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Notes from the Campaign Trail

Nov. 4

A couple of months ago, Lori Walsh from South Dakota Public Broadcasting interviewed me. She talked to me, like every other candidate, for eight minutes. In one sense it’s not much time. In another, it’s a windfall. Then, I appreciated access to a wider audience, for all that time. Now, it seems mythical.

Six weeks ago, Chris Dancy at KNBN, the local NBC affiliate, interviewed me for five minutes. Once again, I was grateful for the exposure and the opportunity to talk about important issues like taxes and crime. To their credit, KNBN was the only broadcaster to do this.

One month ago, Elevate Rapid City, the economic development organization that includes the chamber of commerce or is the chamber of commerce, held a forum for all the area candidates—District 30 to 35. Each of us who attended had a table where we displayed our promotional materials and where constituents and other interested parties could talk to us. I thought that this kind of event would be more common. I thought I would have the chance to talk about issues in the same room as my opponents on a few occasions. I was mistaken.

Because this was the first (and as it turned out only) forum, where big ideas and important topics would be discussed, I felt I needed to participate. Elevate told us that we had two minutes to speak. I took this very seriously. I wrote and rewrote, edited and rehearsed, until I timed my speech to exactly 120 seconds. I was ready. I planned to talk about reproductive rights, our corrupt governor, and even white supremacy. I was going to surprise and offend and stake my ideological claim. Yeah! Power to the people.

At 5:00 p.m., set-up time, the candidates and a few Elevate staffers were there, in the large multi-purpose room at Western Dakota Tech, a space that had seating for maybe 200 people. At 5:30, it was still the candidates and staffers. At 6:00, the same. The place was a morgue, barren—no public, no press, no nobody.

But the show must go on. Because I represent District 30, the lowest number, an Elevate representative asked me to start the show. Looking at the empty chairs, wondering who I was really speaking to, I decided to read my speech as intended, as if there was a packed house.

As I have said many times since, my speech was rousing. I set the (abandoned) house on fire. At precisely the two-minute mark, I concluded, saying thank you. Of the ten people there, at least three enthusiastically clapped. I mean it, three people really liked what I had to say. Following my rousing speech, I returned to my table and packed up. No way was I going to listen to those other speeches. In my mind, I was the headliner.

With no audience or press there, my words meant nothing. This forum was a metaphor for my entire campaign: well-intentioned or not, well-written or sloppy, well-spoken or inarticulate—I struggled to get my message to the electorate, to the people I needed to hear it. There is no substitute for speaking live to a large group of voters, especially with your opponent next to you, ready to refute.

In my mind, I had a total of 15 minutes to discuss and explain my platform, the subjects most important to me and my constituents. Fifteen minutes over seven months.

In lieu of these opportunities to talk about issues in a broader context, I resorted to typical campaigning, a sad substitute that has more to do with marketing than policy and practice. Why do campaign billboards even exist? Who would vote for someone based on a yard sign? Why do we spend so much time and money on what in the end is propaganda?

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