Randy Seiler for Attorney General

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South Dakota Democrats have national momentum and candidates, but not voters

Jonathan Ellis, jonellis@argusleader.com

They also have arguably the most experienced candidate in the race for state attorney general. Randy Seiler hasn’t announced his candidacy, but he has filed paperwork with the Secretary of State’s Office. Seiler, a career prosecutor, retired as U.S. attorney on Dec. 31, a post that he won with bi-partisan U.S. Senate approval.

This year’s election marks a sobering data point for South Dakota Democrats: They haven’t won a statewide election in a decade.

In 2008, Sen. Tim Johnson and Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin won comfortable re-elections amid a national tide that swept Barack Obama into the presidency. From that point on, it’s been a dumpster fire for state Democrats. Herseth Sandlin lost two years later, the party failed to run a candidate against Sen. John Thune in 2010, and, in 2014, Johnson retired rather than attempt a bid for a historic fourth term, leaving the shelves bare of statewide Democratic officeholders for the first time in two generations.

And now, growing larger on the horizon, is the 2018 election. The 10-year mark.

Nationally, Democrats are feeling good about their chances this year. They’re in a fighting mood. As I write, they’re gleefully preparing to shut down the federal government. Many observers say the stars are aligning for a “wave election” in which they take control of the House and Senate.

In 2009, the year before the last wave election that saw Republicans take control of the House, Republicans won the governorships of Virginia and New Jersey. In 2017, those races were won by Democrats.

We won’t count last month’s special election in Alabama, where Democrats picked up a Senate seat. The GOP candidate was a howler, one of the worst candidates in the history of Democracy. Democrats are making too much of that victory.

Regardless, Democrats have momentum. But, is it enough momentum for them to succeed in South Dakota?

Historically, Democrats have done well in South Dakota when Republicans control the White House and the agriculture economy is weak. Going into this year’s election, they can check those two boxes. President Trump is considered a buffoon by many in his own party. Meanwhile, the agriculture economy is tepid, hampered by low corn and soybean prices.

They are positioning themselves with solid candidates. Their candidate for governor, state Sen. Billie Sutton of Burke, is popular. I’ve heard conservative Republicans speak warmly about him because he comes across as amiable and genuine.

In Tim Bjorkman, they have a former circuit court judge running for an open House seat. There hasn’t been an open House seat in South Dakota in nearly 15 years, and the last time it was open, Democrats won. Bjorkman’s platform includes conventional Democratic issues on health care and taxes, but he also supports a constitutional amendment for term limits, a position that could earn him points among voters who view Congress as Misfit Island.

They also have arguably the most experienced candidate in the race for state attorney general. Randy Seiler hasn’t announced his candidacy, but he has filed paperwork with the Secretary of State’s Office. Seiler, a career prosecutor, retired as U.S. attorney on Dec. 31, a post that he won with bi-partisan U.S. Senate approval.

Those are the positives for Democrats: A national mood that appears to be moving in their direction; historical precedent; good candidates.

But there are also negatives for state Democrats. One of them might pose a bridge too far.

The latest voter registration numbers released this month are a grim portent for Democrats in this year’s election. There is no way to spin it otherwise. Despite an unpopular Republican administration, the number of registered Democrats in South Dakota continues to decline.

There are now fewer than 160,000 registered Democrats in the state – a deficit of roughly 85,000 voters to the Republican Party. To put that into historical perspective, in 2008, Democrats were 37,000 voters behind. In 10 years, the gulf between the two parties more than doubled. And the decline hasn’t abated since Trump won. They’ve lost roughly 10,000 voters since then.

In fact, there hasn’t been this few registered Democrats since 1972. Then, when the state had a population of about 200,000 fewer people, Democrats made up 40.5 percent of all registered voters. Today, they make up just 30 percent.

This is an alarming trend for the Democratic Party in South Dakota, one that should be setting off alarm bells for the party’s leaders.

Maybe the national observers are correct: A Democratic wave could be in the offing. But unless the state party can find a way to start registering more voters, it’s a wave that South Dakota Democrats will miss.

Reach Jonathan Ellis at 605-575-3629 or jonellis@argusleader.com. On Twitter: @ArgusJellis

Hughes County hires just-retired U.S. Attorney Seiler as interim state’s attorney

Hughes County hires just-retired U.S. Attorney Seiler as interim state’s attorney

By Stephen Lee stephen.lee@capjournal.com Jan 17, 2018

Randy Seiler, just retired as U.S. attorney for South Dakota and a Fort Pierre attorney, told the Hughes County Commission he was being a "good neighbor," by offering to serve as interim state's attorney for the county. Wendy Kloeppner is leaving Feb. 2 after several years as state's attorney and deputy state's attorney, to take a job as Lake County state's attorney in Madison, South Dakota. Seiler will serve as county prosecutor until April 30 as an independently contracted attorney. (Stephen Lee/Capital Journal)

Randy Seiler, just retired as U.S. attorney for South Dakota and a Fort Pierre attorney, told the Hughes County Commission he was being a “good neighbor,” by offering to serve as interim state’s attorney for the county. Wendy Kloeppner is leaving Feb. 2 after several years as state’s attorney and deputy state’s attorney, to take a job as Lake County state’s attorney in Madison, South Dakota. Seiler will serve as county prosecutor until April 30 as an independently contracted attorney. (Stephen Lee/Capital Journal)

The Hughes County Commission on Tuesday hired just-retired U.S. Attorney Randy Seiler of Fort Pierre as interim state’s attorney to cover for State’s Attorney Wendy Kloeppner who is leaving in two weeks.

Seiler, 71, retired Dec. 31 after 22 years as a federal prosecutor, the past nearly three years working as the U.S. attorney for South Dakota.

Seiler told the Commission the idea is to “give you guys a little more time” to replace Kloeppner on a permanent basis. And it’s just “being a good neighbor,” as a resident of Fort Pierre across the Missouri River.

After the meeting, Seiler told the Capital Journal it was some good timing that led to his temporary position as county prosecutor.

Once he had announced last fall his plans to retire, some local law enforcement people contacted him to tell him Kloeppner planned to take a job as Lake County state’s attorney in Madison, South Dakota.

He and others thought Seiler could provide a good interim option, giving the County Commission time to make a good hire for a permanent replacement for Kloeppner, Seiler said.

“I met with a couple of (County) Commissioners. They were intrigued.”

He drafted a contract laying out the terms of him being an independently contracted prosecutor and not a county employee.

After two decades as a high-ranking prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office in South Dakota, Seiler was appointed as acting, then interim, U.S. attorney in March 2015 when Brendan Johnson left office to take a private job.

Seiler then was nominated by President Barack Obama as U.S. attorney and when the U.S. Senate didn’t get around in time to vote on his nomination, a federal judge named him to the position.

An Air Force veteran who graduated from law school in 1980, Seiler worked at a law firm in Mobridge, during which time he worked as a deputy state’s attorney in Campbell County for a time in the 1980s.

He began working as a federal prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office in 1995.

Besides his long experience as a prosecutor, a main qualification Seiler has for being interim state’s attorney in Hughes County is, he says: “I do not want the job on a permanent basis. I do not intend to run for the position.”

Anyone hired as permanent state’s attorney by the County Commission would serve until the general election in November 2018. Whoever wins election then would serve out the last two years of Kloeppner’s term, which ends in 2020.

Kloeppner, previously a prosecutor in Sturgis,has been deputy state’s attorney for four-plus years in Pierre and state’s attorney for four-plus years.

“Wendy’s done a good job here in her nine years and it’s a loss to Hughes County that she’s going to Lake County,” Seiler said.

Seiler said he’s opened a private practice in Fort Pierre, using office space with the Mortensen firm downtown.

Seiler wrote a contract that would limit his interim in Hughes County  to three months and change.  By April 30, the County Commission should be able to hire a replacement, Seiler said.

He told the Commission he had talked to Kloeppner already about a transition.

“She has about 200 felony cases pending and one jury trial,” Seiler said. Until she leaves Feb. 2, he will work with her for a smooth transition, he said.

The Commission also expects to take advantage of Seiler’s experience by having him take a look around the state’s attorney’s office and suggest any possible changes, during his three-month interim position, according to comments made Tuesday.

Kloeppner is getting about a 19 percent raise by taking the job in Lake County.

The County Commission announced just before Christmas, when it learned of Kloeppner’s leaving, that it was taking applications for her replacement.

Seiler’s arrangement approved on Tuesday seems to indicate the Commission didn’t get any applications in the past 25 days that they wished to accept.

Seiler will be paid $8,500 per month.

Seiler said he arrived at that amount by looking at what Kloeppner’s salary is this year, about $84,000, or $7,000 per month; then adding in an amount to account for the county employee benefits he won’t receive as an independent contractor.

Those benefits roughly amount to about 22 percent of the salary amount, bringing him to $8,500 per month, Seiler said.

Seiler will be paid on a pro-rated basis as a deputy state’s attorney until Feb.2, working with Kloeppner during a transition, under the plan approved by the County Commission 4-0 on Tuesday to authorize Chairman Norm Weaver to sign Seiler’s contract.

Commissioner Tom Tveit was absent.

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