People who become speaker of the South Dakota House of Representatives, even in this age of term limits, usually have several years of legislative experience in their resume before they take over the presiding officer’s gavel.
That wasn’t so back in 1973 when Democrats won an organizing majority in the House for the first time since early in the Depression years. I say organizing majority because the House had 35 Democrats and 35 Republicans. It was only because Gov. Dick Kneip was a Democrat that his party got to organize the House, appoint committees, choose employees and pick the speaker.
A Rapid City lawyer named Gene Lebrun won the speaker’s job that session. This wasn’t long after “Clean Gene’’ McCarthy ran for president, so naturally we called Lebrun “Clean Gene.’’ He was serving his first term, with no prior legislative experience. That’s how it was for many of the Democrats who won legislative seats that year. They all learned together. Lebrun simply had to learn faster, because he had to know the rules and procedures and make decisions on the fly.
I recall once when a Republican speaker told a legislative employee that he was nervous because, even though he’d been in the House for most of 20 years, “I’m not too confident I know the rules.’’ The employee said something like, “Man, you have a 20-vote margin. Just rule anything and the majority will back you.’’
It wasn’t that way for LeBrun. He had no margin for error. He quickly developed a reputation for even-handedness and impartiality with the gavel. That was of necessity, he said once. “When the best you can get on a partisan issue is a tie vote, you don’t have room for a heavy-handed approach. Fair, he said, was the only way it would work.
And it did work. Veteran Republican Rep. Joe Barnett of Aberdeen, who would have been speaker in 1973 if his party had won a majority, assessed Lebrun’s performance this way: “He did as good a job as anybody I’ve seen. I guess it wouldn’t hurt to let the Democrats take over every 40 or 50 years.’’
For some reason, perhaps because the years are slipping away, I find myself reflecting on compelling characters and comic conditions from the old days of the Legislature. What I remember most vividly is the human side – people rather than policies or proposals.
Simon Chance of Scotland was among those people. A Republican in the House, Chance voted no on just about every bill on every agenda in every floor session. He might have slipped a yes vote in somewhere, but I don’t remember it. He said once that nothing should pass the Legislature unanimously, and he made sure it didn’t. Besides, he once told me, “I’ve never had a constituent corner me on the street to complain about something I voted against.’’
The first time the House tried a time-saving thing called a consent calendar, it ran up against Chance. The consent calendar allowed leaders to group several non-controversial bills into a package that could pass with a single vote. If any legislators objected to a bill on the consent calendar, it was removed and faced a separate vote. Chance told me he believed every bill deserved a separate vote. The first time a consent calendar was presented, Chance rose and said, “I object.’’ “To which bill?’’ asked the House clerk. “To all of them,’’ Chance said. It was only after Chance left the House that a consent calendar actually worked.
One of my favorite memories happened in 1976 when legislators stayed two days over scheduled adjournment fighting over the state budget. Around midnight the first day of the stalemate, somebody ordered hamburgers for everyone in the House. By the time the order arrived, nearly every legislator had left the building to catch some sleep. I was interviewing Republican Rep. Lowell Hansen of Sioux Falls in the chamber. He told the delivery guy he didn’t place the order but he wouldn’t mind buying a burger. The guy said he needed money for the whole order.
“Forget it, then,’’ Hansen said. “It’s almost time for breakfast, anyway.’’