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As Kristi Noem touts South Dakota values across the US, out-of-staters run her political team

As Noem's gubernatorial campaign ramps up, one small, if glaring point of contention for the relatively popular South Dakota governor will be her staff: A political and communications team made up of folks for whom the phrase "West River" might sound like a shopping expanse west of the Potomac rather than that spacious western half of South Dakota. 

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South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem has supported rooting out what she's termed "political indoctrination" in the state's K-12 public schools.
Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service

PIERRE, S.D. — The campaign manager for Gov. Kristi Noem's reelection team walked into the press office of South Dakota's Statehouse earlier this month, asking where he might pick up a good cup of coffee.

There's Scooter's. Or the cafe in the basement. Maybe the Caribou inside the grocery store. U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds' brother runs the bakery on the hill.

Pierre is not a barista's paradise.

But most folks, especially those who work for the governor, know this already.

Unless — like a number of Team Noem's leadership — you've taken the job after arriving from Washington, D.C., or far away from the Missouri River.

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As the legislative session enters its final two weeks, and Noem's gubernatorial campaign ramps up, one small, if glaring point of contention for the relatively popular South Dakota governor will be her staff.

There's the revolving door of chiefs of staff (she's on her fifth). And then there is her political and communications team, made up of folks for whom the phrase "West River" might sound like a shopping expanse west of the Potomac rather than that spacious western half of South Dakota. 

Noem's spokesman, Ian Fury , arrived in Pierre in 2020 after working for Ohio congressman Jim Jordan in Washington, D.C. Communications director Jordan Overturf  arrived from Texas in 2021. Campaign director Joe Desilets has run campaigns in Virginia. And Noem's interim chief of staff, Mark Miller , is a New Jersey native who worked at a California libertarian think-tank before landing in the Rushmore State.

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Jordan Overturf, senior communications advisor for Gov. Kristi Noem, adjusts the American flag prior to a press conference on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022.
Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service

South Dakotans, as memorialized by Kathleen Norris in her 1993 essay collection "Dakota," are sometimes skeptical, even suspicious of outsiders.

Sen. Jessica Castleberry, R-Rapid City, who has endorsed Noem's reelection bid, says she believes Noem's team is evidence of the governor's "ideals and philosophy" on freedom stretching beyond the rural state's borders.

In a comment echoed by others, Castleberry said luring people to work in the middle of the state in a city of 14,000 can be a recruiter's challenge.

"Nobody is moving to Pierre because it is a luxury capital gig," said Castleberry. "What we've found is the people on Gov. Noem's staff is they're hardy, they're hard-core, and they're hardworking."

Still, the luggage tags on her team's bags have not gone unnoticed by Noem's political opponents.

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In January, Miller, who also serves as Noem's general counsel, said that participation in sports by transgender athletes is "sort of like terrorism." Days later, Senate Minority Leader Troy Heinert, D-Mission, said, "This is what happens when you hire people from out of state, who don't understand the way that we are supposed to treat each other in this state."

On Thursday, Feb. 24, Noem's Democratic challenger for governor, House Minority Leader Jamie Smith of Sioux Falls, also obliquely noted his opponent would spend the latter part of this week jetting to the East Coast, while he, instead, attended the state wrestling championships in Sioux Falls.

And it's not just Democrats taking aim. During a head-spinning war-of-words between Noem and House Speaker Spencer Gosch a few weeks ago over an anti-abortion bill, the Glenham Republican kicked up dust over the governor's congressional past, saying "D.C. politics are not welcome here."

Noem's GOP primary opponent — the uber-conservative Sioux Falls attorney Rep. Steve Haugaard — has pinned to his campaign website that, "We need a full-time governor who is focused on South Dakota, not on Washington, D.C."

No one, certainly, questions Noem's rural bona fides: A small business woman who ran her farming family's pheasant hunting lodge in Hamlin County, she's slated to publish her autobiography this fall, called "Not My First Rodeo."

At a news conference on Thursday, Feb. 17 , Noem took in stride questions about some of her staff's states of origin.

"These people wanted to come here and be a part of South Dakota," said Noem. "I'm thrilled. I have more people who work for me who grew up here. But I don't think in South Dakota we've ever prioritized people over another based on where they were born."

Noem added that many citizens — not just her staff — have ventured to the state for "freedoms," a nod to her laissez-faire posture about governmental restrictions during the pandemic.

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Following the Feb. 17 news conference, Fury himself descended to the press room to point out that he'd purchased a home in South Dakota. (Fury did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)

Many, if not most, on Noem's staff — including her cabinet — possessed strong ties to the state before her election to Pierre. Moreover, the governor's supporters point out that she's the state's rock star ambassador. Last weekend, a GOP fundraiser with her in Jackson, Wyoming, was sold out. Noem's travel schedule this weekend included a Long Island fundraiser for the New York Republican Party on Friday, as well as a speaking engagement at CPAC, a popular conservative conference in Florida.

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Ian Fury (standing, spokesman for Gov. Noem, and Terin Lucero (seated), the South Dakota Republican Party's Executive Director, attend a press conference in the Statehouse on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022.
Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service

And, unlike previous governors — Rounds or Dennis Daugaard, for instance — Noem has basked in a national spotlight not typically directed on the nation's 47th most populous state.

But it's not just the marquee political hands who've traveled all the way to Pierre that has ruffled feathers: It's sometimes the way they do business.

A Sioux Falls-based television reporter, Angela Kennecke of KELO, noted covering the governor's office always required a "give-and-take." But she characterized her interactions with Noem's communications team — particularly with Fury, who has railed against Kennecke in sometimes insulting remarks on Twitter — as more than a little unpleasant.

"I have never seen it quite to this extent in other administrations," Kennecke told Forum News Service on Wednesday, Feb. 23. "What is most interesting is that her key staff people are all from out of state and many had jobs in D.C. prior to coming to South Dakota."

Mike Card, a political science professor at the University of South Dakota and longtime observer of politics in the state, agreed that he'd never seen more than maybe a random cabinet secretary or staffer come from outside South Dakota.

But it's not just their previous zip codes, but sometimes the tone — such as emails Noem's previous D.C.-to-Pierre policy director, Maggie Seidel, sent to journalists berating critical coverage — that stands out for Card.

"I really don't think there's anything wrong with having a national ambition," Card observed. "Where there's some of the problems may come is in the tone and demeanor. Some of the people just don't match 'South Dakota nice.'"

Plus, Pierre-insiders agree: For a good cup of joe, served up by some South Dakota nice, try the Branding Iron.

Christopher Vondracek is the South Dakota correspondent for Forum News Service. Contact Vondracek at cvondracek@forumcomm.com , or follow him on Twitter: @ChrisVondracek .

MORE FROM CHRISTOPHER VONDRACEK:
The state's biggest political leaders have touted inbound migration, so-called "blue state refugees" who flooded South Dakota. But the biggest driver of partisan races this coming summer and fall appears to be a redistricting process, log-jamming Republicans in primaries and opening up new turf for Democrats.

Christopher Vondracek covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at cvondracek@forumcomm.com or follow him on Twitter at @ChrisVondracek.
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