It was good this week to see Gov. Harvey Wollman at the Buffalo Roundup in Custer State Park. Gov. Wollman was kind enough to introduce himself to my son, Henry, who is named after my grandfather, State Sen. Henry Poppen. Grandpa Poppen and Harvey Wollman sat across the aisle from each other in the State Senate in the 1970s.
Harvey Wollman is already SD’s only living Democratic governor or lieutenant governor. This week, Wollman also became the only living Democrat to have served as the SD Senate Majority Leader, due to the sad passing of Roger McKellips of Alcester last month, and of Homer Kandaras of Rapid City this week.
(I wrote recently about McKellips and other longtime legislators in the post, Old Bulls of the SD Legislature.)
McKellips had been Senate Majority Leader when the Democrats controlled the State Senate in 1993-94. Kandaras was Senate Majority Leader in 1975-76; he followed Wollman as Majority Leader after Wollman was elected lieutenant governor.
Like Wollman, there is only one living Democrat who has served as House Majority Leader, Larry Piersol of Sioux Falls. Piersol is now a federal judge on senior status. There is also only one living Democrat to have served as House Speaker, Gene Lebrun of Rapid City. Piersol and Lebrun both held their leadership positions in 1973-74. The House was split 35-35 for those two sessions, and House rules dictated that the Democrats, as the party of the sitting governor, were deemed to be the “majority” party.
Democratic majority leaders are rare in South Dakota because Democratic control of a legislative chamber is rare. Since statehood:
- 1891: A coalition of Democrats and populist “Independents” controlled the State House. There were 20 Democrats and 44 populists in the coalition, and 58 Republicans in the minority.
- 1897: The Populist/Democratic “fusion” ticket elected Andrew E. Lee as governor, and also won narrow control of both legislative houses. The Senate had 20 Populists, 2 Democrats, and 21 Republicans for a 1-seat majority. The House had 35 Populists, 10 Democrats, and 39 Republicans for a 6-seat margin.
- 1933-37: The first time Democrats won control with a Populist coalition was during the Great Depression. In 1932, Tom Berry was elected governor and Democrats won control of both houses. Democrats controlled the House and the Senate in 1933 and 1935. (In this era, the Legislature only met every other year.) After the 1936 election, Republicans won back control of the House, but Democrats retained control of the 1937 Senate by a 1-seat martin.
- 1959: Ralph Herseth was elected governor in 1958, and on his coattails Democrats won control of the Senate 20-15. Herseth had been the first Democrat to be considered “Senate Minority Leader,” and his successor Art Jones was the first Democrat to be the Senate Majority Leader. The House remained Republican and the House Speaker, Archie Gubbrud, defeated Herseth for reelection in 1960 as Republicans retook both houses.
- 1973-76: Dick Kneip was elected governor in 1970, and in 1972 voters rewarded him with a Democratic legislature by the narrowest possible margin. Democrats held the Senate 18-17, with Harvey Wollman as Majority Leader. As noted above, the House was a 35-35 tie and Democrats won the “tie-breaker” of a Democratic governor. Larry Piersol was Majority Leader and Gene Lebrun was House Speaker. In 1974, Kneip was reelected, but Republicans won two House seats to take a 37-33 majority. Democrats picked up a Senate seat, expanding their narrow margin to 19-16. Wollman had been elected lieutenant governor and Homer Kandaras became Majority Leader. Republicans retook control of the House in 1976, and have held it ever since.
- 1993-94: Democrats won a State Senate majority of 20-15 in 1992, with Lars Herseth becoming President Pro Tempore and Roger McKellips becoming Majority Leader. Gov. George S. Mickelson was in the final two years of his term; he died in 1993 and Walter Dale Miller served as governor during the 1994 session. Republicans retook Senate control in 1994, as Bill Janklow returned as governor, and have held it ever since.
In recent years, Democrats made gains in 2006 and 2008. They peaked in the Senate in 2007-08, with the Republican majority narrowed to 20-15. Senate Minority Leader Scott Heidepriem, who had led the expanded Democratic caucus, ran for governor in 2010, but was defeated by Lt. Governor Dennis Daugaard as Republicans retook strong legislative majorities: 30-5 in the Senate and 50-19 in the House. In the time since, Republican supermajorities have strengthened, most recently 29-6 in the Senate and 60-10 in the House.
It appears that 2018 will see Senate Minority Leader Billie Sutton, a Democrat from Burke, attempt against long odds to win the Governor’s Office and to increase Democrat influence in the legislature.