MERCER: From the right, a quiet leader leaves South Dakota's political sceneOne of South Dakota’s pre-eminent conservative women is retiring, again, from elected office. This time, Sen. Elizabeth Kraus says, she is done with the Legislature for good.
By: Bob Mercer, Republic Capitol Bureau
One of South Dakota’s pre-eminent conservative women is retiring, again, from elected office. This time, Sen. Elizabeth Kraus says, she is done with the Legislature for good.
That the woman who led the drive to define marriage in the South Dakota Constitution is leaving at age 68 is a surprise and yet not.
Kraus, R-Rapid City, showed no sign of slowing down during her current two-year term in the Senate. Her reserved mix of intelligence, diligence and courteous but firm personality remained the perfect counterpoint to her unmistakable curly red mane.
But she’s ready to spend the January through March months of legislative session with her husband, Jim, in some place other than the state Capitol and 104 other lawmakers and umpteen lobbyists.
They’re planning to start wintering in Florida and to live the rest of the year in Rapid City.
Kraus, a Republican, originally served in the House of Representatives from 2003 through 2006. She quickly became part of the House Republican leadership, but she didn’t seek a third consecutive term.
Instead, she dropped into a background role in Pennington County politics, until the Senate seat in her legislative district became open in 2010 through an odd series of changes.
The vacancy attracted both Kraus and another Republican former legislator, J.P. Duniphan. Kraus won the primary election with a landslide 74 percent of the vote.
With no Democrat or other candidate filed, Kraus had no opponent on the November ballot, and thus was automatically elected to the Senate.
There she’s served on the education committee and as vice-chair for the health and human services committee.
Kraus said she’s found thrilling the opportunity to work on state laws intended to restrict and thereby she hopes reduce abortions in South Dakota.
It was as a House member that she proposed the constitutional amendment defining marriage. The measure, known as Amendment C, was adopted by South Dakota voters in 2006.
The results were 172,305 yes and 160,152 no, winning majorities in 49 of 66 counties. But nearly every county’s margin was close, regardless of the winning side.
Kraus said her original goal was to prohibit gay people from adopting children. She happened to be at an event where she had the opportunity to meet Michele Bachmann, at the time a Minnesota legislator who was a Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives.
Kraus told Bachmann her idea. Bachmann suggested Kraus wasn’t trying to reach far enough. She offered that Kraus should look at defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
That’s what led to the constitutional amendment: “Only marriage between a man and a woman shall be valid or recognized in South Dakota. The uniting of two or more persons in a civil union, domestic partnership, or other quasi-marital relationship shall not be valid or recognized in South Dakota.”
Kraus, who calls Bachmann “a hero for conservative women,” crafted the specific sentences of the marriage amendment with the help of South Dakota’s then-attorney general, Larry Long, who would have to defend it in court if necessary, and with the aid of the then-speaker of the House, Matt Michels, R-Yankton.
“Every word had to be right,” she said. “That was a fascinating process.”
During the 2012 legislative session Kraus was the lead Senate sponsor of House Bill 1254 that attempts to correct problems identified in the 2011 law requiring pregnant women to seek counseling at a pregnancy center before going forward with an abortion.
The new legislation, whose prime sponsor was Rep. Roger Hunt, R-Brandon, rolled to easy passage this year, winning approval from the House 56-12 and the Senate 26-7. It was signed into law by Gov. Dennis Daugaard.
The 2011 law remains on hold in federal court before U.S. District Judge Karen Schreier. Kraus considers herself fortunate to have been a member of the Legislature during the years of the abortion and marriage debates.
“It was an honor to be here and be involved,” she said.
Monday, when lawmakers return from a two-week break to consider vetoes, marks her final day of regular session as a legislator. Several of her friends from Rapid City came to spend the last few days of the main run with her.
Seeing them together in the halls of the Capitol, and at a table for four for dinner one evening, the shared joy of their political sisterhood was unmistakable.
While she clearly disagreed with others many times, Kraus never spoke a bad word personally about another legislator to this reporter in her six years, even when people whose views seemingly aligned with hers were critical because she didn’t go far enough for them.
Her respect for others remained true through her final interview.
“I think they’re honorable men and women doing their best to govern well and make laws appropriate for our state,” she said. “It’s an honor to be here, to have a part in this process.”
Now she’s stepping back but not necessarily out.
“I’m just not going to have an active role in politics anymore,” she said. “I’ll be involved behind the scenes.”