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'Big three' governor candidatesmeet at state tourism convention

PIERRE -- The "big three" of governor candidates appeared together on stage for the first time of South Dakota's 2018 election cycle Thursday. Two of the Republicans, U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem and state Attorney General Marty Jackley, and state Senat...

Senate Democratic leader Billie Sutton, state Attorney General Marty Jackley (R) and U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem (R) participated at the governor candidates forum Thursday during the South Dakota tourism conference in Pierre. The lunch was the first joint appearance of the 2018 election cycle for the three leading candidates seeking to succeed term-limited Gov. Dennis Daugaard. (Bob Mercer / For The Daily Republic)
Senate Democratic leader Billie Sutton, state Attorney General Marty Jackley (R) and U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem (R) participated at the governor candidates forum Thursday during the South Dakota tourism conference in Pierre. The lunch was the first joint appearance of the 2018 election cycle for the three leading candidates seeking to succeed term-limited Gov. Dennis Daugaard. (Bob Mercer / For The Daily Republic)

PIERRE - The "big three" of governor candidates appeared together on stage for the first time of South Dakota's 2018 election cycle Thursday.

Two of the Republicans, U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem and state Attorney General Marty Jackley, and state Senate Democratic leader Billie Sutton took turns answering an hour of questions from audience members at South Dakota's annual tourism conference.

They're competing to succeed Gov. Dennis Daugaard, a Republican, who's in the last year of his second and final term.

Noem, Jackley and possibly others are poised for a June primary election for the Republican nomination. Sutton might be the only Democrat who runs.

So who won Thursday? Depending on the question, each often did well. It often seemed a three-way tie.

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That was certainly true when Julie Jensen, president of Visit Rapid City, asked whether state Tourism Secretary Jim Hagen would have the same job in the next administration.

Hagen interjected: "I'd like to declare my candidacy for governor!"

"Sit down," Sutton shot back.

Hagen works extremely hard, Jackley said.

Noem too praised Hagen.

"Your passion and desire, I haven't found anywhere else," she said. "I'd love to see you stay."

Sutton answered this way.

"I will admit there are some people in state government that need to go," he said. "But you are not one of them."

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Then he added: "If I win this race, you're on the team."

Jackley used the occasion to showcase the organizational skill in his campaign.

Less than one hour before the forum started, his campaign office issued a five-point plan for improving tourism in South Dakota.

He then referred to it several times at the event. He pledged to double the one million dollars that state government spends on promotions.

He also called for visitors to spend one more day apiece in South Dakota and promised to pursue year-around tourism.

There also would be a $10 voluntary habitat stamp and a special license-plate decal to raise money for pheasant restoration under the Jackley initiative.

Noem and Sutton haven't made tourism proposals.

An audience member said his business can't keep a full work staff after Aug. 1 each year and asked what they would do.

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Sutton said South Dakota should do more to encourage people to move to the state. "South Dakota nice," he said. "That's a big part of it." The line received applause.

Sutton praised Daugaard for emphasizing workforce development and said he would offer a package too.

Jackley agreed the challenge is workforce development. He referred to "Billie" at least half a dozen times but didn't seem to ever make mention of "Kristi."

Noem sounded straight on the mark with references to specific types of worker visas. She talked too about federal legislation on the topic that she sponsored.

Jackley didn't seem to have a clear answer on weekend availability of childcare for working parents, while Noem said South Dakota has the highest rate of "working moms" in the nation.

"That is a real problem we have to solve. I'm going to admit that hasn't been solved in South Dakota," she said.

The working-parent question whizzed straight into Sutton's strike zone. He said South Dakota is one of five states that doesn't provide state funding for early childhood education.

"That's embarrassing, a black eye," Sutton said. He plans to ask the Legislature this year to establish an advisory council on early childhood education.

"It is absolutely an economic issue we have to address," Sutton said.

Jackley referred several times to his previous experience as U.S. attorney for the district of South Dakota, his work since 2009 as state attorney general and his year as the first South Dakotan to be president for the National Association of Attorneys General.

But a question on whether methamphetamine is hurting tourism provided an opening for Noem to question Jackley's record without using Jackley's name.

"We are going the wrong direction," Noem said.

She suggested South Dakota needs "a much different approach" with more funding for counselors in middle schools and high schools who can spot and help kids on the edge.

On what can be done to help tribal people be more effective at hosting tourists, because tribal governments reportedly don't budget for tourism promotions ("People do want to see Indians," the woman from the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe said), Noem's answer was to change state programs to strengthen families.

Sutton credited Daugaard for restoring the position of tribal relations secretary to the cabinet level and noted: "They're the only population that's growing in South Dakota."

Jackley said he'd adapt the approach used in law enforcement where tribal officers train with city and county officers. "It works extremely well," he said.

Noem mentioned several times that her family started a pheasant hunting operation on their farm after her father died, and she emphasized several times she understood the risk taking involved when a restaurant owner stocks up on food in the hope customers come.

Jackley said his first three jobs before college were busboy, drag-strip hand and worker at Fort Meade hospital. He said his mother was a schoolteacher all of her working life and his father decided to become a lawyer when Marty was seven.

Sutton said he was a young professional rodeo star whose life changed in an instant when a horse reared and trapped him beneath, paralyzing him for the rest of his life and putting him in a wheelchair.

The candidates' closing statements praised tourism businesses throughout South Dakota.

Noem mentioned her daughters accompanied her Thursday. She recalled the time the family took an RV to Yellowstone and decided after one night that South Dakota was better. She said the week spent at a Black Hills campground was "the best" they had.

For most of the hour the three sat. But Jackley stood for his opening comments and for his final ones too. He encouraged the audience to approach him with ideas because he wants them. "I'll fight because I care about it," he said.

Sutton made the point that his family's ranch is on the west side of the Missouri River and his legislative district spans both sides of the water and reservation country as well. "South Dakota is the best place to live, work, have a family," he said. "I'll never quit. I'll never give up."

So how to break the three-way tie?

Hard to say. Jackley had his five-point plan. Sutton might have drawn the most applause the most times. And only Noem happened to say the state's longtime tourism slogan, "Great faces and great places."

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