director. He said there is a lot of energy in the state as many people have been frustrated with Gov. Kristi Noem’s leadership. The state needs leaders who will focus on South Dakota rather than national issues with little to no effect on South Dakotans, and he said the government works better with a robust two-party system in place exchanging ideas.
“We’re going to focus on finding amazing people in communities across the state and bringing them into elected office, with the support and structure to accomplish that,” he said.
Ehrmantraut wants to show people why they should vote for Democrats.
“A lot of Democrat values are South Dakota values, but we haven’t done the best job explaining that. They’re the values of hard work, taking care of each other, and building an economy that works for everyone,” he said.
Communications, fundraising, and building the party’s messaging are all priorities. He plans to expand voter registration initiatives, helping create a new strategic plan and working with staff to accomplish those goals. It’s a lot of work ahead, but he believes there’s a lot of potential for the party to grow.
“We have great elected officials in the Legislature and great potential candidates. [The party] has potential to give people a place to vote for people they can believe in,” he said.
Affordable, accessible and quality health care, investing in education, and building an economy that works for everyone are his goals for the party.
“Education is big, and ensuring we get out of last place in teacher pay. I think all South Dakotans can agree that’s not acceptable; we need to invest in education and make sure [our students] can be the best they can be,” he said.
Building a strong, fair economy will come through paying workers fair wages, offering opportunities for small businesses to grow, and allowing major industries like tourism and agriculture to succeed.
If those aspects improve, he said “People can continue to live and thrive in the communities they grew up in and they won’t feel like they have to leave to live the life they want.”
Democrats in rural states have an unprecedented opportunity to connect with voters and build back better through federal investments in infrastructure, pandemic recovery, support for working families and increasing the resilience of our communities,” SDDP Chair Randy Seiler said in a news release. “It’s always great to bring a young person back to South Dakota. It is even better to bring back someone who is committed to advancing policies that help working families and building the Democratic party across the state. Berk’s prior campaign experience and communication skills will be a real asset as we work to connect with South Dakotans to elect people who will put people over partisan politics.”
In addition to hiring a new executive director, SDDP once again has a brick-and-mortar presence in Rapid City. The party’s new office, located at 402 St. Joseph St., Suite 4, is run out of a co-working space called the Garage. It’s open by appointment only Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but constituents are welcome to visit.
"We know the value of being more accessible to our members. With COVID restrictions easing, this is a great time to again have a presence in the community," SDDP Vice Chair Nikki Gronli said in a news release.
Native Outreach and Field Director Cante Heart has been using the office as her headquarters.
“It’s more accessible to be here in person and have a presence to be available to people who want to speak about issues or want to work together. I think it’s really important to meet with our community and constituents,” Heart told the Journal on Thursday.
The office is currently focusing on registering 5,000 new voters in the state as well as recruiting candidates statewide for public office at all levels. With the shift in party leadership, SDDP is focusing on finding new strategies to register voters and getting current voters to participate more.
Heart said the party needs to stop taking Native voters for granted. Areas with reservations have high voter turnout for Democrat candidates, so part of Heart’s job is to increase participation among Native voters as well as recognize them for their contributions in helping get Democrats elected and increase Native representation in elected offices.
“Voting wasn’t a tradition in our culture, so it’s up to us to create a new tradition, make voting useful and use our voice. And it’s more than just having a voice at the table, it’s about working together to increase the [quality] of life for our future generations,” Heart said.
One of Heart’s initiatives is a weekly speaker series, occurring online every Tuesday, to raise awareness of issues affecting both Indigenous people and South Dakota as a whole. Next Tuesday’s speaker is Ehrmantraut.
“I think we have a lot of work ahead of us, but we’re definitely on the right path to work together to create a better leadership for our people. Right now, our governor’s more focused on fireworks rather than preserving our natural resources; it’s really disheartening. We hope to work together to find a better person that can lead our state,” Heart said.
South Dakota Democrats need to start organizing and participating in elections more often if the situation is going to change, Heart said. She cited the recent Rapid City Area Schools Board of Education election, which had a 12% voter turnout, as a reason to acknowledge the importance of voting. The West River field office assisted with Area 2 Board candidate Tatewin Means’ campaign, helping mobilize people to canvass, registering people to vote, and notarizing absentee ballots.
“A lot of people don’t realize that voting is your voice, and we need to take advantage of that,” she said.