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MERCER: As a legislator, Tieszen quietly made his mark

PIERRE — Earlier in my news career, I tallied success rates for legislators on bills they sponsored. I stopped when some started padding numbers.

But I went back the other morning to look at Craig Tieszen. His success was stunning — and on so many topics. Since 2015, he was a sponsor for 18 sets of state laws.

They included slowing other vehicles during school-bus stops, disqualifying commercial drivers for refusing chemical analysis, regulating school-bus drivers on handheld wireless communication devices, beverage sampling and drone regulations.

They also removed minor offenses from background checks after 10 years, eliminated life sentences for crimes before age 18 and revised drunk-driving penalties.

And they modernized domestic abuse language, changed drug-court penalties, updated prison methods for determining financial accountability and extended the period for a beginning driver's permit.

Tieszen seemed to be hitting his prime. That's what made his death so shocking.

The Republican from Rapid City drowned Nov. 22 off the South Pacific island of Rarotonga, on the morning of what was to be the wedding day for daughter Leslie.

Tieszen, 68, and his brother-in-law, Brent Moline, 61, died in rough water where the ocean and lagoon met.

The tragedy stunned so many. Tieszen had gradually, steadily emerged as a senior lawmaker in Pierre. Many state government employees respected him.

He won election four straight times to the state Senate. Because of term limits, he ran for the state House of Representatives last year. District 34 voters rewarded a fifth victory.

Yes, the same district where Rep. Dan Dryden died from cancer last year weeks before elections.

Gov. Dennis Daugaard turned to a former legislator, David Lust, to serve for Dryden.

Lust, a past House Republican leader, accepted but said he wouldn't run in 2018.

Now the governor must deal with another vacancy.

According to notes in the historical records kept by the Legislative Research Council, 73 representatives and senators have died while a member of the Legislature since South Dakota earned statehood in 1889.

Fourteen came during the difficult 1930s. No other decade saw nine. Only three died since the 2000s began: Tieszen, Dryden and Sen. Dick Hagen, D-Pine Ridge, in 2002.

Craig Tieszen grew up at Canistota. In 1975 he started at the Rapid City Police Department. He rose to police chief in 2000. He retired in 2007. In 2008, he ran for the Senate and won.

He enjoyed life as a legislator. He asked direct questions that could be hard for some to answer. He proposed raising legislator salaries in 2015 and lost in the Senate.

He drove his yellow Mustang at precisely four miles per hour above the speed limit. He said he didn't want to put another law enforcement officer in a difficult situation.

On Tuesday, 104 legislators gather for the governor's budget speech. New chairs are at each desk. No one dare sit behind the nameplate for Rep. Craig Tieszen.

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