Opinion: Experience shows roadmap to legislative seatI was a rookie that went three for three. I ran for GOP chairman of Sanborn County and won. Sanborn had about 20 percent of the population of Davison County, but I was only 26 years of age. In the fall of 1975, the chairmen of Sanborn, Miner, McCook and Hanson counties met in Howard. We tried to find a “sacrificial lamb” to run for the Legislature, as the Democrats had held the three seats for four, six and eight years.
By: Milt Nelson, The Daily Republic
I was a rookie that went three for three. I ran for GOP chairman of Sanborn County and won. Sanborn had about 20 percent of the population of Davison County, but I was only 26 years of age.
In the fall of 1975, the chairmen of Sanborn, Miner, McCook and Hanson counties met in Howard. We tried to find a “sacrificial lamb” to run for the Legislature, as the Democrats had held the three seats for four, six and eight years. We agreed to come back with news of people willing to put their “head on the chopping block.” We came back empty-handed. My wife and I had agreed that if we could find no “lamb to be led to the slaughter,” I would volunteer.
I like people, was not bashful and had the desire to win.
I ran my campaign for $750, with $650 of it being mine, and 1,000 hours, 950 of them being my wife’s and mine. We began a year before the election and had no idea of the work involved.
The funeral director in Howard was Herb Willoughby, a former legislator. There was a meeting in their Community Room and we went. There were 30-40 people there and I did not talk to a soul. As we drove back to Woonsocket we agreed that I had better start talking to people.
My district covered four counties that included 25 or so towns from Montrose and Woonsocket to Alexandria and Howard. We subscribed to the newspapers in each town.
We would pick newsworthy articles and send folks the clippings along with a note of congratulations. We sent newspapers news releases that we hoped they would print free of charge. We had to keep up on the homecoming parades and the church suppers; I went to dozens.
In our brochures, we put a little information and also photographs with popular citizens hoping that it would help us. We used these as we campaigned door-to-door in every town and burg.
Montrose was on the east end of my district, some 70 miles from Woonsocket. Most of the people were Irish or German, Catholic and Democrat. I was Scandinavian, Republican and a Lutheran.
We had to campaign on weekends or after supper as usually no one would be home on weekdays. I’d knock and if someone came to the door, I would smile and tell why I was there. I’d say something like “I surely like the color of your house. I want to paint our house. Do you remember the name of the color?” If they’d invite me inside, I’d look for antique furniture. I know about antiques and would mention something about its value. They’d like that and tell me how grandpa or great-uncle had owned it.
I’d limit myself to three to five minutes. Before I’d leave, I would ask if there was any issue in the Legislature they’d like to talk about. Then I’d shake their hand, give them a brochure and ask for their vote. I got 45 percent of the vote in Montrose. If I hadn’t gone door-to-door, I’d have gotten 5 to 10 percent.
We went door-to-door in every town and at night we would get on phones and call farmers. Ninety-five percent of people are not politically motivated and if you would ask them for their vote, they will probably give it to you.
A contact told us who to talk to and called us when there was a meeting or parade. They also campaigned for us, like this dear lady, Evelyn Tripp, from Howard. She told friends, “I have never asked you for a favor, but would you vote for Milton Nelson?”
We would go to services at a different church every Sunday. We would never campaign, but you know people and their curiosity.
My running mate had a good idea for election night. We put ads in the newspapers inviting everyone to our “victory celebration” in the Revolution Steakhouse in Howard. It worked, we both won.
When I got to Pierre, I found I was the youngest senator ever. I was three days past my 28th birthday on Election Day.
Larry Anderson, the co-chairman, called the Legislature “full-time job, part-time pay.”
Milt Nelson is a businessman from Mitchell who also is a former member of the South Dakota Legislature.