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Democrats know they face tall task in rebuilding party

PIERRE -- Democratic legislative leaders know the large amount of work they have before them if they want to rebuild the party in the South Dakota. One thing they need to do better is distinguish themselves from Democrats who serve in Congress, s...

3116088+Billie Sutton.jpg
One of a handful of Democrats in the South Dakota State Senate, Sen. Billie Sutton, of Burke, sits among a crowd of legislators during Gov. Dennis Daugaard's State of the State address in Jan. 2017. (Matt Gade / Republic)

PIERRE - Democratic legislative leaders know the large amount of work they have before them if they want to rebuild the party in the South Dakota.

One thing they need to do better is distinguish themselves from Democrats who serve in Congress, said Senate Minority Leader Billie Sutton, D-Burke.

And House Minority Leader Spencer Hawley, D-Brookings, agrees.

“We’ve allowed the other party to message for us, and that’s not who we are,” he said.

State legislative leaders spoke at a news conference at the Ramkota Hotel Thursday as part of Newspaper Day in Pierre.

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Ballot measures supported by Democrats are often approved by South Dakota voters, but that doesn’t translate to Democratic candidates being elected.

“We’re right on the ballot,” Sutton said, referencing issues like increasing the state minimum wage,  the governor’s large projects bill and higher teacher pay.

“In some of these districts (the Democratic candidate) could have been Jesus and not won,” Sutton said.

Sen. Troy Heinert, D-Mission, said gerrymandered legislative district lines certainly aren’t friendly to his party. He’s the assistant minority leader in the chamber.

There numbers are so lopsided in some districts that no “sane Democrat” would run, Sutton said.

He said he’s been successful in a Republican district by distinguishing himself as a South Dakotan first and a Democrat second.

Hawley said the lopsided party numbers in most districts is why there needs to be an independent commission that oversees legislative redistricting in South Dakota.

However, that issue was on the ballot in November and was rejected by voters.

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So, Sutton said, the work has to start at the local level by finding strong, appealing candidates to run for city council, school board and county commission.

Rep. Julie Bartling, D-Gregory, said the party needs to appeal to the increasing number of independent voters in South Dakota. They tend to be young people displeased with Washington who don’t want to associate with either major party, she said.

Bartling is the assistant minority leader in the House.

There are 29 Republicans and six Democrats in the South Dakota Senate. There are 59 Republicans and 10 Democrats in the state House of Representatives, with another Republican, appointed by Gov. Dennis Daugaard, set to join the chamber next week.

Those numbers don’t accurately reflect the makeup of the sate, Sutton said.

Republican leaders in the Legislature said they never dismiss out of hand any ideas raised by Democrats.

Interestingly, Sutton and Heinert room with Sen. Ryan Maher, R-Isabel, while in Pierre for the session. Maher is the assistant majority leader in the Senate.

The trio has some good and sometimes heated debates after leaving the Capitol for the day, he said.

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Maher served two legislative terms as a Democrat and is now in his third as a Republican.

“The Democratic Party in the state has definitely dropped the ball. They’re almost an extinct species,” he said during the Republicans’ Newspaper Day news conference.

Maher said he gets significantly more support from the GOP than he did from the Democratic Party. It takes money to run for office, he said, and without a foundation in place to raise funds, it’s a tough go.

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