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Rounds leaves office proud and popular, but with detractors

(Chris Huber/Republic Photo)

Mike Rounds will depart from the governor's office today, ending two terms as South Dakota's 31st governor with high approval rates and a legacy still to be determined.

Dennis Daugaard, his running mate, lieutenant governor and friend, will take the reins of state government. But don't expect Rounds to take a long break to recover from eight years of running South Dakota government.

He said he will report for work at the Fischer Rounds & Associates office in Pierre at 8 a.m. Monday. "It might be 8:10," he said with a smile. "My staff will tell you I might be 10 minutes late."

He said he will return to the insurance company he left when he ran for governor in a "marketing and management role."

That's a big part of what he's been doing for South Dakota. As he leaves office, Rounds said he feels he accomplished much of what he set out to do, despite a sluggish national economy for much of his second term and a long-term drought that lasted through much of his time in the governor's office.

Rounds, who gave The Daily Republic a one-on-one interview in his private office in late December, pointed with pride to the 2010 Initiative, a plan he announced after taking office in 2003 to boost the state's economy.

The five goals he announced were to double visitor spending, increase the state's gross domestic product, become a recognized leader in research and technology development, brand and develop South Dakota's quality of life as the best in America and uphold the commitment to the 2010 Initiative.

According to Rounds, all five were accomplished to some degree.

Underground lab

Rounds said while working to open the underground science lab in Lead is often cited as his greatest accomplishment, he knows it is a continuing effort.

"I think it's something people can focus on," he said to explain why it's at the top of news accounts reviewing his term in office.

Funding questions that recently arose placed the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Lab in some jeopardy, the governor said. And he said the process will continue after he leaves office.

On Nov. 30, the National Science Foundation's oversight board, the National Science Board, rejected a funding request for the DUSEL. The hope now is that the Department of Energy, which has been a partner in the process, will provide the funding.

"It will still be a challenge four years from now," Rounds said.

Rounds said he feels he was able to strike a deal with Barrick Gold to obtain the mine for the state because he talked to them in a language they understood.

"I came with a business background and I was dealing with business people," he said. "They were business people and they didn't want to do business with a bureaucracy."

The mine owners "held the keys," Rounds said, and he had to make a deal with them to move the process ahead. A liability insurance guarantee eased Barrick's concerns. The mine was transferred to the state, allowing it to be converted to a science lab deep under the earth.

T. Denny Sanford, a Minnesota businessman who moved to Sioux Falls, promised to give $70 million, and the state government added $35 million. The federal government provided $10 million, thanks in large part to Sen. Tim Johnson, and the project that Gov. Bill Janklow and Sen. Tom Daschle talked about became a reality.

Successes, disappointments

Rounds said he feels his efforts to retain young people in the state and lure South Dakota natives to come home were his greatest success.

"The areas I feel best about are the opportunities for young people to stay in South Dakota for a long period of time," he said.

Rounds said his efforts to increase research on college campuses provided work opportunities for new college graduates who in the past left South Dakota. It's been a vastly under-reported story, he said.

That may help explain why, in a time when K-12 schools reported flat enrollment numbers, South Dakota's colleges and technical schools set record enrollment figures, he said.

Rounds is leaving office with some criticizing him for proposing a 5 percent cut in state aid for K-12 schools. He relied on millions in federal stimulus dollars to keep the state in the black the last three years and hands Daugaard a gaping budget hole to fill.

Rounds said his greatest regret is that the South Dakota Certified Beef program hasn't caught on as quickly as he hoped. Efforts to promote South Dakota-grown beef on the Pacific Rim will continue, he said.

However, the announcement that the Northern Beef Packers are moving ahead on the plant in Aberdeen, made on Dec. 28, allowed him to point to the potential in that program.

Impatience, tough decisions

He said he feels as he grew more knowledgeable of his duties and responsibilities, he sometimes let his desire for getting things done and seeing results show in a strident manner.

"You become a little more impatient in getting things done," Rounds said.

He said the most emotional part of his job was attending funerals for members of the South Dakota National Guard who were killed in the line of duty.

South Dakota native Tom Brokaw proclaimed the people who endured the Great Depression and World War II as "The Greatest Generation," Rounds noted, and he said he agrees with that label.

"But this generation of young people -- they're going to give the Greatest Generation competition," he said. "This is something I will take with me forever."

Rounds said the airmen and soldiers he has met are devoted to hard work, duty and sacrifice for their country. More than 5,000 South Dakota Guardsmen and women have been deployed for at least a year in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Rounds said.

Rounds also approved the first use of the death penalty in the state since 1947, approving the execution of Elijah Page. Rounds, a Catholic, is opposed to abortion and said he struggled with approving the execution.

But the heinous nature of the crime Page and two other men committed when they murdered Chester Allen Poage, a 19-year-old Spearfish man, helped convince him, Rounds said. The fact that Page wanted to be executed further displayed his lack of appreciation for life, the governor said.

Rounds signed a bill in 2006 that banned most abortions in the state, but voters reversed it that year and upheld the right of women to have abortions in 2008. While his popularity dipped after signing the abortion ban, it didn't cause a permanent decline in his popularity, and Rounds didn't campaign hard for the abortion bans when they were on the ballot.

Political partnership

Daugaard said he met Rounds when he was elected to the Senate in 1996. Rounds was a veteran senator and the Senate majority leader.

"It was quite a different culture," Daugaard recalled, with term limits not yet in place and several veteran legislators holding a great deal of power.

"I was completely inexperienced when it came to legislative procedures and getting bills passed and amended," he said. "He was always willing to help me and he did."

In 2002, after Rounds surprised most observers and won a three-man race for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, Daugaard said he wondered who would be selected as Rounds' running mate. He had no idea he was under consideration when he was offered the post.

"It just never entered my mind it would be me," Daugaard said. "I was very surprised."

The offer came in a telephone call on Father's Day and, after talking with family and friends, Daugaard called Rounds back and accepted the assignment.

Daugaard, who had just been named to lead the Children's Home Society, told Rounds he wanted to serve in a part-time capacity and would not be moving to Pierre. That was acceptable, Daugaard recalled.

The two men tightened their friendship during the eight years of their administration, Daugaard said.

They had dinner with their wives once each session. Daugaard met with Rounds' cabinet and staff to learn more about state government.

He said Rounds told him he was picked because Rounds felt he could step in and serve as governor if something had happened. In fact, two lieutenant governors, Harvey Wollman in 1978 and Walter Dale Miller in 1993, had assumed the top post.

In 2006, Daugaard said he started to ramp up his campaign for governor and Rounds was very supportive.

"Mike was the first person I talked with about it other than the family," he said.

During their annual session dinner, Daugaard said he told Rounds he wanted to talk politics. After telling him he would endorse and support him in the race, Rounds produced a check for $10,000 from his campaign fund. He presented it to Daugaard.

Daugaard breezed to a win in a crowded primary. Rounds' support helped, he said.

During the general election, Daugaard said he tried to stand on his own two feet, and Rounds' role in the campaign was kept to a minimum.

Rounds said he taped some TV commercials for Daugaard that were not aired, a fact Daugaard confirmed. He said there were several ads that were kept in the can in case a late rush was needed.


Now that he has been elected, Daugaard said he is sure Rounds' enduring popularity helped him in the campaign.

While Rounds has an approval rating that tops 60 percent and twice breezed past Democratic opponents, his political rivals aren't as quick to praise him as Daugaard.

Ben Nesselhuf, the new executive director and chairman of the South Dakota Democratic Party, served in the Legislature the entire eight years Rounds was in office. Nesselhuf, echoing 2010 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Scott Heidepriem, said Rounds cast a small shadow and leaves a tiny legacy of accomplishments behind.

"After eight years of working with Governor Rounds, I'm not sure why he wanted to be governor," Nesselhuf said. "There was very little leadership from the second floor (where the governor's suite of offices is located in the Capitol)."

He said while Rounds is a nice man with a pleasant personality, he had a limited vision for the state.

"I think it's easy to be a popular governor," Nesselhuf said. "But I don't think school kids will be able to list his accomplishments in 20 years. I wish him a happy retirement."

Daugaard disagrees with that assessment.

The outgoing governor leaves a legacy of success with the underground mine, boosting research on university campuses, getting the new governor's mansion built with private funds and other accomplishments, he said.

Daugaard said he will ask Rounds for advice and counsel at times.

"I'm sure I will. I'm sure I'll ask him for advice," he said. "It's silly not to. Good decision making involves good listening."

Daugaard said he would not be surprised to see Rounds run for political office again someday.

"I think he's got a lot of talent," he said. "If he chooses to re-enter politics, he would be a strong candidate."

'Never say never'

Rounds, 56, is a year younger than Daugaard.

He said he's prepared to return to private life and thinks politicians can benefit from a break. "I think a person should step away for a while," he said.

Rounds said he knows other people have expressed interest in serving the state in high office and he's glad to "allow someone else to step in."

But that doesn't mean he's done with politics. He said timing is the key to success in running and winning.

"I may very well look at public service again," Rounds said. "I may consider something but I don't have any plans."

Rounds said he has never lost an election, winning a primary and five races for the Legislature as well as a primary and two races for governor. But that doesn't necessarily mean he plans to retire.

"I'll never say never," Rounds said. "I also know there is a very good group of individuals who have expressed interest in working in this job. I have a lot of respect for that."

He was a joyful campaigner, eager to shake hands and flash a grin.

"I enjoy meeting people. I enjoy the face-to-face campaigning," he said. "I hate the advertising. I detest the way campaigns are run. I really like the one-on-ones and the group discussions and the policy debate. I love that part of it. I really dislike the advertising."

He said he considered a run for the Senate in 2002.

"I couldn't convince myself that was a place I wanted to live," Rounds said, although since that time people have told him he could continue to live in South Dakota while working in Washington, D.C.

Rounds said he doesn't look back at the 2010 U.S. House race and wonder if he should have sought the Republican nomination to run against Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, who ended up losing to Kristi Noem.

"I had a job to do here," Round said.

Media coverage

Rounds admitted there are things he will miss from being governor.

"Probably the activity when issues come to a head. In this position, working as governor, you really get a chance to fix problems," he said. "There are very few others jobs in which you really have the opportunity to make a real difference. You can impact public policy in a vey real way."

Rounds said he has also enjoyed building a team and watching it develop and grow. That allowed him to grow and become a stronger person and governor.

"I think the confidence comes with time on the job," he said. "So I think anyone who has worked in this job for a period of time starts to develop more confidence as they move forward."

Governors only make decisions on tough issues, he said. If they can be solved at a lower level, he doesn't deal with them.

"You're never going to make all the right decisions, but nonetheless, someone has to make a decision," Rounds said.

Rounds said he felt the South Dakota media didn't work hard enough to cover issues in-depth.

"It's a matter when comments are made, it surprised me the media didn't follow up to see if there was any validity to the comments," he said.

Rounds said there was "never" any follow-up to the stories that criticized him and his administration, such as stories on the supposed no-bid contracts offered to companies doing business with the state. Stories on the tourism marketing contracts with Lawrence & Schiller didn't delve into details and explain why that company was the best choice for the state, he said.

No regrets

Criticism that he bought too many airplanes for the state and abused his right to use them also irritated him. Rounds said he usually flies around the state in a 1988 plane.

"I paid for the use of the state aircraft," he said. When non-state employees flew with him, he paid for their travel based on federal reimbursement rates, Rounds said.

Rounds said he reduced the state fleet from 16 planes to eight, which includes planes for universities; Game, Fish and Parks; and the Highway Patrol. There are only three planes set aside for state employee travel, he said.

"The person working as governor cannot do this job the way the people want you to do it if you're going to drive across the state," he said. "It's just too big. With the King Air, you're going to be there on time 99 times out of 100. I don't think people question the need for the governor to have an aircraft."

Rounds dismisses claims he was too secretive. He said he kept the list of who took part in the Governor's Hunt secret because other states viewed it and tried to lure businesses away from South Dakota. Once he learned that, he was determined to keep the event private, he said.

Rounds said he leaves office with few regrets. He's willing to stand on his record as he departs from the stage.

"I think I've always tried to say what I believed was right," Rounds said. "I've never made a decision based on what a poll said. I did it on what I thought I could justify."

And he's prepared to walk out of the governor's office and start a new chapter in his life.

"I love to live in South Dakota," he said. "This is my home. This is where my family is at."