After 6 months, Gov. Daugaard keeps principles, adapts to faster pacePIERRE — The life of a man changes when he takes office as governor. In the six-plus months since he recited the oath and moved into the executive suite at the Capitol building, now at age 58, Dennis Daugaard has found that out, in ways big and small.
By: Bob Mercer, The Daily Republic
PIERRE — The life of a man changes when he takes office as governor. In the six-plus months since he recited the oath and moved into the executive suite at the Capitol building, now at age 58, Dennis Daugaard has found that out, in ways big and small.
There are no dinners without interruption at a restaurant with your wife, Linda. The same is true for lunch with your daughters or standing in line with your son for a sandwich at a sub shop.
People walk up and want to talk. He’s no longer just a lanky, polite, reserved-looking fellow among the crowd.
Now he’s the governor.
During the legislative session, when he was recommending, and getting, 10 percent cuts or more throughout much of state government’s budget, folks would volunteer their opinions to him.
Since the Missouri River flooding crisis that took hold in May, people have wanted to ask and talk about that.
Generally they want to at least just say hello because Dennis Daugaard is their governor.
It’s nice, he said, but distracting when trying to have personal time in public with his family.
Still he’s glad in the whole, he says, that he was entrusted by the voters with the opportunity to serve South Dakota.
“I am most days, not every day,” Daugaard acknowledged. “But then the alternative is, every job has its moments that are enjoyable and those not enjoyable.
“Overall I’d say I enjoyed it a lot. You get to see a lot of things you’d never see.”
He mentions visits to businesses where he receives looks behind the scenes and explanations of how things work in ways he probably wouldn’t have known otherwise.
Dennis Daugaard is finding how his schedule often no longer belongs to him. He intended to spend the months of late spring and early summer visiting tribal government leaders in their home country. The Missouri River flooding overwhelmed that plan and knocked it backward in time.
Now the tribal visits are one of the things he said he’ll be doing next. They were to be his top priority after the legislative session was complete.
The thick briefing binder that contains state government’s relationships with each tribe is in his private briefcase for reading when he can, along with four pardon requests, Ellsworth Air Force Base matters, and other current issues needing immediate attention.
Convincing the Legislature and the South Dakota public to accept cuts in state government’s budget was his first priority upon taking office in January. “When I first came in, the goal was very clearly getting the budget in shape,” Daugaard said.
That he did. He wasn’t ready in other ways. He hoped to spend more time quietly studying topics of importance and in the past had found greater satisfaction deliberating in greater depth.
“I guess I didn’t appreciate the pace and variety of issues. You are asked to switch gears so frequently,” he said. “It’s sometimes hard to be comfortable with the rapidity of going from one issue to another.
“I have to be comfortable with delegating, and I am,” he continued.
Relying on others for their informed judgments, rather than having the chance to conduct his own analysis, wasn’t part of his management approach as chief executive for the Children’s Home Society or as a legislator or lieutenant governor.
“That’s different,” he said.
The new governor is one of the most experienced to have held the office in South Dakota’s history.
He served six years as a state senator from Minnehaha County and became known behind the closed doors of the Republican Senate caucus for a quietly determined leadership.
It’s a big reason why Mike Rounds, who was Senate Republican leader for four of those same years, invited Daugaard to run with him in 2002 on the Republican ticket for governor and lieutenant governor.
For the past eight years, Daugaard was lieutenant governor, serving in a part-time role fulfilling the duties that Rounds gave him, and presiding over the Senate for the eight weeks or so of the annual legislative session.
After 14 years in the Senate chamber, serving his first legislative session as governor was different. “As governor, you’re a little bit more removed,” Daugaard said.
Legislators are in the caucus rooms and committee hearings and on the chamber floors for the debates and in the hallways for the conversations and at social gatherings during lunches and dinners. As lieutenant governor, he originally attended Senate Republican caucuses.
But that changed as Republican legislators grew increasingly independent of Rounds as governor and many became disappointed in his leadership.
At the same time, first Republican Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, of Watertown, and later Senate Republican leader Dave Knudson, of Sioux Falls, began positioning for a possible run for governor and a primary election against Daugaard.
In an interview, Daugaard didn’t mention those internal dynamics. He simply offered an insight that never made the news.
“Over time that evolved to not being in caucus,” Daugaard said.
Schoenbeck mysteriously backed out of his campaign just as he was ready to kick it off. Knudson ran, getting organized somewhat belatedly, and finished third in a five-way Republican primary in June 2010.
Daugaard, with the fundraising power of a semi-incumbency, a well-organized campaign and the willingness in the winter and spring of 2010 to show some independence from Rounds, walked away with the Republican nomination. He received 50.4 percent of the primary votes. The only question by primary day was whether he would finish above or below a majority. He needed just 35 percent and first place to win the nomination.
In the general election Daugaard had little difficulty, winning the governorship with 61.5 percent of the vote against Democrat Scott Heidepriem.
Daugaard quickly named a transition team, headed by retiring Great Western Bank CEO Jeff Erickson, and began making personnel decisions. One big piece of the continuity was the role of his campaign manager, son-in-law Tony Venhuizen, who is now the governor’s director for policy development and communications.
They brainstormed names for Cabinet posts and key executive posts, building lists, dividing them into two tiers and having staff make initial contacts.
Those Cabinet members who wouldn’t be retained were informed early so they had a month of time to make plans before his team moved into place in January.
The transition organization carried over from his campaign when he had teams of supporters with special expertise offer advice on key topic areas.
In selecting Cabinet members, Daugaard said he used the approach he’d found successful in the past. His philosophy is high performers typically aren’t looking for new jobs because they’re succeeding in their current ones.
One of the internal criticisms during the Rounds governorship was the difficulty several of his chiefs of staff, Cabinet members and other key officials found in trying to meet with him as events flowed. Another was that nearly every issue went first through his chief of staff, a post in which three different men served during the eight years.
Daugaard keeps an organization chart on his desk in his office and put a formal schedule in place for staying in contact.
His executive committee of six meets for an hour each Monday afternoon, then he joins them for an hour or longer. Each week he meets individually with each executive committee member.
Each executive committee member has specific oversight assignments for different departments and agencies, and he or she meets weekly or every other week with each of those Cabinet secretaries, commissioners and executive directors.
Daugaard meets quarterly with each member of his Cabinet, and he holds monthly Cabinet meetings over lunch for 90 minutes.
Every governor in memory has needed to deal with some or all of what he’s faced in the first six months: Severe weather, forest fire, Missouri River problems, prison violence, state budget problems.
He’s found there are few chances to go back home with his wife to the house they built together back in rural Minnehaha County, on the land where his parents’ farm once was before they had to sell it off.
They’ve managed once, lately, during the Fourth of July weekend.
“We don’t get home much,” he said. “I miss that. I miss being out when the weather is good and miss being out in the country.”
The next big round of action is assembling the next budget proposal he’ll deliver to the Legislature late this year for consideration in the 2012 legislative session.
Other than expenses beyond control, such as the federal matching rate for Medicaid funding, he’s asking department heads to hold the line and keep the cuts made this year.
Bringing spending into balance with revenue is his preferred way to deal with the shortfall so that inflationary increases can be granted again at some point for school aid, Medicaid and state employee salaries.
“No restoration is what I’d call it,” Daugaard said.
He doesn’t support the petition drive being organized for a possible statewide vote in the November 2012 election on an additional 1 percent of sales tax.
He said it’s too early to ask for more revenue when there hasn’t been time yet for efficiencies to show their effectiveness and to see where more funding will be needed. He said government needs to learn to adapt in ways that private business does when faced with recession or new competition.
“That’s why competition in a free market works as well as it does. But you don’t have that kind of influence on government,” Daugaard said. “I really think it’s too soon to seize upon a new revenue source as the answer.”
The frugal tone struck by Daugaard when he voluntarily reduced his salary and cut the salaries for Cabinet members and executive staff carried through too in a very private way. The governor is paying for the groceries purchased for his family and for events at the governor’s mansion.
Daugaard also drives when he can, rather than fly on one of the state jets, the second of which was purchased during the Rounds administration. Rounds, a pilot, often flew the state planes to and from events he attended whether in South Dakota or across the nation.
Paying the food bill isn’t something Daugaard tells people. He remains in many ways an innately humble person. He saw his parents take jobs as custodians in Sioux Falls when they lost the farm. As a teenager and young man, he worked many jobs to help his family and get through college and law school.
When asked about the grocery bill, Daugaard confirmed it. His answer told a much broader story about who he is as governor.
“We try to look at it as most voters would judge,” he said. “What would voters think about it if they were asked?”