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McGovern Conference to focus on new political book

Shown here is the cover of "The Plains Political Tradition: Essays on South Dakota Political Culture." The book will be at the center of the 2011 McGovern Conference Monday at the Sherman Center on the Dakota Wesleyan University campus. (Submitted Photo)

Politics is a passion for many South Dakotans, according to Jon Lauck, a senior adviser to Sen. John Thune and a former South Dakota State University history professor who is the co-editor of a new book on South Dakota politics.

"Well, I think part of it's a strong tradition of public engagement," Lauck said of the interest people have in politics. "In South Dakota, we don't have an NFL team or a big-time college football team or a major entertainment stage, so I think politics kind of fills that role."

Lauck co-edited "The Plains Political Tradition: Essays on South Dakota Political Culture," with Donald Simmons, a Dakota Wesleyan University professor of public service and dean of the College of Public Service, Leadership and Graduate Studies; and John Miller, an SDSU professor emeritus of history.

The book will be at the center of the 2011 McGovern Conference, from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday at the Sherman Center on the Dakota Wesleyan University campus. It is free and open to the public. A box lunch is available for $12 by ordering through the McGovern Center website.

Mitchell native and former U.S. senator George McGovern, 89, who was recently hospitalized for fatigue, plans to attend the conference, Simmons said. McGovern will also sign copies of his new book, "What It Means to Be a Democrat," which was released Thursday.

"The Plains Political Tradition: Essays on South Dakota Political Culture," has a strong Mitchell connection, with chapters written by John Husmann, a DWU history professor, and Jason Heppler, a Mitchell native and Mitchell High School graduate, and one co-written by Simmons and Don Watt, a former DWU vice president and McGovern Center fellow.

Lauck said South Dakota ranks first or second in studies on civic activism and participation, membership in civic clubs, voting and attending public events and church.

"There is a tendency to participate when a political leader comes to town or an issue comes up," he said. "And I think South Dakotans aren't turned off by politics like they are in other states. It's not really a blood sport. It's very conducive to people playing a role.

"And it's fun," Lauck said. "I've always participated going way back. It's part of growing up in a small town in South Dakota."

He said the fact that many South Dakotans refer to their elected officials by their first names is a sign of how engaged they are in politics.

"It's kind of part of our egalitarian populist heritage," Lauck said. "It isn't true in other sates, where's there's much more hierarchy."

He last taught classes at SDSU in May 2005 and said his students seemed as interested in politics as their parents and grandparents. His final year as a professor started at the height of the 2004 Senate race between Tom Daschle and Thune, and Lauck later wrote a book on the race.

He hopes the new politics book has a successful run and a long life.

"I think this book will definitely be used in classes and I think students will like it," Lauck said. "I think we'll get some general people buying it. It's very readable. It's on a topic people care about in our state.

Simmons said the book grew from a conversation over Mexican food.

"The idea was something that we had been discussing for about 10 years. I distinctly remember eating lunch the first time we collectively lamented the lack of books on South Dakota politics," he said in an e-mail to The Daily Republic.

"The three of us were all working on the campus of SDSU at the time. Since then, Lauck went to work for Sen. John Thune, John Miller retired as a history professor at SDSU, and I came to Mitchell to open the new McGovern Center. It wasn't until 2009 that we finally pitched the book idea to a press.

"Politically, all three editors disagree on a lot of issues. I think that is what makes the book so appealing," Simmons said. "We agreed to disagree and explore, with our contributing authors, what is unique about our state's political culture."

Lauck said the book may spawn a series of closer examinations of South Dakota politics and history.

"Well, it's our hope this will be volume one of hopefully at least two volumes," he said. "We've already started the process of trying to identify people who can contribute to a second book. This is the first book in a long time that tries to explore this."

There are 12 essays in the book, and they cover such topics as territorial politics, the impact on women in South Dakota politics and the American Indian Movement, as well as chapters on party political platforms, which was written by Miller, and one on the defeat of prominent, powerful politicians like Sens. Larry Pressler, McGovern and Daschle.

Among the people taking part in the conference are Mitchell resident Dusty Johnson, Gov. Dennis Daugaard's chief of staff and former chairman of the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission; Ben Nesselhuf, chairman of the South Dakota Democratic Party; and Gretchen Heefner, author of "The Missile Next Door;" Paula M. Nelson, author of "After the West was Won: Homesteaders and Townbuilders in Western South Dakota, 1900-1917;" and "The Prairie Winnows Out its Own: The West River Country of South Dakota, the Years of Depression and Dust."