Remembering Deb Bowman

Deb Bowman and I, judging a DSS employee chili cook-off in 2013.

Deb Bowman passed away early on Tuesday morning, September 17, 2019. Deb succumbed to Stage IV lung cancer. She had been the recipient of a kidney transplant years ago, and ever since then, her health had always been fragile.

That was the only thing about Deb Bowman that was “fragile.” Those of us who worked with Deb knew how tough she could be. Deb was never afraid to speak her mind – as vigorously as necessary – and she could be unrelenting. I once left Deb’s office after a spirited discussion (I don’t remember the topic) and, within a few minutes, I received an email from her that simply said, “OK, I thought about it, and you are right and I am wrong.” I was so taken aback that, much to her chagrin, I printed out that email, framed it, and proudly hung it on my wall. It was a rare victory!

It didn’t take long, though, to understand that the source of Deb’s toughness was her deep compassion for those in need of help – the disabled, the needy, the young, the abused. She began her career in Madison running ECCO, an agency serving people with developmental disabilities. Deb came to Pierre at the invitation of Governor George S. Mickelson to lead the division of developmental disabilities. She served in Governor Bill Janklow’s office as a policy advisor, leading social services, human services, health and corrections.

After 9/11, Governor Janklow made Deb the state’s first homeland security coordinator. It wasn’t an obvious assignment given Deb’s background, but she excelled – even though she was often the only woman at the national homeland security meetings she attended. Deb continued on in Governor Rounds’ office, before he appointed her Secretary of the Department of Social Services. She flourished in that role, and earned the loyalty and friendship of those who worked for her. In 2011, Deb came back into the Governor’s Office, serving as a senior advisor to Governor Daugaard until her retirement in 2014.

I personally first met Deb in late 2002, when I worked as an intern for the Rounds transition team. Deb was a transition team member. I was only twenty, but Deb and I hit it off and she helped me learn the ropes of state government. The following summer, I spent my time as a Governor’s Office intern working primarily with Deb as she led Governor Rounds’ efforts to create a health insurance risk pool, which stabilized the individual health insurance market in the state. I learned much from watching Deb lead the workgroup and handle the strong interests and personalities at play.

Deb was an early supporter of Dennis Daugaard’s campaign for governor; I think they always had a bond because of Dennis’ work at Children’s Home Society and his family’s history of deafness. She was a member of the “kitchen cabinet” throughout the 2010 campaign, and was never afraid to advocate for an unpopular or unarticulated position. That role evolved into Deb joining the Daugaard transition team, and then coming back into the Governor’s Office as senior advisor.

I worked with Deb most closely during those four years in Governor Daugaard’s office. She was an invaluable asset during the legislative session, drawing on the respect she held, her deep relationships, and her willingness (when necessary) to be a “bad cop.”

Deb didn’t always go along with the popular view, and that sometimes meant she wasn’t the easiest co-worker. But she was right as often as not, and Governor Daugaard always benefited from her advice.

I’ll never forget what Dusty Johnson said about Deb, when he was roasting his co-workers at his going-away party:

“During Corn Palace Week, my son Ben rode the Scrambler. Afterwards, he was looking excited but dazed. He told me, ‘Dad there were times I was so scared, and I almost threw up once, but that was so cool. It is the greatest thing ever.’ And I told him, ‘Son, now you know what it’s like working with Deb Bowman.'”

Working with Deb truly was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I learned from her example and appreciated her friendship, and I know I am one of many, many, people who are going to miss her.