HURON — As he knocks on doors in town after town in the historically successful way of Democratic Party campaigning in a Republican-dominated state, Rick Weiland is seeing growing support for a ballot issue that would raise the minimum wage.
It’s an issue that highlights the huge divide between the working poor struggling to survive and billion-dollar corporations who he says are negatively influencing public policy with their deep pockets.
Weiland faces a divide of his own as he seeks to succeed Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., to keep at least one Democrat in the congressional delegation. His likely Republican opponent this fall is former Gov. Mike Rounds, who has amassed a $9 million war chest. Weiland says he will be competitive, but not with huge corporate contributions. Instead, he has asked supporters for $9 donations in his grassroots approach.
Since mid-July, when he entered the race, Weiland has been to 281 of the 311 incorporated towns in South Dakota. His staff, delighted that he has already accomplished so much, has now added the 50 unincorporated communities to his busy travel itinerary.
At the Beadle County Democratic Forum on Thursday, he called on the five Republican and one Independent Senate candidates to tell voters where they stand on the minimum wage issue. After a successful petition drive, in which 10,000 more signatures than needed were obtained, voters will decide the issue in November.
Critics claim giving people a $1.25 raise to $8.50 an hour will boost the unemployment rate. Weiland thinks the opposite will happen.
“I believe it’s going to create jobs,” he said. Boosting wages is “not like they’re going to be hiding that in offshore bank accounts.” Instead, the money will be spent, he said.
Raising the minimum wage will impact 52,000 South Dakotans, of which 80 percent are adults. Of those, 55 percent are women.
“We have working poor in this state playing by the rules, working 40 hours a week and still making $15,000 a year,” Weiland said. It means they are eligible for food stamps, subsidized housing and home heating assistance.
At the same time, salaries of chief executive officers of corporations across the country are skyrocketing, and the government is spending hundreds of billions of dollars on subsidies and tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans, he said.
Republican leaders in Washington, D.C., say the country doesn’t have a revenue problem, but a spending problem.
“We have a big money problem,” Weiland said. “We’re not taxing the right people and we’re not spending the money on the right things because of the big money. And it’s a serious, serious problem.”
The flood of dollars flowing into the political system is getting in the way of good public policy, he said, asserting it is no longer the people’s government.
Weiland is taking a chapter out of the political strategy books of the late Sen. George McGovern and former Sen. Tom Daschle. McGovern built the modern South Dakota Democratic Party in the 1950s and Daschle won his first race in 1978 by 139 votes – both through door-to-door campaigning.
“That’s how it happens, that’s how it works in South Dakota if you’re a Democrat,” Weiland said. “You’ve got to go out there and earn it. You’ve got to go town to town, door to door and ask people for their vote.”
Earlier this week, he said in a Sioux Falls press conference that health care reform should have included a Medicare option for all Americans, and not just for those age 65 and older. He touched on that again in Huron.
The Affordable Care Act did take giant steps by eliminating pre-existing conditions and lifetime caps.
“But what we don’t have is real competition, and by giving people a choice to buy into Medicare you can create some public-private competition,” Weiland said.
Big money also influences agriculture and energy policy, and Weiland’s campaign theme calls on voters to take back their country.
Health care reform would have been more successful if big insurance and drug companies hadn’t called the shots, he said.
“They were at the table; their lobbyists were in the hall of our Capitol,” he said.
Weiland understands he has no chance of winning the race unless he can attract plenty of Republican and Independent voters, and he is reaching out to them in the march up to the election.
He tells stories of swaying some long-time Republicans to his side, in part because, they say, he is the first candidate to visit their tiny communities in years.
Weiland also met the mother-in-law of Rounds in a Lake Preston stop and the husband of Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., in Bryant on a day he was on a whirlwind 16-town tour.
He won’t get their votes, but he said he comes away from those experiences with a quiet reflection that while South Dakotans have political differences they are all part of one democracy.
“Sometimes we get too emotional, too upset, too strident in our approach to politics,” Weiland said. “We have to understand we are all South Dakotans.
“We’ve got to bring some civility back into our public dialogue,” he said to applause.
The country has serious business ahead, he says, with a lot on the line.
“We need to get at this without getting at each other,” he said.
For the complete article see the 02-07-2014 issue.
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