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Armour native climbs political ranks

Tony Venhuizen is able to look Gov.-elect Dennis Daugaard right in the eye and tell him he thinks he's wrong. "I've done that many times. People have asked me before, 'With your relationship, is it hard to be honest with him?'" Venhuizen said dur...

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Tony Venhuizen is able to look Gov.-elect Dennis Daugaard right in the eye and tell him he thinks he's wrong.

"I've done that many times. People have asked me before, 'With your relationship, is it hard to be honest with him?'" Venhuizen said during a recent telephone interview with The Daily Republic. "Actually, it's easier. He accepts my advice and I hope he values it. That's the only way it can work."

That doesn't mean Daugaard will always heed the advice of Venhuizen, who served as the manager of Daugaard's successful campaign for governor and is a member of the governor-elect's transition team. But Venhuizen clearly has the ear of his boss, who is also his father-in-law.

Daugaard said he has come to admire and trust Venhuizen.

"It's important you hire people who are very talented coming in," he said.

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On Monday, Venhuizen was named director of policy and communications for the incoming Daugaard administration. Venhuizen will work with the secretary of education, the Board of Regents and the Bureau of Information and Telecommunications. He will serve as one of six senior advisers to the governor.

That's the latest impressive accomplishment for the 28-year-old Armour native. He grew up in a family interested and involved with politics and has devoted himself to South Dakota politics and government.

Venhuizen first came to Pierre as a boy. His maternal grandfather was state Sen. Henry Poppen, R-De Smet, who served from 1967 to 1992 and was chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee for many years.

Venhuizen said his family was always interested in the issues of the day and politically themed discussions were common. He was born in 1982 at Douglas County Memorial Hospital in Armour.

His father, Keith, a dentist, and mother Nan had three sons. Tony's younger brothers are David and Scott.

"We've always talked politics," he said. "Partly because of my grandpas. My grandpa who didn't run for office was also very interested in politics. Dad was on school board for a decade."

Armour has been known over the years for it basketball teams. Although Venhuizen is 6-foot-4, he wasn't a serious contender for court time.

"I was more the scholarly type," he said. "Burnell (Glanzer, the school's longtime coach) told me one time I was a waste of height."

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But he didn't waste his time in the classroom. Venhuizen was named a National Merit Scholar, one of three NMS winners in a three-year period at Armour.

He served as a page in the state Senate his junior year in high school. That's where he first met Daugaard, then a legislator, and Daugaard's daughter, Sara.

In 2002, he worked for Mike Rounds during the Republican gubernatorial primary. Rounds was a long-shot candidate, seen as a third choice behind two better-known, better-funded candidates, Mark Barnett and Steve Kirby.

"I was the first person to work for him outside of his family," Venhuizen said of his history with Rounds.

After a primary fight that turned ugly at times, Rounds emerged as the upset winner. Venhuizen, who had set up Rounds' Rapid City office, stayed on through the rest of the campaign.

'Fascinating process'

At the 2002 Republican State Convention in Sioux Falls, Venhuizen ran into Sara Daugaard again. This time, they stayed connected.

"We started dating during the campaign or thereafter," he said.

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They were married in 2004.

Sara Venhuizen is an electrical engineer who works as a project manager for Sencore, a Sioux Falls firm that makes equipment for TV broadcasting companies. The couple will likely move to the capital city soon, he said.

After six years of marriage, they're used to change.

Venhuizen is a 2001 graduate of Armour High School and a 2005 graduate of South Dakota State University with a bachelor's of science degree. He had a double major in political science and history. He earned a law degree from the University of South Dakota in 2008.

He served as the student regent on the Board of Regents for five years, from 2003 to 2008. It's a voting position with the same authority as other regents. Venhuizen will now oversee the regents for the governor in his new post.

He said serving as a regent was an invaluable educational experience.

"I learned a lot. I also worked a couple stints as an intern in Governor Rounds' office," Venhuizen said. "In both of those, you really get to watch the process from start to end. You get to learn how politics works. You get to know everybody involved in the process as people."

He said he learned the "different quirks and personalities" of the people who made the state run.

"It's really a fascinating process," Venhuizen said.

After he earned his law degree in 2008, he passed the bar exam in August of that year and spent a year as a law clerk for the First Judicial Circuit. He was in Mitchell most of the time, working for Judges Sean O'Brien, Tim Bjorkman and Bruce Anderson.

'Easy accusation'

After the one-year appointment expired in August 2009, he was named campaign manager for Daugaard. They held a commanding lead from start to finish.

"I think there were a few reasons," Venhuizen said. "Dennis Daugaard is a quality person. I think the people of the state saw that. They liked what they saw. That's clearly the most important reason.

"Dennis is a very hard worker, thoughtful and well organized," he said. "We had a plan far in advance and we executed it."

He said Daugaard, who served as a part-time lieutenant governor, was mapping his campaign strategy 3½ years before the election and was "ready to go" when the campaign heated up.

"That was clearly an advantage," Venhuizen said.

Daugaard is the same man behind the scenes as he is when he steps in front of the cameras and notebooks, Venhuizen said.

"There's no acting or artificiality about him," he said. "He is just a very thoughtful, calm genuine, principled person. And he's like that all the time."

The fact that the men are related by marriage has raised some eyebrows, especially after Venhuizen was appointed to a senior post.

State Democratic Party Executive Director Erin McCarrick criticized the appointment of Venhuizen and Public Utilities Commissioner Dusty Johnson to top jobs in the new administration.

"Cronyism and no-bid contracts for buddies of the governor were status quo with the Rounds administration," McCarrick said in a prepared statement. "It looks like we're getting four more years of the same with Daugaard with the addition of nepotism."

Venhuizen said the criticism was not a surprise.

"Of course I knew that was coming," he said. "We talked whether or not I should take this job for that very reason. It's an easy accusation for people to make."

Future candidate?

Daugaard said it wouldn't have been fair to exclude Venhuizen from consideration for a state job because of their relationship, although they discussed the barbs sure to fly their way.

"We did talk about that," Daugaard said. "I said, 'I don't think I should bring you into the government. It would be a disservice to you. People will assume you got the job because of our relationship.'"

But he said Venhuizen wanted a job with the administration, and Daugaard said he's sure Venhuizen will "overcome" such comments.

Venhuizen said he feels he proved himself to Daugaard over the past year.

"I worked very, very hard for him," he said. "I like to think I helped him get where he is right now."

But Venhuizen said he's aware there will be skeptics looking for a reason to knock him.

"If I have to work harder, fine," he said. "Ultimately, my job is to do my job and do it well. I'm on a team along with people I know and trust very much."

Venhuizen said he may run for office someday. After claiming an honor at SDSU, he said he wanted to be governor of the state someday during an interview for a school magazine.

"I did say that," he said. "It was after I won a Truman Scholarship at SDSU for students interested in public service."

Bob Burns, a retired longtime SDSU political science professor who served as an adviser and mentor to Venhuizen, was the coordinator for SDSU students who entered the competition. Burns said they have discussed a possible political career for Venhuizen several times, and he expects to see him on a ballot someday.

"He understands he has to pay his dues along the way," Burns said. "I have to believe it's still a part of his being."

Making a contribution

Burns said it's worth noting that Venhuizen almost assuredly would not have been chosen to manage the campaign of the clear favorite to win the governor's chair in 2012 if he hadn't been his son-in-law.

"But he performed exceptionally well in that role," Burns said. "I think he far exceeded the margin of victory that was foreseen by pundits like me." Daugaard beat Democrat Scott Heidepriem by a 62-38 percent margin.

Daugaard said a lot of people were surprised when he picked Venhuizen to run his campaign. Jeff Erickson, a longtime friend who is now serving as the head of Daugaard's transition team, was a skeptic.

"He said, 'No, Tony can't do it,'" Daugaard said. "Now he's Tony's biggest cheerleader."

Daugaard said Venhuizen showed great ability dealing with the media, staff members and the budget. He kept the campaign rolling smoothly, Daugaard said.

"He assembled a great team of folks," he said. "Self-starters. Tony was a wonderful campaign manager."

Venhuizen said the quote about wanting to be governor someday reflects his interest in state government and his belief that a governor plays the key role in state politics

"On a day-to-day basis, the governor of a state has the ability to affect people and make change," he said. "The governor can act decisively, lead people, make an impact."

Venhuizen said he wants to work for Daugaard as long as the governor wants him and as long as he's effective. If that will be eight years, four years or less remains to be seen.

"You know, I don't know. I'm going to work hard and try to be helpful," he said. "I certainly wouldn't put a timeframe on it."

Daugaard, who calls Venhuizen a "brilliant man," said he feels he has the potential to serve the state in an elected role.

"Oh yes, I think so," Daugaard said. "I think he's got a great future."

Venhuizen said it's too early to announce his own plans for a campaign.

"Oh, maybe, but that's in the future," he said. "I want to be involved and I want to make a contribution."

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