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WOSTER: The trouble with ‘the popular will’

Quick, name the last South Dakota governor to quote former Gov. Robert Vessey in his state-of-the-state message.

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OK, that isn’t a fair question, because I can’t promise you I know. I believe I do. I’ve listened to state-of-the-state messages for 45 years now, and I only recall two Vessey references. One was in 2011, by Gov. Dennis Daugaard. The one I most remember, though, was in 1977, when then-Gov. Richard Kneip, a Democrat, mentioned Vessey, a Republican from Wessington Springs who served two terms from 1909 to 1913.

A slight historical aside: Vessey was born in Oshkosh, Wis., and served in the state Legislature before being elected governor. What’s his legacy? Well, the histories say he worked to increase control of government with the direct primary. Less government-y but kind of interesting: he was, the book says, the first governor to proclaim Mothers’ Day as a public observance. If you love your mother, then you pretty much have to love Robert Vessey.

Kneip didn’t talk about Mothers’ Day in his session-opening speech, though. He brought Vessey into the address to talk about drought, specifically the drought of 1976 and his concern that the dry cycle would continue into 1977. Vessey faced similar conditions when he outlined his legislative plans in 1911, Kneip said. The Vessey quote was, “Together, we are the servants of the people, vested by law with a limited authority to express and execute the popular will.”

No, I’m not sure what relevance the quote has to drought conditions. It seems to me the servants of the people and limited authority and popular will could be relevant to any time, any place. And, no, I didn’t just remember that Vessey quote myself. I found it in a news story written after Kneip’s session-opening message. The reporter must have thought the quote had some particular significant to the rest of the message, because he stuck it into his news story, up near the top in the third paragraph.

I found the story the other evening when I was moving and sorting a pile of news clips from my days with The Associated Press. That’s right. I was the reporter, and I put the quote in the story. I read the thing three or four times the other evening, and I confess I have no recollection of it and no idea why I made it a third-graf element in a governor’s big legislative address. Too few people were talking about Robert Vessey and his Progressive politics.

It was obvious why Kneip wanted to talk about drought and conditions on the land. His legislative package that year was heavy on immediate efforts in water development and soil conservation and long-range programs to:

  • Beef up research into technology adaptable to small farms.
  • Emphasize research into alternative production methods with lower costs, a way to conserve petroleum and maintain the productivity of the land (according to the AP story).
  • Promote irrigation development.
  • Encourage purchasing, marketing and production cooperatives.
  • And offer state assistance for programs aimed at farm energy conservation.

I read a couple of other histories, and it turned out 1977 was a year of plentiful rainfall in most of South Dakota. Crops were good, even if the harvest was delayed some because of wet field conditions.

In another old news clip, I wrote during the run-up to the 1977 session that it would be the first time since 1972 that Kneip had faced a Legislature in which both houses were controlled by Republicans. Not many reporters in the history of South Dakota have been able to write that sentence. Not many Democratic governors had four years with their own party in the majority or at least splitting the houses.

With a majority in both houses after four years of political-muscle drought, Republican legislators flexed their voting advantage often. Kneip fought back, with vigor, as the Kennedys used to say. That session Kneip, as one history puts it, “established a modern-day record by issuing 30 vetoes.” Seriously. Thirty vetoes. Republican legislators may have set a modern-day record by overriding 16 of those vetoes. Sixteen overrides?

Strained was the relationship between legislative and executive branches as each attempted, Vessey-style, to “express and execute the popular will.”