MERCER: Sometimes a kiss isn’t just a kissNot since their first inaugural ball, when they danced together for the first time as South Dakota’s then-new first couple, did Jean and Mike Rounds have such a big public moment that seemed so personally genuine, as they did Thursday morning.
By: Bob Mercer, Republic Capitol Bureau
Not since their first inaugural ball, when they danced together for the first time as South Dakota’s then-new first couple, did Jean and Mike Rounds have such a big public moment that seemed so personally genuine, as they did Thursday morning.
That 2003 dance was to a big-band version of a 1970 hit, from back when they were teenagers, the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun.” This time, however, there wasn’t any music, not at 8:30 a.m. in a small, packed backroom at the Redrossa restaurant.
Jean Rounds stood by her husband as he announced he is running for election to the U.S. Senate in 2014. And in the moment right after, the normally reserved Jean let her affection and admiration show, with a hug and a kiss on his cheek.
Mike’s expression suggested this wasn’t in the script. Her kiss sealed one more new beginning in their lives together on South Dakota’s stage.
They have traveled the political road for most of their married lives — 10 years as a state senator, two years campaigning for governor, eight years as governor and the past two years out of office, living in that big new house along the Missouri River outside Fort Pierre. Now they face two more years of campaigning — and with victory, six years in the Senate.
Mike Rounds, 58, acknowledged in his speech that he’d undergone a change of mind about taking the next step of seeking federal office in Washington, D.C. He said he’d previously told people he didn’t want to serve there, but as a grandfather he now sees things differently.
He said Jean agrees with that. They are now grandparents five-fold. Generational responsibility was the dominant theme of his talk and will be throughout the campaign.
His speech was succinct, concise and perhaps the best in his career, with nothing trite. He dusted off a few lines that were constants during his time as governor — thanking the armed forces veterans in the audience, and his old slogan that working together can make South Dakota better — but there was a different, tighter focus now.
He sounded determined and assured but not arrogant, declaring that come 2026 — the nation’s 250th birthday — today’s grandchildren must have the same opportunities and freedoms that his generation has received and enjoyed from their forefathers.
He asked a bottom-line question about the grandchildren’s future: “Will the money in their pocket be worth anything?”
There was little in the speech that was South Dakota specific, without any mention of the current U.S. senator, Democrat Tim Johnson, nor of Republicans or Democrats at all. The only politician he mentioned was the late President Ronald Reagan.
He said Reagan was right that someone who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is an ally and isn’t a traitor because of the other 20 percent.
“We do not need to compromise our principles to get things done,” Rounds said, citing protection of the nation and its people, helping those in need and good education. “We need to become a country of cooperation instead of confrontation.”
The sense of generational continuity was reinforced by the candidate’s father, Don Rounds, whom campaign aide Rob Skjonsberg described as “the guy who started it all.”
Now 85, still getting around, there was a bit of shake in his left hand — does Don Rounds ever get nervous? — as he introduced the best-known man in the room, “My son, who will be the next United States senator from the state of South Dakota, Mike Rounds.”
For the former governor this is the third act in a political life. He is trying to return to the legislative branch of government where he began and enjoyed the general collegiality and horse-trading of lawmaking.
He served as the Republicans’ leader for six of his 10 years in the state Senate. While he excelled there and at business as Karl Fischer’s chosen successor to head their insurance and real estate agency in Pierre, Rounds didn’t take so completely to having sole responsibility as chief executive for an entire state 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for eight years.
To be good at governor in South Dakota nowadays takes someone who’s something of a grinder. It’s unlike campaigning or legislating.
John Thune faced the same dilemma a dozen years ago. Thune had imposed upon himself a three-term limit as a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He pondered whether to run for governor or for U.S. Senate in 2002.
Had Thune run for governor, there probably wouldn’t have been a primary — and Mike Rounds wouldn’t have been a candidate or been elected governor. Thune instead sought the Senate, challenging Johnson, the Democratic incumbent.
Thune’s decision opened the gate for a mud-wrestling match. When state Attorney General Mark Barnett and former Lt. Gov. Steve Kirby feuded too much in the Republican gubernatorial primary, voters looked to the third option, Mike Rounds. After Rounds upset Barnett and Kirby, he became the instant favorite and easy victor over Democrat Jim Abbott.
Rounds’ administration however drifted as years passed. Legislators increasingly seized the initiative. He left office in 2010 with a huge budget deficit that his successor and lieutenant governor, now Gov. Dennis Daugaard, decided should be solved through new frugality within state government and immediate cuts of 10 percent in most budgets.
Two years removed from office have given Mike Rounds the time to consider whether he should take chance in politics. South Dakota hasn’t sent a governor to the U.S. Senate since Harlan Bushfield in 1942. Now Rounds hopes to be the state’s first former governor to make the trip.
The Carpenters line — “A kiss for luck and we’re on our way” — came to mind in that final second of public privacy Thursday as Mike and Jean Rounds looked at each other. Then a Rounds campaign began again.