Would Brendan Johnson be the nominee for U.S. attorney for South Dakota without the sponsorship of his father, U.S. Sen. TIm Johnson? Would Scott Abdallah have been in the running for U.S. attorney eight years ago without the support of now-U.S. Sen. John Thune? Would Jim McMahon have become U.S. attorney without the backing of then-Gov. Bill Janklow? Would Kevin Schieffer have been U.S. attorney without the sponsorship of then-U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler?
The job changes hands when the U.S. presidency changes hands. The post of U.S. attorney is a political appointment. We all know it. And we all knew it when congressional Democrats went after the Bush administration over its U.S attorney appointments a few years ago because they were political. And they always will be political. That doesn’t mean a political appointment can’t be a good appointment. Jim McMahon was certainly up to the job. Had Sen. Johnson tapped someone such as former Minnehaha County state’s attorney Dave Nelson, no one would have raised an eyebrow. Actually, there likely would have been widespread praise.
The selection of Brendan Johnson certainly is no better and no worse than the selection of Kevin Schieffer was more than a decade ago. Going into the job, neither one has much professional experience running a large staff of more experienced professionals or being a criminal prosecutor. The key is how a person performs once granted the opportunity.
It is ridiculous for Sen. Johnson and his staff to claim they have been hands-off, however. The applications were sent to Drey Samuelson, the senator’s chief of staff. Two people applied. One was the senator’s son Brendan. Anyone in the South Dakota State Bar who didn’t understand that the fix was in ahead of time was busy representing groundhogs in court. Rather than dancing around the obvious, it would be better if the senator and his staff said the obvious: We think Brendan is up to the job, and who knows better a son’s capabilities and abilities, strengths and weaknesses, than his father? At least the Johnsons didn’t run a fellow Democrat out of the job, as Pressler and Schieffer (who was Pressler’s chief of staff) did to Phil Hogen, who was the U.S. attorney at the time. Bottom line: Brendan Johnson certainly has more experience as a lawyer than Kevin Schieffer did when he was inserted into the post.
An overlooked piece in this story is how neatly all of this fell into place in both political parties. The Republicans had their own set-up. The state Supreme Court asked the Legislature in the 2009 session for several new circuit judgeships much needed in Sioux Falls and Rapid City. One of the new seats on the circuit bench was awarded by Gov. Mike Rounds to state Attorney General Larry Long (who certainly is qualified). Long was facing a forced departure from office as a.g. after 2010 because of term limits. To replace Long, the governor appointed U.S. attorney Marty Jackley (who certainly is qualified) as state attorney general, setting Jackley up to run for the Republican nomination for a.g. next year and making the general election a very tough race for any Democratic challenger. Brendan Johnson, assuming the full U.S. Senate confirms his nomination, will replace Jackley as U.S. attorney.
This entire process had many cogs turning.