South Dakota has a proud populist tradition. In the late 19th-century, the state’s farmers faced plummeting wheat prices and mounting piles of debt at the hands of large Eastern banks. But they responded by forming agrarian alliances to prop up prices, pooling their resources for bulk purchasing and becoming politically active in the People’s Party–AKA, the populists.
Now more than a century later, there is a new populist on the block–and her name is Stephanie Herseth. A 33-year-old lawyer, teacher and South Dakota native, Herseth is running in the June 1 special election to fill former Congressman (and convicted felon) Bill Janklow’s seat. (She came very close to beating him in 2000.) Raised on her family’s fourth-generation farm and ranch 35 miles from Aberdeen, Herseth represents the best of South Dakota’s progressive populist traditions.
Her grandfather served as South Dakota’s governor from 1959-1961. But it was her grandmother who was the first one to run for public office. As superintendent of schools in Brown County in the 1930s, she helped put her nieces through college, and was elected Secretary of State in the 1970s after her husband died. Herseth’s father also spent 20 years in the state legislature.
Herseth, however, might be the most skilled politician in her illustrious clan. Smart and poised, she exudes hope about the state’s future and refuses to sling mud at her GOP opponents–which is part of the reason why, according to last week’s Zogby Poll, Herseth enjoys a 16-point lead over State Senator Larry Diedrich, her main Republican rival.
The stakes are extraordinarily high. Herseth is pro-choice, and South Dakota, which has never elected a woman to Congress, needs her voice on this issue now more than ever. Last February, South Dakota’s rightwing legislature passed a draconian bill banning virtually all abortion procedures even in cases of rape and incest. The governor finally vetoed the bill on technical grounds but the issue remains a controversial flashpoint in the state. One newspaper reporter even described Herseth as “untested, unmarried, no children, for abortion.” Emily’s List, NARAL and Planned Parenthood have responded by raising contributions and visibility for Herseth’s campaign.
A skillful tactician, Herseth seems to be pushing the right buttons. In 2002, she ran a campaign against Janklow in which she encouraged South Dakota’s youth to live and work in the state. After a narrow defeat, Herseth, true to her word, remained in South Dakota. She launched the South Dakota Farmers Union Foundation, which promotes agrarian prosperity and educates youth in rural communities. She taught politics at South Dakota’s colleges, too.
Most importantly, Herseth has broad appeal in rural South Dakota. In 2002, she criticized agribusiness monopolies for damaging South Dakota’s economy. Today, she supports fair trade, defends family farmers and advocates for affordable health care for rural America. She fights for military families on issues like veterans’ benefits and better equipment for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a recent interview for the Emily’s List newsletter, Herseth also promised to reach out to “Native American voters and increase turnout among younger women. They will be a core of my support in June and November.”
As John Nichols noted in an November 4, 2002 Nation piece, Herseth “will provide her party with a desperately needed model for reaching voters in states where it cannot afford to be uncompetitive.” And a Herseth victory this June 1st will demonstrate that progressives can win rural districts–and in Tom Daschle‘s state, where he faces a fierce re-election battle against Rep. John Thune this November.
When Herseth defeats Larry Diedrich this June, she will weaken Tom DeLay’s iron grip on the anti-women, Republican-run House of Representatives. If you want to kindle a populist prairie fire, go to www.HersethforCongress.org and make a donation today.