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Democratic town hall meeting sets the stage for possible campaign announcement

State Sen. Troy Heinert, D-Mission, speaks before a crowd of approximately 50 people on Friday at the Fort Randall Casino & Hotel in Pickstown. (Evan Hendershot / Republic)1 / 2
State Rep. Shawn Bordeaux, D-Mission, speaks before a crowd of approximately 50 people on Friday at the Fort Randall Casino & Hotel in Pickstown. (Evan Hendershot / Republic)2 / 2

PICKSTOWN — What was promoted as a town hall focused on tribal issues in South Dakota may have been a case of political posturing.

During a gathering at the Fort Randall Casino & Hotel, state Sen. Troy Heinert was called a “rock star” by state Rep. Shawn Bordeaux. Bordeaux’s statements were followed by former state secretary of tribal relations and current director of tribal relations for Avera Health, J.R. LaPlante, who said the state will need to see a minority candidate in statewide office before South Dakota achieves equality.

After the trio offered remarks Friday, Heinert said he hasn’t ruled anything out. But he didn’t officially throw his trademark cowboy hat into the ring in the 2018 race for the state’s at-large seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“We’re evaluating some things, we’re going to look and see where my talents best fit the people of South Dakota and make that decision in the coming months,” Heinert said. “Never rule anything out.”

Or perhaps it will be Bordeaux — also a Mission Democrat and fellow member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe — who makes his case to South Dakotans next fall. Bordeaux, 50, said he believes he can be the person who connects the people of South Dakota together to bring help guide the state into the future.

“I want to be that bridge, I want you all to be comfortable calling me up and saying, ‘Shawn, I have an issue and I really want you to help me, how would you deal with this?’ ” Bordeaux said. “I want to be that guy.”

The rhetoric supporting a candidate with the resume and background of Heinert or Bordeaux — or possibly LaPlante — was palpable in the meeting room filled with more than 50 left-leaning South Dakotans. But comments like those from Bordeaux signaled Heinert could be the person who challenges to other well-known political figures in the 2018 race.

“We’ve got a rock star in the making here, and he’s really galvanizing our party and our people,” Bordeaux said about Heinert.

While no one officially confirmed whether any of the three would enter the House race, an official with the South Dakota Democratic Party did not deny whether any of the three would step up to the challenge.

The only Democrat to formally enter the race to replace U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, a Republican with her sights set on the Governor’s Mansion, is political newcomer Chris Martian. Two well-known Republicans — Mitchell’s Dusty Johnson and S.D. Secretary of State Shantel Krebs — have also entered the field.

But 44-year-old Heinert, who has served in both houses of the South Dakota Legislature since first taking the oath of office in 2013, would instantly become the best known Democratic candidate in the race if he enters the field. Bordeaux or Heinert would join state Sen. Billie Sutton, a Burke Democrat running for governor, on the ballot in 2018.

As he spoke to the room of Democrats on Friday, Heinert said he sees an opportunity to expand the tent of the party in South Dakota. After a long protest of the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, Heinert said South Dakota’s leaders could learn a thing or two simply by keeping an ear open to their constituents.

“We have to listen to them, we have to hear concerns, and we have to take them to heart if we expect them to be part of the process of how we change things in South Dakota,” Heinert said.

After Heinert and Bordeaux spoke, LaPlante said the state will be made better by making it more diverse, equal and just.

“I believe that we will have equality in the state of South Dakota when white people elect a person of color to state office, and not just a district position, but an at-large position, at statewide election,” LaPlante said.