Jim Soyer: A Life of Service

Jim Soyer, a former chief of staff to Gov. Bill Janklow and longtime Governor’s Office staffer, has passed away.

Jim Soyer was, to my knowledge, the longest-tenured employee in the history of the South Dakota Governor’s Office. With only a couple of short interruptions, he served in the Governor’s Office in various capacities from 1979 to 2015.

Jim and Lonnie Soyer with Governor Bill Janklow at the Law Enforcement Appreciation Dinner in November 2011. This was shortly after Janklow had announced that he dying of brain cancer.

Jim was a Sioux Falls native and a proud graduate of Northern State. Before joining state government, he worked in the private sector as a truck driver, a high school English teacher, a weekly newspaper reporter, a newspaper and magazine advertising salesman, and a magazine editor. He also served on the campaign team for Congressman Larry Pressler.

Soyer first joined the Governor’s Office in 1979 when he joined Governor Janklow’s new administration. He served Janklow as a press secretary and legislative aide. When Janklow left office, Soyer worked for a brief time for Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, but soon returned to serve in Gov. George S. Mickelson’s office as a legislative aide. After Mickelson’s death, Soyer worked for Gov. Walter Dale Miller, but left for a job with the State Department of Education after he decided to support Janklow’s comeback bid against Miller. Soyer returned to the Governor’s Office with Janklow, serving in several roles, including from 1999-2003 as chief of staff. He remained in the administrations of Governors Mike Rounds and Dennis Daugaard as legislative director, before his retirement from state government in 2015. Soyer didn’t really retire, though; he soon joined the office of newly-elected U.S. Senator Mike Rounds, where he worked until his passing.

Jim’s titles changed over the years but, at least for the years I knew him, his job duties really didn’t change that much. Jim was a wealth of knowledge, experience, and historical perspective in the Governor’s Office. He was a gifted speechwriter, and drafted many speeches and addresses for all of the governors he worked for. Jim was highly organized and process oriented, and he always took time to mentor and teach new Governor’s Office staffers about the processes and procedures that make the office operate: legislative tracking, project management, organizational structures. He was an early adopter of PowerPoint, and his distinctive style of PowerPoint slides would be familiar to anyone who watched the Governor’s Budget Address during the years of Governors Janklow, Rounds, and Daugaard. His graphic design legacy also includes the “How your tax dollars are spent” dollar bill graphic that is a fixture of state government, and he loved to make flow charts to explain complex legislation or processes – the more complicated, the better.

Governor Dennis Daugaard declares “Jim Soyer Day” on Soyer’s last day with the Governor’s Office in March 2015.

Soyer always kept an eye on the legislative redistricting process, serving as the Governor’s Office point person on the issue in 1991, 2001, and 2011. He also cared deeply about South Dakota history, and was involved in the planning for the State Centennial in 1989 and the 125th Anniversary in 2014.

Like me, Soyer was a “saver” and a “tracker” – he could always be relied on to produce a spreadsheet tracking some issue he’d worked on, even from years ago, and he had a huge collection of photographs, speeches, legislative tracking sheets, policy memos, and polling data. Fortunately for South Dakota historians, Jim committed time during his last few years in the Governor’s Office to sorting and organizing his files, which have been deposited in the Janklow Papers collection at USD.

He was intensely loyal, not only to the current governor but to his former bosses as well. I don’t think I ever heard him say one negative or critical statement about any of the elected leaders he had worked for. Remarkably, given the longtime public feud between Bill Janklow and Larry Pressler, he even extended this loyalty to Pressler, despite not having worked for him in decades.

And Jim worked all the time. His work was his hobby. It wasn’t unusual to receive emails from Soyer that had been sent in the middle of night, only to arrive at your desk in the morning to find a newly-printed report he’d already left there. No one was surprised when his “retirement” in 2015 was in fact another job, working for Senator Rounds.

It is truly remarkable for any person to work in the Governor’s Office for the length of time that Jim Soyer did. Despite that long tenure, though, Jim always remained very much in the background. That was how he wanted it. He didn’t like attention and didn’t want credit. Even when he was press secretary to Governor Janklow, Soyer was almost never quoted in the press (Governor Janklow, of course, was happy to do all the talking). He rarely testified on legislation; if he needed to work a bill, he would invite a legislator to sit down for a quiet conversation.

On a personal note, Jim Soyer was a friend and a mentor to me. I think I first met him when I was 20 in late 2002, when we worked together during the transition between Governor Janklow and Governor-elect Rounds, and then in Governor Rounds’ office. I always appreciated his sense of humor. He was always quick with a joke, or ready to produce a goofy cartoon he had made to comment on the situation at hand. Particularly after Governor Daugaard took office, Soyer was always happy to offer advice and support to me as I undertook some of the same roles he had previously held.

Jim kept lists of maxims and rules to work by, many of which he shared with me. They have titles like “Regular Agenda for Weekly Staff Meeting,” “The Role of the Chief of Staff,” “Maxims for Dealing with the Legislature,” “How to Run an Effective Meeting,” “How to Get Your Point Across in 30 Seconds or Less.”

One rule in particular always stayed with me: “Always do the right thing, and don’t consider the politics. Once you’ve decided what to do, politics will help you decide how to explain it and achieve it. But never let politics stop you from doing the right thing.”

South Dakota is a great state because we are led by servant-leaders. Jim Soyer never cared about power, fame, attention, or credit. His only interest was in doing the best job he could for our state and for the leaders he served. His legacy is felt in the achievements of others, over the decades, and in the many others who worked with him and learned from his example.

Note: A brief notice of death has been posted by Miller Funeral Home in Sioux Falls; presumably this link will be updated with an obituary and details about services for Jim Soyer.