Unconcerned with legacy, Daugaard leaves office with bipartisan reputation
PIERRE, S.D. -- If you ask Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s colleagues to describe him, you’ll often hear the same few adjectives, no matter their political leanings: Thoughtful, deliberate, hard-working, humble.
It’s a legacy that Daugaard, 65, has built for himself over the past eight years as South Dakota’s governor without very much trying to leave one, a legacy. In interviews, he shrugs off the question, saying he didn’t enter politics to create a name for himself.
Daugaard’s chief of staff and son-in-law Tony Venhuizen said the governor has never been concerned with his popularity, if he would be re-elected or how he would be remembered. In an interview, Venhuizen said, “(Daugaard) sees the idea of a legacy as kind of a selfish or self-centered concept.”
“He’s really just focused on: Did we make the state better? Are we in a better position than we were?” he said. “There are a lot of previous governors who 50 years later, 100 years later, no one really remembers. But they did things that made South Dakota better.”
It’s this attitude that has led Daugaard, who was raised on a family farm near Garretson near the Minnesota border, to make some famously unpopular decisions -- sometimes going against his own party's interests -- for what he saw as the best option for the state. He hit the ground running with a hard sell when he entered office in 2011, immediately proposing in his first budget that the state cut spending by 10 percent across all departments in an attempt to mend the still-aching economy following the Great Recession.
Sitting in the office he’d be vacating in a few short weeks one December afternoon, Daugaard said despite pushback, his office stayed firm on their demands and was able to successfully balance the budget his first year in office, even after federal stimulus dollars ran dry. In the years since, South Dakota has had budget surpluses every year.
When he’s asked what he thinks his greatest achievement in office was, improving the fiscal health of the state is his immediate response - as if you tapped his knee with the hammer at his yearly physical.
And on the opposite end of the fiscal spectrum, under Daugaard’s watch, the state twice approved spending hikes to raise teacher pay and to increase funding for roads and bridges.
“Those were heavy lifts because they required two-thirds votes to raise taxes, and that’s not a popular thing,” Daugaard said. But he said his task force approach of consulting stakeholders and building consensus among legislators helped him push through controversial measures.
It was a hard lesson for him to learn. Daugaard clasps his hands on his desk and sighs as he freely admits to what he calls his “legislative failures,” like his proposed merit-based teacher pay. The proposal was ultimately passed by the legislature but later rejected in a statewide ballot vote in 2012. From that blemish early on in his first term, Daugaard said he learned to listen to all sides of an issue and always do his homework.
Daugaard’s former chief of staff and Republican U.S. Rep.-elect Dusty Johnson said Daugaard’s work ethic is “something I don’t know the people of South Dakota can fully appreciate.” Daugaard is routinely being the first to get to the office in the morning and doing his own research rather than “blindly” taking staff recommendations, Johnson said.
“So much of the modern political world wants us to develop opinions quickly and to shout them out at the world,” Johnson said. “From Twitter to cable news, we are constantly told that that is what a politician is supposed to look like. From him, I learned that there is a better, more mature way to be a decision maker.”
Though Venhuizen said Daugaard didn’t necessarily set out to make a name for himself as a bipartisan governor, it’s also this maturity that seems to have shaped Daugaard’s method of reaching across the aisle. In Daugaard’s words, he “[tries] to be more adult” than to hold political grudges or to launch personal attacks against those with whom he disagrees.
In deeply red South Dakota, Daugaard, in theory, didn’t have to work with the opposite party to get his agenda accomplished; he had the help of a supermajority in both the House and Senate for that. But he said, “That doesn’t mean that only Republicans have good ideas. And there will be ideas that Republicans have that I don’t like.”
2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former Senate Minority Leader Billie Sutton said he “definitely, absolutely” felt respected and listened to during his time working with Daugaard in Pierre.
"Even though we didn’t agree on everything, we found places to agree,” Sutton said. “I think you see that deteriorating across the country. We have to work together to get things done. I think Daugaard did a good job of that, even when sometimes he didn’t have to.”
Johnson echoed Sutton’s sentiments, calling Daugaard “an increasingly rare creature on the political landscape” amid a time of intense political polarization throughout the country.
“I think there are more than maybe we realize, but we certainly don’t have enough of them,” Johnson said.
When asked how he has worked to unite his legislature and citizens in this politically charged time, Daugaard said simply, “Lead by example.”
“If you want people to be civil to each other, I need to set that example and be civil to my opponents in elections and in debates and hopefully people will see that as the example they should follow.”
There’s more Daugaard said he wishes he could have accomplished during his two terms: finding a solution to better protect the state’s surface waters -- but “I really don’t know what the solution to that is” -- and he said he doesn’t think he “fully appreciated how significant the growth in methamphetamine use has been the last couple of years” in the state.
“While we’ve done pretty good -- in fact, I think we’ve done very good -- work on improving opportunities for treatment of addicts rather than simply imprisoning addicts, that attacks the problem after it exists,” Daugaard said. “We need to attack the problem before it arises in terms of prevention…. Once they get addicted, it just takes them over. So that’s an area I regret.”
But even in the face of a drug epidemic or the litany of other issues South Dakota faces going forward, Daugaard said he is hopeful for the state after he leaves office. He said South Dakota is unique because of the challenges it faces as a rural state, with limited access to commodities like mass transit or broadband that more populated states have.
“Those shortfalls force South Dakotans to be more adaptive and more self-reliant than others who really have never been challenged. Challenges build character.
“I’m very optimistic about our state. Whatever the challenges may be in the future, I’m confident we will rise to them.”