Party floor leaders in the SD Legislature

Homer Harding

This post was originally written in November 2018 and was revised following the caucus leadership elections in November 2020, and again to reflect House Minority Leader Jamie Smith’s 2022 gubernatorial bid.

In Pierre, the day-to-day business of the State Legislature is managed by the party floor leaders. In each house, the majority leader plans the calendar and makes the appropriate motions to keep legislative business moving. Majority leaders and minority leaders manage their caucus meetings and represent their members in negotiations.

The South Dakota State Legislature first designated official party floor leaders in 1955. A list of those who have held these offices is posted here. The list includes 6 leaders who would go on to become governor: Ralph Herseth, Archie Gubbrud, Richard F. Kneip, Harvey Wollman, Walter Dale Miller, and Mike Rounds.

Bernie Hunhoff

The longest serving party floor leader in state history is Homer Harding. Harding represented Pierre in the State Senate for 18 years, from 1971-88. He led Senate Republicans for a record-setting 14 years, serving as minority leader from 1975-76 and then as majority leader from 1977-88.

The term limits era has brought about more frequent turnover in leadership. Since term limits took effect in 2000, the only legislator to serve more than four years as a floor leader was Bernie Hunhoff of Yankton, who served six years as house minority leader. Hunhoff had previously served two years as senate minority leader, in 1997 and 1998, before unsuccessfully running for governor in 1998.

In addition to Hunhoff, many other floor leaders have been candidates for governor: Elvern Varilek, Roger McKellips, Lars Herseth, Jim Hutmacher, Scott Heidepriem, Dave Knudson and Billie Sutton. House Minority Leader Jamie Smith is the Democratic nominee for governor in 2022.

Barbara Everist

Barbara Everist of Sioux Falls served in 2001 and 2002 as the senate majority leader, the first woman to serve as a party floor leader. Kris Langer was the second when she served as senate majority leader in 2019-20. Women have also served in other leadership roles, including speaker of the house and president pro tempore of the senate. Troy Heinert of Mission, the current senate minority leader, is the first tribal member to serve as a party floor leader.

Sioux Falls, the state’s largest city, has been the home to nine party floor leaders, more than any other city: Senate Majority Leaders Barbara Everist, David Knudson, and Blake Curd; Senate Minority Leader Scott Heidepriem; House Majority Leaders Elton Johnson, Lawrence Piersol, and Bill Peterson; and House Minority Leaders Dennis McFarland and Jamie Smith.

Troy Heinert

Many other cities have been home to more than one floor leader. These include several of the state’s largest communities, such as four each from Rapid City and Aberdeen, and two each from Pierre, Mitchell, Madison, Watertown, Yankton, and Deadwood. Several small towns have also produced more than one, however, including Alcester (Archie Gubbrud and Roger McKellips), Gettysburg (Ralph Nauman and Corey Brown), and Houghton (father-and-son Ralph and Lars Herseth).

Following the 2020 elections, Senate and House Republicans both elected leaders who are the second to come from their small towns: Gary Cammack, who joins Larry Rhoden from Union Center; and Kent Peterson, who follows Richard F. Kneip from Salem.

In addition to the father-son pair of Ralph and Lars Herseth, there is at least one other pair of family members who have served as floor leaders: House Minority Leader Bertram Ellingson of Sisseton and his grandson, Senate Minority Leader Jason Frerichs of Wilmot.

A complete list of senate majority leaders, senate minority leaders, house majority leaders, and house minority leaders is posted here.