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Pressler: Country ‘strangling’ itself with partisan in-fighting

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Former U.S. senator Larry Pressler talks to The Daily Republic’s editorial board Friday afternoon at the newspaper’s office in Mitchell. (Luke Hagen/Republic) 2 / 2

Former U.S. senator Larry Pressler says the United States is at a critical point in its history because of a “poisonous deadlock” in Washington, D.C.

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Pressler, 71, announced in December his bid for the U.S. Senate seat that will be vacated by Tim Johnson, D-S.D., who is retiring and not seeking re-election. Pressler, who lost his seat to Johnson in 1996, served two terms in the House of Representatives from 1975 to 1979, and then three terms in the Senate from 1979 to 1997.

He served all five of those terms as a Republican but is now running as an independent. He met with The Daily Republic’s editorial board Friday afternoon at the newspaper’s office and said balancing the budget is his top concern going into the race.

“We’re a great, rich country and it’s almost as if we’re strangling ourselves,” the Humboldt native said. “We’ve got to get it to a balanced budget. If we keep doing this we’re going to have some type of catastrophic event. There will be consequences if we keep building it up. It is a very dangerous thing.”

Pressler calls himself a moderate conservative. If elected in November, he would become South Dakota’s first popularly elected independent senator and the state’s first independent senator since James Kyle, who was chosen by the Legislature and served from 1891 to 1901. There are two independents now serving in the U.S. Senate — Maine’s Angus King and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders.

In South Dakota, there are about 97,000 people who are registered as independents or as not affiliated with a party. He does not condemn the Republican Party, he said, but thinks “it’s moved much further to the right.”

“I think we’ve reached a point in Washington where we’ve reached such a poisonous relationship between Democrats and Republicans that we can’t get the budget balanced, we can’t end some of our foreign military spending, we can’t get a farm bill passed on time,” he said. “It goes on and on.”

The extent of the deadlock got him inspired and wanting to do something for his country and state, he said, and “when I heard we were extending troops in Afghanistan for 10 years, that was sort of the last straw.”

Pressler said he will be mostly the same person he was while in the Senate two decades ago, but explained some of his views have changed. Pressler in 1996 voted for the Defense of Marriage Act that allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages granted under the laws of other states. Last year, he wrote an opinion piece for the Rapid City Journal that was supportive of gay marriage.

“That might be something I may be criticized for in some circles,” he said.

Pressler said he’s funding most of his campaign out of his own pocket, including $25,000 from his 401K retirement plan. He showed up to Friday’s meeting at the newspaper with only a briefcase and said he does not employ any fulltime help for his campaign, but he hopes to hire one person.

After serving in the Senate, Pressler said he taught overseas in China, India, Italy and France and more recently in South Dakota at his alma mater the University of South Dakota, and at the University of Sioux Falls and two in-state tribal colleges.

“Adjunct professors don’t make much money, but I made a living,” he said. “I’ll be the poorest candidate in the race.”

He explained if elected his plan is to serve one six-year term. That’s partially because of his age, he said, but also so he won’t ever have to raise money for re-election. And if someone tries to criticize a 71-year-old for running?

“I get up at 5:15 in the morning and run five miles,” he said. “If any of my youthful opponents should criticize my age, I challenge them to a five-mile race.”

The general election is in November. Pressler, since he’s an independent, will not face a primary election in June. Republicans running for that party’s nomination include former governor Mike Rounds, of Fort Pierre; state Rep. Stace Nelson, of Fulton; state Sen. Larry Rhoden, of Union Center; Annette Bosworth, a physician from Sioux Falls; and Jason Ravnsborg, a lawyer from Yankton.

Rick Weiland, who was a staffer for former senator Tom Daschle, is running as a Democrat.