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Noem's driving record takes wheel of campaign

The intense political struggle for South Dakota's lone U.S. House seat took an unexpected turn into traffic court last week with a report on Kristi Noem's extensive record of driving citations.

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The intense political struggle for South Dakota's lone U.S. House seat took an unexpected turn into traffic court last week with a report on Kristi Noem's extensive record of driving citations.

Noem has been ticketed more than 20 times for driving offenses, and two bench warrants were issued for her arrest. She was never arrested or jailed and has paid all her fines.

South Dakota Democrats and Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., and her campaign seized on the news to attack Noem for acting like she was "above the law."

Russ Levsen, a senior adviser to Herseth Sandlin, said he thinks Noem's driving record is a relevant issue.

"I think voters will look at it very closely," Levsen said. "Kristi Noem's got a troubling history of breaking the law and not owning up to it."

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Republicans and Noem's staffers said their opponents and the media are blowing the story out of proportion and said Noem is sorry for her long record of violation.

Her campaign manager, Josh Shields, said Noem isn't proud of her string of traffic violations, which never resulted in license suspension or the loss of insurance.

"Kristi apologized when she was asked about it. She said the tickets were a result of haste and carelessness," Shields said. "She was trying to make up time over flat country highways, but that is never an excuse. She paid all the penalties and is working on trying to set a better example going forward."

Noem's most recent violation, according to records kept by the South Dakota Unified Judicial System, was driving 94 mph in a 75 mph zone on Interstate 29 in Moody County. She paid $130 in fines and court costs for that ticket on Feb. 19, a few days after she officially announced her campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives.

State records going back to November 1989 show Noem with a total of 28 citations: 20 speeding tickets plus two violations for failure to stop at an intersection, two for not wearing a seat belt and two for having expired plates on her vehicle and one each for not having her driver's license with her and not renewing her vehicle registration.

Noem also has been sent six reminder notices and had two warrants issued for overdue fines, which she later settled. Her fines have totaled about $2,100.

The arrest warrants were issued more than six years apart.

On Feb. 2, 2000, the Beadle County Clerk of Courts had a bench warrant issued for Noem's arrest for not paying a $68 fine for driving 74 mph in a 65 mph zone. Ann Hazuka, a deputy clerk, said that's a "pretty normal practice."

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Noem paid the fine and the warrant was canceled, Hazuka said.

A second arrest warrant was issued by the Moody County Clerk of Courts in 2006 over a seat-belt violation. Noem had been issued a ticket for driving without a seat belt on Feb. 13, 2006, according to the clerk's office.

When she failed to appear in court on Feb. 28, she was sent a reminder letter telling her to pay the fine by March 13. When she did not, according to the office, the bench warrant was issued on March 14, 2006. Noem finally paid a $20 fine.

Levsen said Noem's traffic record reflects poorly on her as a candidate for the U.S. House.

"Kristi Noem thinks the rules don't apply to her," he said.

Herseth Sandlin has received one speeding ticket in South Dakota, along with a seat-belt violation when she was in college at Georgetown University in Virginia. Levsen said he was unsure if the citation was issued in Virginia or in the District of Columbia.

Shields was clearly frustrated discussing the matter Monday and wondered how long the story will continue to appear in the state's media. Shields said Noem has dealt with it and is focusing on more important issues.

"Kristi has apologized for her speeding," he said. "She has said she isn't above the law. She has paid her fines. She is just an average South Dakotan who was careless, and we're moving forward and we're trying to talk about the issues, such as the enormous debt our country has and the out-of-control spending."

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Shields said he doesn't think the story will have a tremendous impact on the election.

"I think voters are much more concerned about the wasteful spending, the failed stimulus package that Herseth Sandlin supported," he said. "Voters are much more concerned about these issues at the end of the day."

Shields said they knew the story might break during the campaign.

"It was something that we knew about," he said. "We were prepared."

Shields said it is no coincidence that Noem's driving records is being scrutinized by the opposition in a race that, according to one polling source, Noem is leading.

"I think it shows the extreme desperation on the part of Congresswoman Herseth Sandlin to be picking over 20 years of traffic violations," he said. "It shows she would rather talk about this kind of thing than the actual issues."

Shields declined to comment on whether the Herseth Sandlin campaign planted the story with the media. But he said the incumbent congresswoman's staff interest in the story was apparent.

"They're obviously continuing to push it," Shields said.

Noem's driving record has been covered in most daily newspapers in the state and has also fueled TV, radio and online reports.

Pat Powers, of Brookings, who operates the conservative South Dakota War College blog, said he doesn't think Noem's driving record will have a lasting impact on the race.

"You know, at the end of the day, no ..." Powers said. "The Democrats are casting stones at Noem today, but they're ignoring similar charges with their candidate for governor, Senator Heidepriem."

Cory Allen Heidelberger, of Madison, who blogs from a liberal perspective, wrote about Noem's driving record on his Madville Times site this weekend.

Heidelberger said he thought at first that the story would have a short shelf life, but state and national media reports on the story continue to grow.

"That's something people can 'get' a little easier than the debate over the privatization of Social Security," he said of the traffic-record story. "It might stick in their minds."

The report may remind people of Bill Janklow's fatal crash in 2003, Heidelberger said, which led to his resignation from the House and Herseth Sandlin's victory in a 2004 special election to fill the seat.

"Kristi Noem's behavior might look to be kind of a parallel," he said.

The South Dakota Democratic Party launched a website, www.kristiabovethelaw.com , on Monday. It offers a map of all of Noem's traffic citations and comments from Erin McCarrick, the party's executive director.

"We hope this website helps make Kristi Noem more accountable to voters for the lengthy record she's been hiding, including two arrest warrants," McCarrick said. "No one is above the law, and South Dakota voters deserve to know the full history of Noem's repeated pattern over the last 20 years of breaking the law, ignoring court orders and receiving arrest warrants."

Shields said it's worth noting that all four candidates for statewide office have tickets for speeding. Gubernatorial candidates Lt. Gov. Dennis Daugaard, with 12 speeding tickets, and state Sen. Scott Heidepriem, with 17, both apologized for their driving records when the story broke last week.

Levsen said Herseth Sandlin has logged plenty of road miles in the state without getting in trouble with the law.

"Stephanie's driven thousands of miles across South Dakota over the years, but never once did a judge issue a warrant for her arrest," he said.

"Elected officials need to have respect for the laws that are made for all of us as citizens. You need to be accountable and need to take responsibilities for your actions and set the highest standards," Herseth Sandlin said.

Shields said Herseth Sandlin's relatively clean driving record is understandable, since much of her adult life has been spent in the Washington, D.C., area, rather than traveling the vast expanses of South Dakota.

"Living here for 20 years, you're bound to get more speeding tickets than someone who has spent much of their adult life at Georgetown," Shields said.

B. Thomas Marking, the independent candidate in the race, has one speeding ticket in Rapid City.

Bob Burns, a distinguished professor emeritus and the retired head of the South Dakota State University Political Science Department, said it's unclear what if any political impact Noem's driving record will have.

"I think it's very difficult to tell what the South Dakota voter makes out of it," Burns said. "The troubling thing about it was there were warrants and nonappearance coupled with multiple offenses."

He said this isn't the first time traffic records have been an issue in state politics. "Former governor and U.S. congressman Bill Janklow's driving record was closely scrutinized, even before Governor Janklow's accident," Burns said.

But he said Janklow's 2003 collision in Moody County that killed a Minnesota motorcyclist may have made the issue much more sensitive. "The earlier history of moving violations is probably a reminder," Burns said.

"If the story has legs, it's going to work against candidate Noem and in favor of Representative Herseth Sandlin," he added.

-- The Rapid City Journal contributed to this report.

Related Topics: KRISTI NOEM
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