It’s been 50 years since I covered my first session of the South Dakota Legislature – 10 years since my last – and while I loved the job, I can’t imagine doing it again.
Session opens next Tuesday. The days leading up to the opening gavel always were exciting ones for reporters. So many bills, so many potential stories, so many House and Senate members to meet. Even in the days before term limits, legislative turnover was significant. A fair number of lawmakers served 12, 18, 20 years, but many others left well before that, either by choice or the will of their constituents.
I remember the Minnehaha County senator who called me after an unsuccessful re-election bid. “I’m leaving the Legislature for health reasons,’’ he said, laughing. “The voters are sick of me.’’
That meant a new legislator to meet from that district. And for a reporter, every new legislator was a surprise package. Who knew what thoughts and proposals the new man or woman might bring to the process? For many years, The Associated Press sent each legislator a pre-session questionnaire asking about various state issues. It was usually seven or eight questions, and most legislators replied. One year when I was the AP correspondent, I got a reply from a newly elected West River representative who wrote across the questionnaire, “I answer to the people of my district, and I don’t see where my thoughts or positions are any business of yours.’’ So there.
I began covering state government with the wire service in the fall of 1969, so 1970 was my first legislative session. I had no idea what I’d be getting into, truly. In my first couple of years of newspapering, first as a photographer and then as a sports reporter, I’d paid little more attention to the workings of the legislative than any other citizen did. I’d read the headlines and the stories in our newspaper. I’d hear talk among the older reporters and editors when we took our morning break and wandered down the back stairs, past the stacked rolls of newsprint and into the basement coffee shop. I rarely participated in the conversation. If they weren’t talking about local high-school standouts Larry Jacobson and Neil Graff, I’d just sip my coffee and pretend to be interested.
I moved from Sioux Falls to Pierre for the higher pay of the AP. I stayed because my car wouldn’t start. A cheap joke, sure, but that Rebel station wagon really wouldn’t start in a Pierre winter. I’d have stayed, anyway. I found the process and the people fascinating. I had a good boss that first year, a Kimball kid named Jim Wilson, the hardest charging reporter I’ve ever known. He lived and breathed news. He hated hypocrisy in politics.
That 1970 session, two-thirds of the members of each house were Republican. So was the governor, Frank Farrar. Smooth going, right? Not always, because someone had taught that crop of legislators about checks and balances and being a separate, equal branch of government. They clashed with the governor several times. A top-heavy majority isn’t always a cohesive majority.
Farrar lost to Democrat Dick Kneip in the fall of 1970. Republicans stayed in control of the Legislature, acting more than ever like their own branch of government. Two years later, Democrats won a working majority in both houses and Kneip won re-election. Democrats generally supported Kneip on policy issues, but in disagreements involving executive versus legislative branches, they still held the separate and equal philosophy. Kneip, himself a former legislator, often said, “The governor proposes, the Legislature disposes.’’ He didn’t always like it when they did.
(In later years, governors often called legislators in for discussions. In those early days, the attitude often seemed to be, “If he wants to talk with us, we’ll let him know.’’)
That first session hooked me. Forty years later, I still loved the job. A couple of years after I retired, though, I had a chance to return to legislative reporting for one more session. I considered it briefly, decided I’d done quite enough of that and I could get my legislative fix over the internet.