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Dems claim Gant brings partisanship to elections office

When South Dakota's new secretary of state hired a Republican blogger and wrote letters of thanks to lawmakers who helped get bills passed, he crossed a line into partisanship, the South Dakota Democratic Party believes.

"Gant first politicized the office when he hired a prominent conservative blogger as his director of operations," said Rep. Mitch Fargen, D-Flandreau, in a Democratic Party press release. "By praising a state senator who presumably is running for reelection, Gant put into further question his ability to keep politics out of South Dakota's voting process."

Secretary of State Jason Gant won't talk about the blogger, Dakota War College founder Pat Powers, saying he can't publicly discuss any of his employees.

"Personnel is always a touchy issue to be talking about. I'm not going to speak specifically about individuals," Gant said. "As a whole, everyone I've hired had tremendous strengths."

Powers, who authored one of the state's most popular and robust blogs for much of the past decade, also declined to respond to the Democrats' criticism.

Before starting as the director of operations at the Secretary of State's Office in January, Powers took down the Dakota War College archives, a trove of spirited and often pointed political discourse and reporting that had become must-read material for South Dakota's political operatives and junkies on both sides of the aisle.

When asked if Powers' expertise in online ventures and website development was what helped him land his new job, Gant declined again to elaborate. The Secretary of State's Office is launching a series of online initiatives.

(See related story.)

"My philosophy when I hire staff is, 'Who are the best people possible I can get?' I believe that's what I've done with all of the staff I've hired," Gant said.

Gant is happy to talk about the letters to the editor he wrote thanking lawmakers who helped him pass a series of 10 bills during the 2011 legislative session. Letters went out for both Republicans and Democrats, he said.

"I must have wrote 10 or 12 letters to the editor about a number of Republicans and Democrats. I thanked them for supporting and ushering legislation through the Legislature," Gant said. "I don't consider that politicizing the office. I was just saying thank you. My parents taught me to have good manners. I'll continue to say thank you to those who help us to make elections and this office better."

South Dakota Democratic Party Chairman Ben Nesselhuf lost the secretary of state's race to Gant in November and stands by the party's criticism. He said that the secretary of state is South Dakota's chief elections officer, and showing support in any way for a candidate crosses the line.

It is the secretary of state's job to remain absolutely impartial in elections, he said.

"Jason Gant is as partisan as I am," Nesselhuf said. "My job requires me to be partisan; his, not so much."