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MERCER: A new book tells Tom Berry story

PIERRE -- Earlier this fall the always-innovative Trail of Governors program added four more statues to the streets of Pierre from South Dakota's history of chief executives. One shows a man with hatchet in hand.

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PIERRE - Earlier this fall the always-innovative Trail of Governors program added four more statues to the streets of Pierre from South Dakota's history of chief executives. One shows a man with hatchet in hand.

That's Tom Berry. It's an image based on a photograph from his 1932 campaign for governor, when he got axes as gifts from folks wanting spending cuts.

He took an axe to state government many times during his pair of two-year terms from January of 1933 to January of 1937.

He chopped salaries of state government employees 10 percent. He slashed state government spending on public colleges and universities 40 percent.

He cut down the lieutenant governor from his first term who had challenged him in a primary en route to a second term.

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He embraced the New Deal programs that President Franklin D. Roosevelt brought to the nation.

He ended South Dakota's second era of prohibition with a 3.2 percent beer law and unlimited licenses.

He used the state Senate to negotiate a compromise on the rate of the new gold-severance tax, getting it down to 4 percent, after the House of Representatives set the bar at 10.

But Berry, a Democrat from the Double X Ranch down by Belvidere, lost his bid for a third consecutive term to Republican Leslie Jensen.

The cover of a new biography about Tom Berry shows him in the saddle on a horse. The title says it all: South Dakota's Cowboy Governor.

The author, Paul Higbee of Spearfish, covers a lot of ground in just 102 pages and four chapters. He's written a fine book that I can't recommend highly enough.

Berry was one of only four Democrats that voters of South Dakota elected as governors.

The first was William J. Bulow. A late replacement in the 1924 campaign after the original Democratic nominee died, he lost.

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But Bulow profited politically from the 1925 legislative probe into the failed Rural Credit program. He ran again in 1926 and won.

Bulow served two terms as South Dakota's governor, along the way fighting the Republican majorities in the Legislature to a standstill over the state budget.

In those days, there wasn't a limit of two consecutive terms. But Bulow didn't run for a third term. Instead he campaigned for the U.S. Senate seat and won.

Berry was born April 23, 1879. He spent six years in the state House, from 1925 through 1930.

After losing his bid for a third term as governor in 1936, he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1938. He lost again.

In 1942, he challenged Bulow in a three-way primary for the Senate and won the Democratic nomination. But then Berry lost the November general election.

That was his last campaign.

Tom Berry died Oct. 30, 1951, seven years before Ralph Herseth won his first and only term as South Dakota's third Democratic governor.

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Democrat Dick Kneip won three terms in a row in 1970, '72 and '74. Only Republicans have won since.

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