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TUPPER: Don't run, Stephanie

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opinion Mitchell, 57301
The Daily Republic
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Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

It's a phrase so overused by public figures that nobody believes it anymore.

"I'm [quitting/resigning/retiring] to spend more time with my family."

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Why people continue to use that tired old line to cover up their real reasons for doing something, I don't know. I guess it's just the easy way out.

There are times, of course, when somebody talks about wanting to spend time with family and really means it. I suspect the recent comments from former congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin are an example.

Herseth Sandlin said to our Denise Ross during an interview last week, "I love my family life. I'm enjoying the time and all the plans we have made for the summer."

"On the flip side," continued Herseth Sandlin, who is the mother of a 4-year-old boy, "working moms deserve an effective voice in policymaking."

Translation: She really wants to get back into politics. But she's conflicted about it.

Her comments were part of an unofficial media tour she's been on lately. She's been popping up in news stories all over the state, and I take that as a sign that she's gauging reaction to her possible candidacy in South Dakota's 2014 U.S. Senate race. Democrat Tim Johnson plans to retire, leaving an open seat, and the only declared candidate so far is Republican former governor Mike Rounds. Johnson's son, Democratic U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, is thought of as another possible candidate.

Herseth Sandlin, if she runs, would come to the race burdened by a considerable load of baggage. She lost her 2010 U.S. House re-election bid to somebody -- Republican Kristi Noem -- who just months earlier was unknown to most South Dakotans. Herseth Sandlin limped through that race wounded by criticism from Democrats about such things as her opposition to the health care overhaul known as Obamacare, and some in her party remain angry at her for not being liberal enough. That's a problem, because Democrats in South Dakota are outnumbered by Republicans and cannot afford innerparty defections. To win a Senate seat, Herseth Sandlin needs all the Democratic votes and a bunch of the Republican ones.

But that's been a theme with Herseth Sandlin. She's been dogged for years by a reputation as a fence-sitter -- somebody who calls herself a Democrat but has taken Republicanlike positions on many issues, possibly to protect her electability. Now she's talking about valuing her family life but also thinks she's needed in Washington. She's still stuck on that old fence.

Politicians can't be fence-sitters forever. It works for a while at the beginning of a career when voters can be swayed by an articulate, fresh-faced, ambitious newcomer. The newness wears off, though, and voters start wanting an elected official to stand for something and show decisiveness. If they're confused about who a politician really is or what the politician really stands for, they'll toss that politician out as soon as a less-confusing and equally capable alternative -- like Kristi Noem -- comes along. And that's even more true when the alternative candidate is from the majority party.

Since losing to Noem, Herseth Sandlin has positioned herself well for a political comeback. She's lived and worked in the state. She's spent time being a mom. All of that makes her more grounded and more qualified to serve, in my opinion.

But I'm a little bothered by her use of the old "I want to spend time with my family" routine. If she's going to say that, she'd better mean it. She owes that to her son, who will someday grow up to read her comments. If she now goes off to spend months campaigning and six years working a breakneck schedule as a senator, voters and her son are going to have a hard time believing her.

I know how sexist that sounds. If Herseth Sandlin's husband, himself a former member of Congress, got back into politics, nobody would question his commitment to his family or his son. In a more equitable world, men would have to agonize over such things just as much as women.

But we don't live in that world. We live in reality. And that's why I say this to Stephanie Herseth Sandlin: Don't run.

If time with your son and your family is really so important to you that you would consider forgoing a Senate race, show it by temporarily making a sacrifice on their behalf. When your son is a little older, you'll still be a viable candidate, and you'll be even more respected for having honored your family above your ambition.

Or, if you've already decided to run, stop talking so much about the importance of family time. It'll look insincere later when you're spending nearly every ounce of your time and energy trying to win an election.

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