The decision announced yesterday by George Mark Mickelson that he wouldn’t run for the Republican nomination for governor in 2018 came from a place that only he could understand. His father, the late Gov. George S. Mickelson, and his mother, Linda Mickelson Graham, had three children in Mark, Amy and David. Mark, the oldest, was a third-year Harvard Law student when his father and seven other men died in the 1993 state airplane crash. As I watched the family come down the front steps of the Capitol after the official state ceremony that April afternoon a few days after the crash, and then watched the procession of automobiles prepare to head east on U.S. 14 back to their hometown of Brookings, I couldn’t get the question out of my head about what the four of them were going through and what waited in the hours, days and years ahead.
Frankly, I was surprised in recent years with the talk that Mark would run for governor. He carried the weight of the same first name as his father and his grandfather, Gov. George T. Mickelson. When Mark won election to the state House of Representatives, and his fellow Republicans then chose him as speaker pro tem for the 2015-2016 term, the steps began to move into place for a run for governor. Others would have a better idea what influences happened within his family and within the circle of friends of the family and within the ranks of his father’s past supporters. Many of those people wrote big checks in 2015 when Mark formed a political acton committee for the 2018 governor’s candidacy in addition to his state legislator’s election committee. The Mickelson PAC allowed him to receive larger contributions from supporters than even a governor candidate could. He would be able to later donate from the PAC to his governor committee after he made it through the 2016 election and started a governor committee. His formation of the PAC affected another Republican who wants to be elected governor in 2018, state Attorney General Marty Jackley, who then formed a PAC too in addition to his AG committee account. Mickelson drew nearly $1 million to the PAC, with much of it coming from his father’s generation of supporters, and immediately left Jackley behind. It had been George S. Mickelson, as the 1986 Republican primary winner, who made a decision at the 1986 South Dakota Republicans’ state convention that he would support Roger Tellinghuisen of Lawrence County, rather than Michael Jackley of Meade County for the Republican nomination for attorney general. Tellinghuisen won the nomination and the 1986 statewide election. He served one term and stepped aside. Marty Jackley, whose father is Mike Jackley, knew he had a formidable opponent in 2018 if Mark Mickelson ran too for the Republican nomination for governor.
They both had another formidable possible opponent in the U.S. House of Representatives if Kristi Noem decided to run for governor in 2018 after eight years of flying back and forth between South Dakota and Washington, D.C. Personally, I didn’t see how Mark Mickelson or Marty Jackley could win the 2018 nomination if Kristi Noem ran too. She was the only one of the three who had run in a statewide Republican primary, for the U.S. House nomination in 2010, and had run four seriously contested campaigns against solid Democratic opponents, starting with Noem’s giant upset in 2010 of Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. How Kristi Noem might fare head to head with Marty Jackley in a two-way primary remains to be seen. The decision by Mark Mickelson, announced yesterday, that he wouldn’t run in 2018 removed one piece of the Republican 2018 field.
It should be known too that three set of legislation advanced by Mark Mickelson in the 2015-2016 term didn’t turn out as well as intended. He took up the technical-schools fight and convinced the Legislature to put Constitutional Amendment R on the 2016 ballot. It says the Legislature can decide who governs the technical institutes. Jackley wrote the ballot-measure explanation that seemed to indicate the regents might already have control if the regents chose to exert it. Voters supported R on Tuesday, but it was close: 178,187 yes and 173,924 no. On a geographic basis, voters in two-thirds of the 66 counties opposed R. There wasn’t any magic stirring behind R.
Mark also was prime sponsor of the two sets of conflict-of-interest restrictions hurriedly approved by the Legislature in 2015 and 2016. Jackley hasn’t been shy about candidly pointing out the difficulties for enforcing them. And the last thing most South Dakotans who serve on public boards and commissions, whether at the local level or for state government, want is to have to fill out more paperwork and publicly declare their conflicts of interest, as though they were doing something nefarious. There was a fear factor, too, as people declared conflicts just in case, such as a husband’s serving on a public charity board that could get a public contract. There were some real conflicts of interest, however, and those people moved on, quietly, because of the new laws. Those laws passed because of the EB-5 and Gear Up scandals that began during the Rounds administration and have since led to four indictments and seven deaths by shotgun. Mark stepped forward to take the lead on the conflicts legislation. He did the courageous thing when many legislators seemed more comfortable to just stand around. But the legislation reached deep into every South Dakota community, directly affecting their school boards and school administrations. Being held accountable chafes.
Mark also felt he needed to connect with the agriculture community in some meaningful way. He stepped forward on legislation intended to streamline the county permitting process for concentrated animal feeding operations. Feedlots cut both ways at the community level. His bills became law, but they stirred opposition to him as a person and brought him into direct political conflict with some rural organizations and activists. People understand the political power of manure. Nobody wants those kind of ads run against them.
I haven’t seen a current deep poll on the 2018 governor’s primary. I don’t know what the numbers would have shown. I don’t think U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem would be looking at a possible candidacy unless numbers she’s received indicate a path to victory. And there are plenty of Republicans urging her to run for governor, in part because they have favorites they want to see run for the U.S. House seat if it’s open in 2018. Likewise state Attorney General Marty Jackley must have numbers that show him a path to victory. He is constantly criss-crossing South Dakota already talking to almost any group willing to host hm. People are always quick to note that Jackley could run for the U.S. House seat too, although I haven’t heard that from him.
Noem’s family is front and center at many times. Her husband, Bryon, and their three children are grassroots South Dakota with their small-town and farm backgrounds in Hamlin County. It would be easy for her to say, in answer to the question why she would give up a sure seat in Congress to take a chance on running for governor, that she could do more as governor for South Dakota every day. That is the challenge facing any candidate for governor: Can she or he show up, every day, even on Sundays, and meet the expectations of South Dakota’s people? The drudgery of being governor, such as receiving child-support complaints from parents stiffed by the other parents, leads some people against running. A conversation with Janklow about the everyday duties clearly shaped the decision of then-U.S. Rep. John Thune to run for the U.S. Senate in 2002 rather than for governor.
The perspective that Mark, Amy and David Mickelson have from their childhoods is one almost none of us can understand. When George Speaker Mickelson decided to run for governor in the 1986 Republican primary, he had been laying the foundation for years. He had served in the state House from 1975 through 1980. He connected with Dwight Adams to manage his campaign. Dwight pushed Speaker to campaign door to door. For the better part of three years, the son of a former governor knocked at the storm doors and screen doors of people’s homes and told them he wanted to be their next governor. Frankly, George Speaker Mickelson worked harder on a day-in, day-out basis to win the nomination than did his fellow three Republicans in the 1986 primary. He placed ahead of former congressman Clint Roberts, then-Lt. Gov. Lowell Hansen and then-Secretary of State Alice Kundert. To win the primary outright, and avoid a secondary election between the two top finishers, one candidate needed at least 35 percent. Mickelson received 35.30 percent, followed by Roberts at 32.08, Hansen 18.85 and Kundert 13.77. Mickelson drew 40,878 votes in the primary. A few hundred less and he would have been in a run-off against Clint Roberts, a rancher, in the depth of South Dakota’s worst agricultural economy since the depression. Every one of those homes visited by George Speaker Mickelson potentially made the difference in his victory.
The lore of the 1986 race deepened when, on the Democratic side, state legislator and farmer/rancher Ralph Lars Herseth of Houghton won the Democratic nomination, defeating former Gov. Dick Kneip and public utilities commissioner Ken Stofferahn. Herseth was the son of a former governor, too, Ralph Herseth, who served the 1959-1960 term and ran four times. George Speaker Mickelson edged Lars Herseth in the 1986 general election. Stephanie Herseth, the daughter of Lars, ran for the U.S. House seat in 2002 and lost to then-Gov. Bill Janklow, a Republican. After motorcyclist Randy Scott died in a collision with Janklow’s car in 2003 near Flandreau, when Janklow went through a stop sign, Janklow was convicted for manslaughter and resigned from the House seat. Stephanie Herseth received the Democrats’ nomination for the vacant seat in the 2004 special election and won. She was re-elected three times before losing to Noem in 2010 in a three-way race where no candidate received a 50 percent-plus-one majority.
In the 23 years since the 1993 plane crash, a new generation of South Dakotans has moved into the voters’ ranks, replacing the older generation. Our tree each Christmas bears an ornament that George Speaker Mickelson sent upon the birth of our daughter. Our son wasn’t yet born when the crash occurred. I don’t know that either understands the immense grief so many South Dakotans felt on that April evening when the news from Iowa became public. I don’t know that any of us can understand the feelings, then or now or every day in between, inside Linda Mickelson or her children Mark, Amy and David. That George Mark Mickelson considered attempting to be the third member of his family tree to run for governor was a climb none of us can understand. It’s easy to understand, however, why he decided he would rather focus on his family — wife Cynthia and their three teen-aged sons — and why he would ultimately decide against committing the next 10 years of his life, and their lives, to it. Sometimes there are calls you cannot in good conscience answer because you know things and have a perspective almost no one else does.