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MERCER: From Vietnam to war in Iraq, Weiland didn’t change stance

PIERRE — Rick Weiland became involved in politics at age 10. The year was 1968. He didn’t want his older brother Ted to have to go to war as a U.S. soldier in Vietnam.

Rick pulled his wagon around Madison collecting pop bottles. Back then, bottling companies reused them and paid a deposit for their return.

His bottle money went for a newspaper ad supporting a Democratic candidate for president who opposed the war.

Rick Weiland has been deeply into politics ever since. This year he is the Democratic candidate for one of South Dakota’s seats in the U.S. Senate.

The Democratic incumbent, Tim Johnson, is retiring rather than seek a fourth term. No South Dakota senator has been elected to a fourth term.

A weekend ago, I trailed Weiland at several campaign appearances in Pierre. He spoke Saturday morning to the delegates meeting of the South Dakota Education Association.

He called for tax loopholes to be closed for major corporations and more money to be provided for schools.

After his remarks, SDEA president Sandy Arseneault said, “We’re going to have to get busy and make it happen.”

Weiland met for afternoon sandwiches with high school students who had participated in the two-day YELL — Young Elected Legislative Leaders — event held by the South Dakota Democratic Party.

That’s where Weiland told the story about his fear that Ted would have to go to war. In those days, the U.S. government held a draft to require young men to serve.

“It was my wake-up call. You’ll have wake-up calls in your life,” Weiland told the YELL students.

“This is how we change things in this country,” he said.

At age 20 he worked on the campaign of Democratic U.S. House candidate Tom Daschle, who won by 139 votes. Weiland spent 15 years on Daschle’s House and Senate staffs.

In 1996 Weiland ran for the U.S. House seat. Weiland won the primary but lost in the general election to Republican John Thune.

Weiland received an appointment from President Bill Clinton as the Denver regional director for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

He later ran again in 2002 for U.S. House but didn’t win the primary. He worked as South Dakota director for AARP and as CEO for the International Code Council. Since 2009 he and his wife, Stacy, have been involved in Sioux Falls restaurants.

After the YELL luncheon, I asked Weiland whether he voted for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama in 2008. South Dakota’s primary was a battleground for the Democratic presidential nomination. He paused, like someone who carries something hard to explain.

“It was her vote,” Weiland said. He voted for Obama because Clinton as a U.S. senator in 2002 supported the U.S. going to war in Iraq. The choice was difficult because he had worked for her husband’s administration — and because many Daschle staff went to work for Obama after his Senate election and Daschle’s defeat in 2004 against Thune.

As for brother Ted, his number — 99 — wasn’t called for the draft in 1968. By the time eight years later when Rick Weiland turned 18, there no longer was a draft. That era’s war was over.