Opinion: Kloucek's appeal evident at recent dinnerIt should have come as no surprise to anyone at last week’s Planning and Development District III Legislative Dinner that Rep. Frank Kloucek positioned himself to speak first.
By: Seth Tupper, Editor, The Daily Republic
It should have come as no surprise to anyone at last week’s Planning and Development District III Legislative Dinner that Rep. Frank Kloucek positioned himself to speak first.
In my experience, I’ve never seen a more eager lawmaker than Kloucek, the Scotland farmer who has been elected to 22 years of service in the Legislature.
At the dinner, as usual, Kloucek was outnumbered. Seated at a table with five other lawmakers in the Mitchell Technical Institute amphitheater, he was the only Democrat.
When he started speaking, the laughs from the audience followed almost immediately. I wasn’t taking notes, so I can’t reconstruct his opening joke exactly, but it went something like this:
“I was getting ready to go to Pierre this year, and my wife said, ‘Frank, just vote no and come home.’ She was right.”
Kloucek was referring to budget cuts that were widely panned by the few Democrats in the Legislature. Mostly, Kloucek was upset about the severity of cuts to K-12 education and Medicaid.
For the rest of his speech, Kloucek talked about various things that happened during the recently concluded lawmaking session. He ended by inviting the dozens of people in the audience to his annual post-dinner gathering at the local truck stop, where he was offering pie and ice cream. In keeping with the draconian budget cuts by Republicans, he said, he would only allow his guests one of the goodies, and not both.
Every time Kloucek rattled off a zinger like that, the five Republicans seated to his right remained stonefaced, even as most of the audience laughed.
It was a microcosm of Kloucek’s legislative career. Over the past two decades, he’s been looked down upon and scoffed at by the supposedly more “serious” members of the Legislature. All the while, as those legislators have come and gone, Kloucek has kept his focus on the regular people of his district, and they’ve rewarded him by sending him back to the Capitol year after year.
Yet, like Rodney Dangerfield, Kloucek gets little respect. I suppose that’s because he’s more prone than other legislators to do goofy things for his constituents, like fight for kolaches to be designated as the state pastry. But that connection to his constituents is also what gets him elected. A case in point: At the legislative dinner, when I introduced him to my wife, he immediately asked her maiden name and connected it to her father, who lives in Kloucek’s district.
In addition to his endearing qualities, Kloucek has his faults. He fights for a lot of lost causes, and I’ve seen analyses that place him among the most ineffective lawmakers, based on the number of his bills that get adopted. I’ve always figured those analyses ignore some subtle realities, like the fact that Kloucek was an early supporter of state funding to fix the many crumbling, 1930s-era dams around the state. Much later, talk of the issue widened as recognition of the problem grew. With issues like that, it’s difficult to measure the impact of a minority-party lawmaker whose early advocacy helped push an idea along.
Certainly, Kloucek and his ilk are widely ignored for having that kind of impact. I know many political people in South Dakota who are at a loss to explain how Kloucek keeps getting elected. They see him as too plainspoken, too common, too “provincial,” to borrow a word they might use.
What they fail to see is that many voters admire exactly those kinds of qualities. That was evident last week at the legislative dinner when, in a room full of voters, the only people not laughing along with Kloucek were his colleagues.