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WOSTER: 'What's a Kneip?' We learned 40 years ago

It's been 40 years since the only South Dakota governor to resign the office left Pierre for Singapore and a post as United States ambassador.

Dick Kneip, whose official last day as governor was July 24, 1978, was also the last Democrat elected to the executive office. South Dakotans chose him three times — twice for two-year terms and a third time for a four-year term after the state Supreme Court said he could run again because of a change in the constitution approved by voters in the 1972 election.

I was a cub reporter in 1970, my first full year in the Capitol bureau of The Associated Press. That's when Kneip announced his challenge to incumbent Republican Gov. Frank Farrar. Kneip had just turned 37 at the time. When he took office nearly a year later — early January of 1971 — it was a couple of days before his 38th birthday. The books say that made him the state's youngest governor ever.

In those days, candidates didn't play coy about running for office. They announced and ran, without hints, trial balloons or pre-announcement announcements. They didn't do statewide tours or big rallies for the cameras. It was a simpler time.

Kneip invited reporters to join him at the back of the fourth-floor Senate gallery after a floor session one afternoon. We stood in a half circle while he said he was running for governor. I can't remember who all was there. AP and United Press International, for sure. Probably Alex Johnson from the Watertown Public Opinion. Maybe Paul Cross from the Rapid City Journal.

I know the reporters walked away thinking the dairy equipment salesman from Salem faced long odds. Sure, he was an Air Force veteran and a Democratic leader in the Senate. And sure, he was a salesman, personable as all get out and with the energy to hustle day and night. But he was a Democrat. To that point, South Dakotans had elected three Democrats as governor. That's three. That's since statehood in 1889.

Kneip became the fourth. He started his campaign after the legislative session. Some of his first campaign spots poked fun at his unusual last name with the catch-line, "What's a Kneip?'' His campaign team knew legislative leaders might be big deals inside the Capitol building, but they were unknown to the average voter with a passing interest in politics. "What's a Kneip?'' built the young candidate's name recognition in a hurry.

His campaign drew the help of a cadre of young, idealistic women and men, as well as some Democratic Party veterans who perhaps envisioned a JFK-style Camelot right here in South Dakota. Kneip campaigned up and down the streets of nearly every town in South Dakota. He slung his suit jacket over one shoulder or left it in the car. He usually had his shirt sleeves rolled to the elbow and he always had his hand out, shaking voters' hands in what became known as the "People to People'' campaign.

Kneip was an everyman, with a thin face, kind of funny nose and dark, slicked-down hair. Somehow it worked. He'd walk along the main street of a small town for an hour, maybe stopping to shoot a game of pool with locals. After he moved on, everyone in town remembered he'd been there. Most of them remembered shaking his hand. It was something to watch.

When he won re-election in 1972, he pulled a lot of Democrats to Pierre with him. The 1973-1974 Legislature was the last time Democrats had control — slim though it was — of both houses. They adopted sunshine rules to open the legislative process. They helped craft Kneip's executive branch reorganization and created a four-year medical school, among other reforms. And they and their Republican colleagues often worked together, back when compromise didn't mean selling out.

Kneip competed unsuccessfully once on Saturday Night Live's "Anyone Can Host'' contest. In 1986, his political comeback effort ended in a second-place finish in the Democratic primary for governor. He died a year later.

What's a Kneip? For a fresh-faced reporter, he was a guy who made politics fun to watch. That was a long time ago.

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