MERCER: A man of ambition, and of perturbation about a predecessorPIERRE — Jason Gant reaches the ripe age of 35 on Dec. 18. He is a curious case of a young man in a hurry.
PIERRE — Jason Gant reaches the ripe age of 35 on Dec. 18. He is a curious case of a young man in a hurry.
Ten years ago he ran for Sioux Falls city council and lost. Seven years ago he ran for the state Senate and won — and won again two years later — and won a third term two years after that. Then he ran for secretary of state in 2010 and won.
His ambition to reform the secretary of state’s office operations and its governing laws and regulations is unmistakable.
Just as obvious is the low opinion he holds of his predecessor, and fellow Republican, Chris Nelson.
By most people’s standards for neutrality, Nelson oversaw South Dakota’s elections clean as could be for his eight years as secretary of state and his 13 years before that as state elections supervisor. Term-limited in 2010, he ran for the U.S. House. He placed second in a three-way primary for the Republican nomination behind now-Congresswoman Kristi Noem.
With no obvious next step, he received an opportunity from new Gov. Dennis Daugaard. Public Utilities Commissioner Dusty Johnson gave up his newly-won second term on the PUC to become Daugaard’s chief of staff. Daugaard appointed Nelson to the vacancy.
That Gant is so dismissive of Nelson is clear but the reason isn’t. Whether people are friends of Gant or detractors, they pick up on it and acknowledge they are puzzled.
Asked about it a few days ago, Gant replied, “I have no interest in gossip.”
The two men’s paths intersected in an odd way this fall.
Gant took office on Jan. 2. Neither Nelson nor Gant submitted legislation last winter that was called for in a voting-rights settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union. When the misstep was brought to Gant’s attention by the ACLU recently, he sidestepped responsibility.
In an Oct. 31 letter to the Sioux Falls office of the ACLU, he said that “from a review of my records, the legislation was not provided to me, nor pre-filed with the Legislative Research Council prior to my taking office.
“As a result,” Gant’s letter continued, “it was not included as part of my legislative package in 2011.”
That comment led to a question in recent days for Nelson. Did Nelson drop the ball during the transition to Gant? Nelson provided a copy of a Dec. 30 letter he wrote to Gant. On the letter’ second page, Nelson specifically talked about the one piece of legislation recommended by the state Board of Elections for introduction in the 2011 session.
“It is my understanding that you will make a decision pursuant to SDCL 12-1-10 regarding the introduction of this bill in the 2011 legislative session,” Nelson wrote.
Attached was a copy of the draft legislation. The letter was cc’d to a long list of people including Gov.-elect Daugaard, four key legislators and various state government and association officials. When Gant in turn was asked about this a few days ago, he expressed surprise. He acknowledged receiving the letter but didn’t remember seeing the legislation mentioned.
Asked for comment the next day, he offered this statement:
“In the December 30, 2010, letter, there was no indication that this legislation needed to be submitted to comply with the May 10, 2010 Settlement Agreement.
“In fact, nowhere in this correspondence was the lawsuit mentioned. Had a lawsuit or pending action regarding a settlement agreement been mentioned, there would have been no question regarding its introduction to the 2011 legislature.”
On Tuesday, the state Board of Elections voted again, just as it had in May 2010, to recommend introduction of the legislation. The motion came at Gant’s request.
The unsettling thing about this matter is that it undermines his stature in a field — elections — where the modus operandi is being safe so there’s no need to be sorry.
Jason Gant clearly has big plans during his time as secretary of state.
He’s brought corporate filings into the technology age. He wants to use the ability to transmit data in ways that will modernize elections, so that voting will be easier for people. He uses Twitter and Facebook in ways that no other state office previously did.
He wants county auditors to use standard forms and follow uniform practices. He plans a complete review of South Dakota’s election laws, not just for state offices but at the county and municipal levels too.
He wants to create a searchable database for campaign finance information.
And yet, when he tries to make end runs around the non-partisan Board of Elections, as was the board’s perception regarding a series of rules proposals last week, or when he sidesteps the board members altogether by not seeking their recommendations on legislative proposals after promising a few months ago to do so, he creates suspicion and invites opposition.
Gant was effective as a senator in passing legislation. He was prime sponsor of seven bills in his final session in 2010 and all seven became law. He passed seven of 10 in the 2009 session; four of seven in 2008; six of eight in 2007; five of eight in 2006; and one of one in his first session in 2005. His first piece of legislation clarified when the June elections should be held. Through the six years in the Senate, he offered more than one dozen pieces of legislation on open government and on voting and election matters.
So he has a track record of getting things done.
Gant received 54 percent of the vote last November. Four years earlier, Nelson was unopposed for re-election. Four years before that, Nelson received 56 percent of the vote in a three-way race.
Only five other legislators in South Dakota’s history have served as secretary of state: Frank Rood from rural Stanley County, Charles Burkhart from rural Gregory County, Gladys Pyle of Huron, Henrietta Larsen of Wessington Springs and Alice Kundert of Mound City. No secretary of state has been elected governor.
If that’s where Jason’s next level of ambition takes aim, the farm boy from Geddes could get there. He has the ability. He has a nice wife, Chris, and they have three youngsters. His challenge is developing the maturity needed for a chief executive.
Getting past his perturbation regarding another farm boy from White Lake, and offering a truly felt handshake, might be a place to start.