Debate dodging, bumper stickers, illegal staffing allegations color SD’s House raceWhile the future of the farm bill, Medicare and other major issues have been discussed during the campaign between Rep. Kristi Noem and Matt Varilek, Varilek v. Noem other, lesser issues have been tossed around as well.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
This is the fifth story in a series on the issues and accusations in South Dakota’s U.S. House race.
While the future of the farm bill, Medicare and other major issues have been discussed during the campaign between Rep. Kristi Noem and Matt Varilek, Varilek v. Noem other, lesser issues have been tossed around as well.
Noem, a freshman Republican, and Varilek, her Democratic challenger, will meet for a series of debates.
The two candidates held their first debate Aug. 21 at Dakotafest in Mitchell. Three more are scheduled and more are possible.
They are scheduled to debate on South Dakota Public TV on Oct. 18, on KELO-TV on Nov. 2 and in a forum to be held by the Rapid City Journal at a date yet to be announced.
Noem bowed out of a debate at the South Dakota State Fair and also declined to appear with Varilek at a forum sponsored by the South Dakota Rural Electric Association. She also turned down a debate offer from KOTA-TV in Rapid City, which would have also aired on KSFY-TV in Sioux Falls, and one by the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association.
The Black Hills Fox TV channel, the Pierre Chamber of Commerce and some college organizations have also offered to host debates. Varilek has accepted all offers while Noem has not responded to those requests for a joint appearance.
Noem said she has no regrets for not taking part in the proposed State Fair debate. She said the sponsor, the South Dakota Farmers Union, is biased in favor of Democrats.
“We have had an opportunity to have debates and we will continue to have more,” she said.
Varilek said he is ready to meet with Noem whenever they can come together and discuss the issues. When she didn’t attend the Farmers Union debate at the State Fair, he appeared alone and fielded questions from the crowd.
The two sides have also sparred over questions of illegal assistance to their campaigns. Congressional staffers may not take part in political campaigns while on the clock.
Noem, the South Dakota Republican Party and South Dakota War College, a conservative website, charged that Tonya Thompson Peterson, a Sen. Tim Johnson staffer, violated that policy by taking photos of Varilek at the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Wacipi June 30.
“While one would hope that Sen. Johnson isn’t subsidizing Matt Varilek’s campaign with taxpayer resources, the evidence here is troubling to say the least,” Tim Rave, chairman of the SDGOP, said in a press release.
Rave said the state GOP was asking for copies of all expense, mileage and reimbursement requests by his South Dakota staff for June and July.
Perry Plumart, director of communications for Sen. Tim Johnson, said Peterson was not working for the senator at that time.
“She was there completely on her own time and her own dime,” Plumart said.
Peterson also marched alongside Varilek and tribal members in the grand entry during the powwow, but Plumart said she did not do so as a representative of Johnson. Tribal members know her and just included her, he said.
Plumart said if the Republican Party wants copies of expense reports, they are available online.
It’s not the first time such a charge has been leveled. When Varilek was dipping his toe into the water last fall, he made an appearance in Mitchell that was covered by The Daily Republic.
Dakota War College and the state GOP immediately alleged that Varilek, as a congressional staffer, was barred from involvement in political activity. He dismissed the charge, and had resigned from Johnson’s staff by the end of the year when he announced for office.
There are also some questions on the other side.
During the Dakotafest debate on Aug. 21, Jordan Stoick, Noem’s congressional chief of staff, was in attendance.
In an email reply to The Daily Republic, Stoick said he did not ride to and from the debate with Noem and her supporters.
“I was there alone on personal leave. I waved at Kristi prior to the debate and think we may have said hello when she walked past me, but certainly was not advising her,” he said.
“I hung around with her afterwards for about half an hour to route constituent inquiries she was taking from folks coming up to her behind the tent (there were numerous requests for official office assistance and constituent photos afterward),” Stoick said. “Those were not campaign-related. No gray area here.”
Varilek said he feels both sides are on the up-and-up and said he is not getting any undue assistance from Johnson staffers or others in government posts.
Bumper sticker brouhaha
There have even been some comic moments in the back-and-forth, such as charges that Varilek pried an Obama bumper sticker off his car.
Tony Post, executive director of the South Dakota Republican Party, said it was “widely known” that Varilek had an Obama bumper sticker on his Buick but took it off once he announced his candidacy for office. “South Dakota voters deserve to know where Varilek stands,” Post said in a press release about the missing sticker.
Varilek acknowledged he did have and then remove an Obama bumper sticker on his car.
“I’ve had a lot of bumper stickers on my car. That was one of them,” he said.
“It’s ridiculous that we’re discussing bumper stickers instead of discussing issues.”