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On debate night in South Dakota, Karen Marso parked her car and quickly scooted across a road in Rapid City to join a group of three dozen backers of gubernatorial candidate Jamie Smith.
The gaggle of Smith supporters was there to await the arrival of the Democratic nominee just before the Sept. 30, 2022, debate between Smith, Libertarian candidate Tracey Quint and incumbent Republican Gov. Kristi Noem.
The fact Marso was there to welcome Smith marked a major shift for the 68-year-old retiree and her husband, John, who were both lifelong Republicans until a few years ago, when Donald Trump was elected president.
The turmoil of the Trump presidency turned them away from GOP politics and politicians, including Gov. Noem, who has aligned herself closely with Trump and the national Republican Party, Karen Marso said.
But Marso’s support for the Democratic candidate had far more to do with Smith than with allegiance to one party or another, she said.
The pre-debate rally would be the third time Marso had met Smith, and she has been impressed every time with his attitude and approach as well as his policy positions.
“I just think he’s really genuine, and he really cares,” she said. “I think you can tell just by looking in somebody’s eyes, and you can tell when someone is genuine or fake, and he’s for real.”
Marso said she doesn’t appreciate Noem’s actions to overturn the voter-approval legalization of adult-use marijuana in 2020, and her refusal to support a woman’s right to abortion in the case of rape or incest. “Plus, she’s an election denier and I’m tired of that,” Marso said.
Swing voters like Marso may hold the key to the 2022 gubernatorial election, which a recent South Dakota State University poll of registered voters indicated is closer than many thought, with Noem at 45% support and Smith at 41%, within the poll’s 4% margin of error.
The narrow poll results underscore what has suddenly become a closely watched campaign pitting a well-funded, well-known, hard-charging Republican incumbent with potential presidential aspirations against a relatively inexperienced Democrat who has little money and name recognition in a state dominated by Republican voters and elected officials.
In numerous political ads and mailers, the Noem campaign and the state Republican Party have painted Smith as too liberal or “too extreme for South Dakota.”
A recent mailer from the party said Smith pushed vaccine mandates, marched with Black Lives Matter “radicals,” supported open national borders and wanted to confiscate legally owned guns from South Dakotans.
But a leading Republican in the state Legislature, who knows Smith well, said the Democratic candidate for governor is not extreme in his views and is a lawmaker who works well with people of all backgrounds and political positions.
“I don’t find Jamie Smith extreme in anything … and I wouldn’t call him a liberal Democrat, I really wouldn’t,” said House Speaker Spencer Gosch, R-Glenham. “Just take a look at the talking points they are throwing out, because this is all they can find. If that’s all you can find against Jamie Smith, most of that stuff is a little weak. It’s personal and they’re not going after Smith on his record because there’s not that much they disagree with.”
Gosch said he has found Smith to be a likable lawmaker who is a great listener and valued colleague, even though the two disagree on many political issues.
“I would tell you that between Jamie Smith and the governor, I’ve had a much more cordial relationship and conversations with Jamie than I ever have had with the governor, and she’s from my own party,” Gosch said. “Jamie Smith to me, I think he’s a great guy…as a person, I consider us really, really good friends because he’s just the kind of guy that everybody loves, he’s a guy who’s really hard not to love. When he talks to you he really listens and he really cares, and he remembers things.”
Smith, the minority leader in the South Dakota House, said he has traveled the state and felt enough support for his campaign and enough distaste for Noem’s positions and divisive politics that he sees a legitimate shot at an upset in the election on Nov. 8, 2022.
“I wouldn’t count me out at all, because people are looking for decency in government,” Smith said. “There could very well be a huge surprise when people wake up on Nov. 9.”
Teacher, coach, father, lawmaker
Smith, 51, was born and grew up in Sioux Falls, the son of educators. His mother’s parents were farmers and his grandpa on his dad’s side was one of the founders of Raven Industries, now a major agricultural technology firm in Sioux Falls. “I grew up in a very loving family,” he said.
Smith, according to friends, was a popular and active student in high school, where he was a wrestler in the 140-pound weight class and finished top 5 in the state tournament his two final years. Smith attended college on a music scholarship at Augustana University, majoring in communications. The deep-voiced Smith was a bass in chorus and theater both in high school and college, and later would serve as the announcer at state prep wrestling tournaments.
After college graduation, his first job was as the voice and operator of Wilbur the Coyote, the animatronic animal that delivered pizzas and jokes to patrons of the Gigglebee’s family fun center in Sioux Falls. Smith was promoted to management and helped open a Gigglesbee’s in Rapid City.
He later returned to college, earned a teaching degree and entered the classroom, teaching middle school science in Sioux Falls. He also coached wrestling and football at the middle and high school levels, including at Axtell Park Middle and Roosevelt High.
“I still love teaching and coaching, and I’m a teacher and coach at heart,” he said.
Smith met his wife, Kjerstin, while in chorus at Augustana but didn’t find a romantic connection until a few years later when Smith took her on a dance date to the Mr. and Mrs. Club at the El Riad Shrine in Sioux Falls. After 23 years of marriage, the Smiths have raised two sons, Johnathan and Isaac, and have a goldendoodle dog named Maggie.
Smith eventually left teaching and took a job selling orthopedic medical parts before earning a real estate license. Smith remains an agent with Hegg Realtors in Sioux Falls.
Smith ran for the state House of Representatives in 2016 and won a seat in District 15, a swath of downtown Sioux Falls between Interstate 29 and 229.
In his second term, in 2019, Smith was elected by his peers as house minority leader, a position he still holds.
Throughout his time in office, Smith said he has worked to develop a reputation as a builder of bridges between lawmakers of different parties and people who disagree on issues.
“I heard years ago the saying that, ‘We can disagree without being disagreeable,’ and I really do believe that and I try to look for the good in everybody,” Smith said. “If there’s people I disagree with, I always think about how that other person loves their mom and dad and kids and grandparents as much as I do, so I kind of start at that point.”
In his free time, Smith is an occasional hunter but more of an avid angler who fishes for walleye on the Missouri River and who has also taken his family on fishing trips to Lake of the Woods in Canada.
On Native American Day in October, Smith traveled through Indian Country in western South Dakota and shot hoops with a young Native boy while also meeting with local residents and officials.
“What they want is someone to work with them and show up and walk beside them, who listens and who avails themselves to them,” he said. “Their concerns are the same as other South Dakotans — we all want a better life for our kids and a good situation for our parents when they get old.”
During two days in Indian Country, Smith said he frequently heard about Noem’s poor relationship with tribes and disconnect from tribal residents, including how Noem was once banned from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
“It shouldn’t be an us-and-them type of mentality; Native Americans should be a part of the fabric of South Dakota and not like an addition to the state,” he said. “There’s definitely challenges but there’s a lot of good going on, too.”
Smith said his message to Native residents was the same as it is to all residents of the state: “I’m going to be there with you, and I’m going to step in stride with you and work to make life better for all South Dakotans.”
Making the campaign about truth, honesty and character
Smith announced his candidacy for governor in February 2022 and began the race with little money or name recognition.
He remains well behind in the fundraising category, according to state and federal campaign records. From January to May 2022, the latest state campaign-finance reporting period, Smith had raised $137,000 and had $110,000 in reserves. He had received only one out-of-state donation, a $500 contribution from the Unified Rural Democrats of America.
In contrast, Gov. Noem, 50, is running what is believed to be the most highly funded gubernatorial campaign in state history. As of the May 2022 reporting period, Noem had $7.8 million in reserves in her state campaign fund and had received nearly $900,000 in out-of-state contributions.
Additionally, in 2021, Noem raised $7.9 million in advance of the gubernatorial election, according to state records. Federal Elections Commission records show that Noem’s national Noem Victory Fund raised $2.9 million and spent $2.2 million from Jan. 1, 2022, to Sept. 30, 2022.
In one respect, Smith has gained significant name recognition since the start of the campaign, as Noem and the state Republican Party have continually attacked Smith’s political and legislative record on television, in radio ads and in a consistent barrage of mailers.
In a September 2022 press release announcing a new TV ad campaign, the Noem campaign claimed that Smith was “endangering families.”
“Extreme Jamie Smith wants complete government control over your family,” the ad states. It goes on to make some of the other common claims against Smith by the Noem campaign: that he supported mask and vaccine mandates; that he endorsed the Black Lives Matter movement; that he supports opening U.S. borders; that he wants to infringe on the rights of gun owners; and that he supports higher taxes.
“Each of these policies endanger South Dakota families,” the ad concludes. Noem has also tried hard to tie Smith to President Joe Biden, launching a website called “Jamieandjoe” to push the claims. Noem’s campaign uses inflammatory language to describe Smith, saying he wants to “indoctrinate our children,” that he bows to the “leftist mob” and that he is opposed to secure elections.
In a pair of interviews, Smith brushed aside many of those criticisms, which he said are overblown and in some cases downright inaccurate. For example, he said he supports the Second Amendment and is a gun owner, but also supported a bill that would have allowed for removal of guns from people formally declared mentally ill.
Smith said he isn’t concerned by his “F” rating with the National Rifle Association, and puts more emphasis on what he said is a business-friendly “A” rating by the chambers of commerce in Sioux Falls and Rapid City.
He noted that he did support Joe Biden over Bernie Sanders during the 2020 Democratic primary, but that he has never met Biden. Many of the other claims against him, especially that he is “too extreme” for South Dakota, are simply baseless, he said.
Meanwhile, Smith has attacked Noem for her frequent out-of-state travel and for catering to national political extremists.
Smith calls out Noem for what he calls her questionable ethics, in regard to use of state planes for personal trips and for interfering in the process to help get her daughter an appraiser’s license, for which Noem was sanctioned by a panel of South Dakota judges.
“South Dakotans know the difference between right and wrong,” Smith said in an interview, repeating one of his most effective lines from the Sept. 30 debate with Noem.
To a large extent, Smith has worked to make the campaign one focused on character, trust, truth and honesty — all things he claims Gov. Noem has lost during her political career.
“It’s just a smear campaign in which they demonize certain words, and it’s from the playbook and the state of politics right now from her part of her party,” Smith said. “It’s not very imaginative, but it must work to scare people and not tell the truth about who a person is. In this day and age, it’s important to share ideas, and to show how we’re different but also alike.”
Smith said he wishes he had done more in the one and only debate between the gubernatorial candidates to refute what he says are lies told by Noem about him. But he adds that he believes there remains a place in politics for a positive campaign focused on issues, even if it is becoming more rare.
“I know that people have come numb and skeptical of politicians, or people that work in government, because of the past several years where somebody created the idea that there [are] facts and alternative facts,” Smith said. “I believe there are facts and then there are lies.”
On his campaign website, Smith outlines seven major policy priorities, including:
— Economy: Support technical education and job-training programs to keep young people from leaving the state.
— Agriculture: Initiate property-tax relief, promote value-added ag, and separate agriculture and natural resources back into individual agencies.
— Healthcare: Expand Medicaid, allow access to abortion, increase access to rural health services and support failing nursing homes.
— Education: Raise teacher pay, extend local control over K-12 education.
— Integrity: Expand financial reporting by politicians, require staff to sign ethics pledges and allow voter-approved legal cannabis to become law.
— Crime: Focus on prevention and rehabilitation, support addiction recovery, fight the methamphetamine epidemic, keep guns away from those with mental illness.
— Native American issues: Reconcile with tribes, engage tribal leaders in government, create economic opportunities in tribal communities.
According to the legislative-tracking website billtrack50.com, Smith was a sponsor of 68 separate bills or resolutions during the 2022 legislative session, of which 29 passed or were eventually signed into law.
Bills that passed included a tax on revenues from proposed carbon-dioxide pipelines and appropriations for a nursing home in Lyman County, for a biomedical research facility at the University of South Dakota, and to develop use of 3-D printing of concrete homes in tribal communities.
Bills that failed included a proposal to prohibit possession of a loaded firearm while intoxicated from alcohol or marijuana; to reduce the penalty for drug ingestion from a felony to a misdemeanor; and a bill to prohibit private funding of active-duty National Guard or state guard missions.
Smith said he stands by his record and will continue to be open and honest about his positions if he is elected governor.
“There’s a lot of great people across this state; there’s a lot of people who want a government that reflects their hard work, their commitment to their families, and that want somebody that is working hard for them,” Smith said. “I’d like them to know that there’s a guy who wants to be governor who tells the truth, who is focused on them and their needs, who is willing to jump in there and do the work for the people of South Dakota, and do it for them, and not do it for myself or any other reason.”
A man of ‘grace and positivity’
Tiffany Kortan has been a good friend of Smith for more than 30 years, ever since they met the summer before high school in a production of “Annie” at the Orpheum Theater in Sioux Falls. (Smith played the scoundrel Daniel “Rooster” Hannigan and Kortan played a singing Boylan sister.)
The Class of 1989 graduates from Washington High School were active together in choir and swing choir, and had many mutual friends, Kortan said. At Washington, Smith was the lead in several theater productions, served as student council president and was in the homecoming court, she said.
“I admired Jamie for reaching out to all students; no matter the friend group, he just was a great guy to everyone,” she said.
Since then, Kortan has watched Smith’s positive traits flourish as they entered adulthood. The two have had frequent interactions through the years. Smith sang at the wedding of Kortan and her husband, and sang at the weddings of Kortan’s daughters, and helped broker a home purchase by one of Kortan’s daughters.
Smith and Kortan’s husband both coached youth wrestling in Sioux Falls, and as couples, the Kortans and Smiths went with a group to Mexico to celebrate turning 40, and recently went to Arizona to celebrate their 50ths.
Kortan said Smith has an upbeat, outgoing personality that allows him to work and speak respectfully with others, even those who disagree with him.
“Serving as a Democrat, he’s in the minority party, so he’s always trying to work with others who might not see things exactly the way he does,” said Kortan, a registered Democrat. “That’s a hard position to be in, and I think he’s done that with grace and positivity.”
Kortan said she believes Smith can bring his positive personal traits to the office of governor and help make South Dakota a better state. “I think Jamie is very genuine, and he really cares about people and he really cares about South Dakota,” said Kortan, 51, a math teacher at Sioux Falls Memorial Middle School. “I just feel like he’s a person I can count on, that I’ve always been able to count on, and I think the state of South Dakota can count on him, too.”
Rep. Chris Johnson, R-Rapid City, is the assistant majority leader in the South Dakota House, and has worked with Smith on a handful of legislative issues.
Johnson said he and Smith work together well, even though they disagree politically. The two appeared together in weekly press conferences hosted by the House leadership from both parties during the annual legislative sessions.
“We live in two different worlds politically, and I would not support him for governor, period, because I disagree with his political stances and think they would be very damaging to the state,” Johnson said in an interview with News Watch. “But personally, I get along with him just fine. He’s a very congenial man and I enjoy his sense of humor and he presents himself very professionally.”
Johnson added: “You can be friends with somebody you disagree with; that’s an important part of the whole process.”
Former lawmaker Karen Soli of Sioux Falls got to know Smith when he was her daughter’s teacher at Axtell Park Middle School, where Smith’s wife was also an educator.
“They were her favorite teachers, and she became their first babysitter for their son who is now in college,” Soli said.
Soli, who lives in the same House district as Smith, encouraged him to run for office when a seat opened six years ago. Smith was reluctant at first, Soli said, but after they made a trip together to Pierre during the legislative session, Smith was hooked.
Since then, Soli said she has watched as Smith has grown into a state leader with the confidence, knowledge and determination to be governor.
“I think it would be incredibly challenging to be a Democratic governor in a Republican majority state, but I know he can do it,” she said.
Soli said she has been impressed with how devoted Smith is to South Dakota and its residents.
“He doesn’t have a lot of self-interest and he’s not in it to show somebody now important he is. The fact he had to be asked and encouraged to run tells you he wasn’t out looking to make a name for himself.”
Soli said Smith has shown to her and others that he is a good listener who works well with people of all backgrounds and interests.
“He has the gifts: the intelligence, the caring, the thoughtfulness, and the ability to truly work with people and recognize their gifts,” Soli said. “He also has a lot of integrity.”
State Rep. Jennifer Keintz, D-Eden, is a first-term lawmaker who has worked in marketing and real estate and now owns a realty and auction business in the northeast corner of South Dakota.
Keintz said she would often get a call from Smith while driving home from Pierre during her first legislative session in 2021, and Smith would just check in to see if Keintz was doing OK or if she had any questions or needed anything.
During the waning days of the 2022 session, Keintz, 49, said she had a rough day in the Legislature, and popped into Smith’s office in the Capitol to decompress.
“He’s got this great open-door policy, and I had a couple things happen that were really tough,” Keintz recalled. “I went in and sat down, but I just burst into tears, which I wasn’t expecting.”
Keintz said she was immediately embarrassed, but was touched by now Smith handled the sudden outpouring of emotion.
“Jamie jumped up from his desk and ran over and sat next to me and wanted to know what was going on,” Keintz said. “That’s not something that just anybody would do. I guess I just needed to vent, and being around him is a place where I feel comfortable doing that, because that’s the kind of guy he is — he cares about people and he’s going to be there to help people or help them deal with whatever they’re going through.”
When Keintz was approached in July to be Smith’s running mate and join the Democratic ticket as the candidate for lieutenant governor, she said she was honored to do so.
Keintz said she has been impressed with Smith’s willingness to work with and listen to all members of the Legislature, including those in the opposing party.
“I saw him numerous times working with Republicans on a variety of issues, and he just focused on getting things done and working for the people of South Dakota, and not creating rifts and drama among people,” she said. “He was just there to do work and I can see how beneficial that will be for him as governor.”
Keintz said it’s clear to many in Pierre that Noem “can’t even get along with her own party,” and that Noem has had a rocky relationship with the conservative arm of the South Dakota Republican caucus.
“Many people who’ve been around South Dakota politics a long time who say they’ve never seen this kind of dissension among the ranks,” Keintz said. “Jamie is just not that kind of person; he’s absolutely genuine. What you see one on one is the same person you see in group settings.”
Keintz said she and Smith have “a nice balance” in their personal histories that make them a good team. In addition to the gender difference, Keintz was born in South Dakota but moved to the East Coast for several years in her 20s and 30s, while Smith has remained in Sioux Falls his entire life. Both have children, but while Smith’s are young adults, Keintz is the mother of a 5-year-old.
“We just complement each other in a lot of ways, and I think it creates a nice balance,” Keintz said. “But fundamentally we share the same values so it’s a good partnership.”
Keintz said she feels she and Smith have done well in deflecting the criticisms from Noem that they are too liberal for South Dakota, that they oppose the Second Amendment and that they are in favor of transgendered girls playing female sports.
Keintz said that many conservatives support commonsense gun control measures, and that transgender sports is a non-issue in South Dakota.
“Jamie and I believe that trans girls are girls, so they’re not boys playing girls sports,” she said. “It’s not even happening in South Dakota anyway.”
Keintz said she is hopeful South Dakota voters from all parties will recognize the significant differences between Smith and Noem and make their choice on Election Day to trust that Smith is the right person to lead the state. The election, she said, will likely come down to the growing number of Independent voters and to Republican voters who decide to change course and vote for a Democratic governor.
“The level of enthusiasm for Jamie is just amazing and so energizing across the political spectrum,” Keintz said. “People are ready for a change and they’re ready for somebody like Jamie who we can count on. The question is whether people will be able to make that change. They’re unhappy with Kristi Noem, but will they be able to vote for a different party than they have in the past?”
About Bart Pfankuch
Bart Pfankuch, Rapid City, S.D., is the content director for South Dakota News Watch. A Wisconsin native, he is a former editor of the Rapid City Journal and also worked at newspapers in Florida. Bart has spent more than 30 years as a reporter, editor and writing coach. Contact Bart at email@example.com.