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S.D. Demos building party for the future: Party chairman says continuity is key to success

Modified: Monday, May 20th, 2013

HURON — A month after Republicans swept all 2010 statewide races, Democrats — led by their new chairman and executive director Ben Nesselhuf — took stock of their party.

The self-analysis started at a well-attended state central committee meeting in Chamberlain.

“Democrats in South Dakota, more often than not, the breaks aren’t going to go our way,” Nesselhuf said. “But we get up and we fight, and that’s what we’ve been doing.”

A 10-year veteran of the state Legislature, Nesselhuf knew personal defeat three years ago when he lost his secretary of state bid to Jason Gant.

But he and other party leaders quickly rebounded.

As he began his tenure as head of the Democratic Party, Nesselhuf adopted an expression from former state senator and retired Augustana College softball coach Sandy Jerstad.

“You can’t hit a 10-run homer,” she’d say. “You’ve got to do a little bit at a time.”

Instead of merely gearing up for the next election cycle, South Dakota Democratic Party officials decided to develop a 10-year battle plan. Should Nesselhuf step down when his term expires in 18 months, his successor can pick up the blueprint and move forward.

“We are working continuously to try and build the infrastructure as opposed to just looking at the next election,” Nesselhuf said at the Beadle County Democratic Forum on Thursday.

The party took a page from Republican counterparts and is promoting the importance of a strong youth program.

High school Republicans can join Teen-age Republicans, or TARS, in South Dakota. Democrats in high school can now sign up for Young Elected Legislative Leaders, or YELL.

It got off to a promising start when 30 high school students participated in a mock legislative session at the Capitol. Nesselhuf heard outstanding testimony and debate on bills introduced that weekend.

Party leaders taught them the values of the party and sent them home to start hometown chapters. From that initial experience, Nesselhuf already sees the potential for future local leaders and legislative candidates.

With an active YELL organization, a core group of young people will be available for Democrats to tap when the next election approaches and there are thousands of doors to knock on, he said.

But the statewide party is also getting more involved in local, nonpartisan races for mayoral, council and school board seats.

Democrats serving in those positions could be groomed to be future legislative candidates. The state party is able to provide local candidates with a voter file, with data on who is likely to turn out to vote so the focus can be on them during the campaign.

“We are finding success in doing this all around the state,” Nesselhuf said.

Rapid City, for example, is a Republican stronghold, and Democrats find it difficult to elect one of their own. But Democrats now hold a majority on the school board, and have a couple members on the city council.

Nesselhuf said Democrats are also getting aggressive in gathering signatures to put issues on the ballot after legislators pass unpopular laws.

Democrats are stepping up to the plate, and looking for a series of home run pitches.

“We are looking at the next decade,” Nesselhuf said. “How are we going to fundamentally change South Dakota and get a strong two-party system?”

Party leaders also want to get to the point where they are running a self-sustaining organization. They are well on their way, as the party is debt free for the first time since 2002.

While it’s nice to have a national figurehead like former Sen. Tom Daschle and former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, the party shouldn’t rely on them because those folks aren’t always going to be there, he said.

For the complete article see the 05-18-2013 issue.

Click here to purchase an electronic version of the 05-18-2013 paper.

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