WOSTER: Humor from the halls of the Capitol
Making laws in South Dakota is serious business, but the Legislature itself can be pretty funny every now and then.
I'm convinced that part of the reason I managed to cover 40 sessions of the Legislature as a news reporter was because of the quirky happenings, the out-sized personalities, the odd-ball situations and the unexpected moments that occur when a cross-section of South Dakota gathers in close proximity for eight or 10 weeks. It's like stepping through the looking glass, falling down the rabbit hole.
If you've never spent time in the Capitol building during a legislative session, it's hard to describe what a world of its own the place becomes. Packed with 105 legislators, a few hundred public and private lobbyists, pages, staff members, news people and interested citizens, it's an unreal lifestyle that becomes its own reality. Toss in the stray high school government class from Parkston or Wessington Springs, and you have an atmosphere kind of like that inside a snow globe.
Imagine that snow globe if a mad scientist introduced a cold germ into the mix, which seems to happen about the third week of every session. Pretty soon everyone in the place is coughing and wheezing and sneezing. It's called the Capitol Crud. In my experience, people in the building don't shake hands as often as they used to, and that's probably the only thing that saves the Capitol from being declared an isolation ward by the Centers for Disease Control.
I remember a legislator years ago who decided to run for some statewide office. He was big heat in the Capitol. Pages scurried to bring him snacks from the basement café. Lobbyists bowed as they sought approval for their amendments. Grown men and women averted their eyes as he strode past. He took a poll. His statewide name recognition was 2 percent or less. "You want a soda? The machine's downstairs.''
The average citizen follows the Legislature casually, occasionally and from a distance. After 40 years of reporting and five more sessions with a state agency, I retired and became one of those people. I pay attention to a few things, but the Legislature is no longer my world from January through March. I don't swim in the deep end of that pool often. I visit there maybe once a session, so I've pretty much missed the colds and sniffles that used to be a given in my days of covering the place.
I don't miss the Capitol Crud at all. Sometimes I miss those out-sized personalities and quirky moments that compensated for all the meetings, news conferences and interviews. What quirky moments? Well, one year Gov. Bill Janklow gave legislators an idea for drug prices or something. As I recall, he told them to do what they wanted. Old-timers knew that meant he'd tell them what to do later. But it was early in term limits. Several lawmakers were new. They thought he meant do what they wanted. They told him it was too complicated. He told them a grade-school kid could understand it. A House member, introducing his visiting grandson, said he brought the lad to Pierre to read bills for the legislators.
Another time, 1976, instead of finishing on time, legislators got into an adjournment-day fight over the budget. They met and met, deep into the night. Sometime after midnight, people were hungry. It was before fast food in the capital city, so they ordered 100 or so hamburgers from an all-night café. About 15 minutes after that call, they bagged their talks and left the building, planning to hit it hard in the morning.
Lowell Hansen from Sioux Falls was standing with me in the deserted House chamber when a young guy walked in with a huge box that smelled like grilled beef and onions. He looked around the empty chamber and asked, "Who ordered the 100 hamburgers?''
Lowell, who became Speaker of the House a couple of years later, looked around the deserted place, reached for his wallet and said, "I don't know, but I'll take a couple.''
The look on the delivery guy's face was worth being up in the middle of the night.