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Food, cocktails and politics: Interest groups press issues at dozens of Pierre socials

State Sen. Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell, left foreground, talks with Lon Clemensen, vice president of administrative services for Children's Care, Wednesday night during the Children's Care reception for legislators in Pierre. Vehle said such receptions are a good way to meet people and learn about issues. "They want to talk to you and I don't blame them," he said. "People drive all the way to Pierre to see you." (Chris Huber/Republic)

PIERRE -- South Dakota Town and Township Association members were serving ice cream at the state Capitol on Wednesday, but their minds were focused on a different form of sustenance.

"We're just trying to get a little more of the fiscal pie," said Cindy Foster, the association's president.

State officials, legislators, lobbyists and staff members lined up for the free ice cream, which was being handed out, complete with toppings, in the Senate President's and House Speaker's lobbies.

"We're out here to lobby for some bills," said Foster, a rural Miner County resident who serves on the Beaver Township Board. "And we've been serving SDSU ice cream for a few years."

Funding for roads is the primary issue for towns and townships, she said. Foster said there is grave concern about flooding this spring, which could close or damage more rural roads.

So while they scooped the ice cream, the association's leaders talked about the need for cold, hard cash for the 918 townships in the state. About half -- 449 -- have opted-out of the property tax cap. A bill to raise license plate fees would help maintain roads, and association members were using soft ice cream to soft-sell their support for the legislation.

"It's a way of helping the legislators put a name of an association with its members," Foster said.

The state's 105 legislators, as well as other state officials and employees, receive a lot of help remembering names, titles and groups, often with food and drink to provide additional reinforcement.

Socials are a regular event during and after the day's work at the Capitol. In all, 125 events are on the Legislative Social Calendar dating from the start of the session last month to its end in March. On Wednesday, nine events were slated, ranging from blood pressure checks by the USD Sanford School of Medicine, to ice cream with the towns and townships representatives, to cocktails and snacks with children's care advocates and gay-rights lobbyists, capped by more drinks and dinner with bankers.

"That's what drives people in," said Rick Duimstra, of Yankton, one of three men from the city who came to Pierre to lobby state officials. "We know the bait."

They were getting nibbles on the numerous treats they served in the Capitol Rotunda. Public Utilities Commission Chairman Steve Kolbeck, who had already picked up a bowl of ice cream, stopped by the Yankton table for some treats.

A TV journalist zipped over, reminded the Yankton men of the time they appeared on her show, and snapped up some food. Capitol employees stopped by and grabbed snacks before heading back to their desks.

"We're trying to make people aware of who we are and what we do," said Josh Svatos, another member of the Taste of Yankton team.

Getting the 'product' out

Legislators are barred from accepting money or any items of value in exchange for their vote.

In their oath of office, the legislators swear "... I have not knowingly or intentionally paid or contributed anything, or made any promise in the nature of a bribe, to directly or indirectly influence any vote at the election at which I was chosen to fill said office, and have not accepted, nor will I accept or receive directly or indirectly, any money, pass, or any other valuable thing, from any corporation, company or person, for any vote or influence I may give or withhold on any bill or resolution, or appropriation, or for any other official act."

People do ask for their votes, lawmakers said, but that's expected, and there is nothing wrong with it as long as there is no promise of a vote in exchange for the food and drink offered. Citizens come to Pierre to influence legislation, and meeting with the elected officials after official hours is a way to make their voices heard.

"I think it's a good way for them to get their product out," said Kolbeck, the only Democrat in a constitutional office in both South and North Dakota. Fittingly, Kolbeck was alone when he picked up the treats at the Yankton table.

But he was with several other state officials and lobbyists five hours later at the South Dakota Bankers Association event at the Ramkota RiverCentre. The bankers had offered lunch earlier in the day, along with a speech by Gov. Dennis Daugaard and other programs.

At the bankers' dinner, Daugaard, Lt. Gov. Matt Michels and Attorney General Marty Jackley were among the scores of guests who entered a large hall with three open bars, dozens of tables topped with white tablecloths and a jazz combo playing in the background.

Dozens of bankers, many with their wives, chatted with the state officials while sipping drinks. While baked goods and other snacks were shared during the afternoon, a river of beer, wine and alcohol flowed at the evening events -- and all of it was free for the officials and other guests.

Legislators gripped beers, sometimes wrapped in napkins to hide the label, sipped wine or slugged down the hard stuff. Plates of cheese and other snacks were in evidence, but alcohol appeared to be a main draw.

Busy schedules

At a Children's Care Hospital and School event, Sen. Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell, was drinking a Corona beer and chatting with an old friend. Vehle said he feels the social gatherings are very useful.

"It isn't like you're going to relax," he said. "They want to talk to you and I don't blame them. People drive all the way to Pierre to see you."

Vehle said in his first year in the state House, he didn't attend many events. One night, Boyd Hopkins, his then-boss at CorTrust Bank, attended a social event and was looking for Vehle. The next day, several legislators teased him about skipping the event and missing his boss.

Now, Vehle, who is in his second term in the Senate after two terms in the House, said he tries to attend several events during the session. Sometimes there are nice meals, he said. Other times, "olives and broccoli" are served.

There are more social events in the opening weeks of the session, Vehle said, since there are more bills that people want to talk about. As bills are killed in committee, the number of events wanes.

Vehle said he talks with people at the social events that he may have disagreed with on bills in this or a past session. They can talk plainly, he said, and make it clear that while they may disagree on an issue, they can find other areas where they can work together.

"You keep those relationships open," Vehle said. "You have to keep trust there."

He said while it's good for the lawmakers to meet with their constituents and listen to all points of view, he wonders if sometimes there are too many social engagements. When he was a lobbyist in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he said legislators often dined together and discussed bills and issues. That's a rarity these days, because lawmakers are so busy attending scheduled socials.

"You can't do that with other legislators now," Vehle said. "I miss that."

Former legislator Mel Olson, now a member of the Mitchell City Council, said he attended fewer and fewer social events during his years in Pierre. Olson served eight years in the Senate and four in the House.

He started by attending all the events he could get to, but at the end of his tenure, he went to five or six the entire session. He always went to events organized by the state Chamber of Commerce, the tourism events and one sponsored by the Realtors, since Mitchell-area people usually were there.

"I think they're important if local people go," he said. "But if the entire lobbyist corps of Pierre goes, they're less important. They can be a giant waste of time."

Olson said he doesn't think anything unethical or illegal happens at socials.

"I served with good legislators and bad legislators," he said. "I never saw someone influenced by a shrimp on a stick."

'Informed decisions'

Children's Care Foundation President Brian Bonde said his event was a chance to talk with state officials about the impact of a proposed 10 percent cut in funding. Bonde said his organization, which he said serves "the most severely disabled children in the state," would lose $1.4 million if Gov. Dennis Daugaard's budget proposal is approved.

"These are the most fragile, most tender kids in the state," he said. "They have nowhere else to turn."

Bonde said Children's Care officials were trying to make their points in a subtle, non-confrontational manner. Providing the lawmakers with a drink or two or something to eat helps the medicine go down, he said.

Sen. Larry Rhoden, R-Union Center, finished a glass of wine as he departed the Children's Care event. Rhoden said he tries to "poke his head in and make the cycle" each night.

"It's usually pretty relaxed," he said. "People want to talk to legislators, provide us with sheets for information. Certainly, information is what I base decisions on. We do our best to make informed decisions."

Michael Feimer, of Sioux Falls, is the president of the South Dakota Bankers Insurance & Services and attended the bankers' dinner. He said it was a chance to chat with his colleagues in the banking world and some state officials, but he said little political talk was on the agenda.

"It's more social," he said. "It's really social. All the work is done up at the Capitol."

Jackley, the state attorney general, said he sees the nights out as a combination of social activity and work. It's also a way to meet and get to know people who may be interested in supporting him for a future run for office, he admitted.

"You foster relationships," he said. "These are good opportunities for lawmakers to be introduced to different organizations and legislators."

Jackley, who took office as attorney general in January, said he attends a few events each week but also sets aside time for his family.

His 7-year-old son had wrestling practice Tuesday night, he said, so that meant no political events were on his calendar.

'Democracy at its finest'

Kolbeck said there is a necessary social aspect to the events. While he and his wife and four children have a home in Pierre, most legislators are away from home, he said.

The social events give them a chance to be around their fellow legislators and friends while learning about issues and enjoying a good meal, a drink or two and some good conversation.

Sen. Jim Bradford, D-Pine Ridge, admits the events help fill the long nights after the session wraps for the day.

"That's true. And I have a very small hotel room," Bradford said. "The confines kind of get to you. I'm not a real bar person."

He was sipping a Coke at the Equality South Dakota reception, an event sponsored by the state's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender association.

He said he also looks forward to meeting people from his district at the gatherings.

"This is a chance for the people to talk with us and visit with us," Bradford said. "And it's a chance for them to see we're just ordinary people."

Sen. Angie Buhl, D-Sioux Falls, was also at the Equality gathering.

"I think it's important to make as many of these as I can," she said.

Buhl said she admires people who "fight for the underdog," and gay people face that challenge.

Rep. Mitch Fargen, D-Flandreau, had a plate packed with food and was working on it shortly after he arrived at the Equality event.

"Actually, I didn't even know what was going on until I talked to my secretary five minutes ago," Fargen said. "So I come to these, go get my food and sit down and talk to constituents."

Amy Richards and the Rev. Wes Garcia, both of Sioux Falls, said the Equality event was an attempt to reach out to legislators and make them aware of issues important to the GLBT community.

"We can help people understand what some of the issues are and ask that they support us," Richards said. "Our legislators tend to be more conservative than their constituents."

A bill aimed to reduce bullying, an issue that often faces GLBT people, was defeated in committee early in the session, she said. Williams said they hope for better luck with it next session.

Sen. Craig Tieszen, R-Rapid City, was at the Equality South Dakota event and said he came to listen and learn.

The former Rapid City police chief drank a Budweiser as he chatted with several young people. Tieszen said he gets out every night, often with his wife, to learn what people have to say.

"I think it's important we spend time and try to do this," he said. "You have to manage your time and make decisions."

Tieszen said he knows some legislators spend nights in their hotel rooms reading bills line by line while he's out hearing what people have to say about the state's issues. "I'm glad somebody's doing it," he said of his meticulous colleagues. "I'm not."

Tieszen said he has met someone from his district at every social event he has attended in Pierre. He hears people's ideas and uses them to guide him in his votes and words.

"This is democracy at its finest level," Tieszen said. "As good as it gets."