BURKE - For the first time since 2011, Billie Sutton isn't holding an elected office.
But his next venture is going to be driven around giving back to the community, as he begins to kick off the "Billie Sutton Leadership Institute." It is the Burke rancher and investment officer's first professional foray since his November loss in the South Dakota governor race, running as a Democrat against Republican Kristi Noem.
"I still have a passion to make South Dakota a better place," Sutton told The Daily Republic on Monday. "There's ways you can do that and not just in elected offices. It doesn't matter if it's economic development, or projects or running for office, this is for anyone that wants to give back to the community."
He said the goal of the leadership group is to give people the tools to make things happen in their communities. In an announcement last week, Sutton, 35, said the institute will be a free, year-long program for a "selective class of young professionals, community leaders, local elected officials, and people interested in public service or getting more involved in their community."
Sutton, who served for eight years in the state legislature, said the effort is being funded through private fundraising, leaning on businesses and supporters from his gubernatorial campaign to help get the institute going. The institute's first class is expected to have 10 to 12 students, and Sutton said he hopes to grow it by 10 percent each year.
"Who knows what it will look like after that, but we want that first class to be very focused and very personal. We want fellows to pick a project and take it back to your community. Maybe it's something you have a passion for and just need a little help."
Sutton said one example of the work that can be tackled is a suggestion from one of the institute's applicants who wants to work on their town's housing shortage. He said his institute will set itself apart from other similarly named groups in the state by being more community focused, rather than having a business leadership focus, and won't require a corporate connection to participate.
"We didn't want it to be limited to those who can afford it," he said. "If you want to be an advocate for your community, you shouldn't be limited by how much money you have."
The institute also aims to steer clear of the toxic political environment, Sutton said, and attempt to bring forward non-partisan solutions.
"I think my campaign was successful because it showed I can bring people together, and that's what I want to help bring to people," he said.
The board of directors for the institute includes Sutton, former state senator Kevin Killer, former South Dakota Supreme Court justice Judith Meierhenry, and former Augustana University President Robert Oliver. The board also includes Sutton's wife, Kelsea Kenzy Sutton, who is an attorney and Gregory County Commissioner.
The application deadline for the institute is May 6. The initial leadership retreat for the first class of fellows will be May 31-June 2 in the Chamberlain. Sutton said most of the institute's graduates will likely be between ages 20 and 45, but anyone can apply.
"That doesn't mean that we won't include people outside of the age range, but we're looking at a new generation of leaders, and those who are ready to lead in a new way," Sutton said.
Sutton and institute leadership will check in with fellows on an every month basis, while digital meetings will be held with all students every other month. Two retreats will also be held in person to help with progress.
"We're interested in anyone that wants to give back to the community," Sutton said. "Anyone that followed me in the campaign knows that it was the community that got me into public service at the beginning and it was important to me to give back to the people who have given me so much."
As for a political future, Sutton said he's not closing the door on future bids for public office.
"We're keeping options open, but it's been nice to spend more time with my family," he said. "It was a grueling campaign, and as a state senator I was there for quite a while. We'll see what happens next but for now, it's a focus on family."