Interview: Allender Says Rapid City Needs Better Communications, Broader Race Conversations

Two men are running for Rapid City Mayor: two-term incumbent Sam Kooiker and his former police chief Steve Allender.

Steve Allender (right) takes a break from setting up his Home Show booth to talk with Dakota Free Press, 2015.03.26
Steve Allender (right) takes a break from setting up his Home Show booth to talk with Dakota Free Press, 2015.03.26

Allender “retired” from the Rapid City Police Department last year at age 52. He says he has always used air quotes around “retired.” Allender felt 29 years on the force was plenty, but he saw “retirement” as an opportunity to clear his head, enjoy summer with his family, and think about how best to re-engage with the community.

“Retirement” has also been an opportunity to pay attention to swingsets. Allender says his neighbors have a broken swingset, and it drives him nuts. Seeing himself as a builder and fixer, Allender says his attention naturally gravitates toward things that are broken and people who need help. Once things are running smoothly, he says he tends to lose interest and seek out the next broken system that needs fixing. (Neighbors, open that gate, and Steve will be right over with his tool belt!)

Allender has chosen to return to public life with this run for mayor because “I can do better” than the current mayor, who has “underachieved for the past two terms.” When I asked what is broken about the city’s swingset, Allender first mentioned the potential kept locked up by inherent flaws in Rapid City government. He said two-year terms for the mayor and councillors limits long-term planning. Allender says the Council gets nothing concrete done during the six months before each municipal election. Mayor Kooiker vetoed longer terms in 2012; Allender says he’s open to any plan that would lengthen terms.

Allender says the city lacks a coherent communication strategy. Allender says the current city newsletter is a mishmash of matters great and trivial. The city’s website is a click-heavy mess with no unifying communications strategy or integration of social media. Allender says city officials don’t communicate well because they aren’t thinking like entrepreneurs and telling stories as if they were selling.

Allender says he would overhaul city communications by getting employees to adopt the mindset that they are indeed selling something (information, confidence in city government, what have you). He would define the city public information officer’s mission that way he defined that job for the similar position he created in the police department. Seeing a decline in journalism since 2005, Allender says he sought a PD PIO with a journalism background who could do the work mainstream reporters are not in covering city affairs.

One hard story for any Rapid City PIO or mayor to tell is the story of race relations in our gateway to the Paha Sapa. Allender says Rapid City clearly has a racial divide. Previous efforts to address that divide (Allender mentions “forced” cultural awareness training for city employees and hasty public forums) have not succeeded. Allender says he gets the impression that any time the city tries to bring groups together to talk race, the folks an the White side are always different, while the Native side are always the same ten or twenty activists. Allender contends that those activists do not full represent the 8,000-some Native Americans in Rapid City. Allender suggests that “reconciliation” is actually “off the table” in Rapid City because the Native side says the injustice runs so deep in our occupation of the Black Hills that nothing short of a rectification of all Fort Laramie Treaty issues can set things right, and the city, says Allender, can’t do anything about treaty issues.

Bridging this cultural gap will require actions more profound than anything the current administration does in Rapid City. Allender says gestures like hanging Native American art in the mayor’s office and wearing Native American clothing “tokenizes” Native Americans. Allender says the city’s initial response to the American Horse School/hockey/beer incident in January leapt too far ahead of the facts and unduly gave credence to charges of racism not supported by any facts beyond social media posts available at the time. Tokenizing and raising false hopes only makes it harder to achieve real equality.

Allender offers no magic race relations solution. He does advocate bringing interested citizens together in a room without any politicians to work independently on a list of actions to help race relations.

Allender says city politics are holding back economic development. He says Rapid City has earned a reputation for a negative political culture where in-house spats prevent the people’s work from getting done. Allender says Rapid City can’t count on the beauty of the Hills alone to bring good jobs; councillors and the mayor have to start working together and really selling the city to entrepreneurs.

Allender sees a lot of bolts loose on the Rapid City swingset. He must now convince voters to open the mayor’s office door and bring in his toolbelt.

I’m reviewing my file on Kooiker and working on an interview of the incumbent. Stay tuned!


16 Responses to Interview: Allender Says Rapid City Needs Better Communications, Broader Race Conversations

  1. If Allender is correct about ‘loose bolts on the RC swingset’, he’s partly responsible as one of the ‘nuts.’

  2. larry kurtz

    Recall the resignation of Judge A.P. (Pete) Fuller in 2011:

    Pennington County State’s Attorney Glenn Brenner, Rapid City Police Chief Steve Allender and then Pennington County Sheriff Don Holloway made the formal complaint in May that led to Fuller’s suspension and subsequent investigation by the Judicial Qualifications Commission, a seven-member body that includes 7th Circuit Court Judge Jeff Davis of Rapid City. The frustration in the State’s Attorney’s Office reached the boiling point when Judge Fuller called Rapid City police officers a “bunch of racists” while listening to an officer explain in a juvenile court hearing why he stopped a car driven by a Native American who was on probation.

    [Andrea Cook, Rapid City Journal]

  3. Bob Newland

    Finally! A local law enforcement expert who subscribes to the “broken swingsets” (air quotes) theory of making neighborhoods safer.

  4. Good one Larry, and now it seems that all who condemned Judge Fuller are themselves being condemned. Life is funny that way. Allender is just the same old wash, rinse and repeat. What is the difference between him and Sam, only the name.

  5. Roger Cornelius

    What Allender calls tokenism, I call capitalism.
    The Indian art or apparel were liked purchased with good ole American greenbacks that contributed to the livelihood of Indian artists and craftsmen.
    Does there have to be a divide with tokenism? If you show Indian art or wear a beaded tie you are doing so for tokenism, if you don’t display Indian art or wear Indian apparel, you are a racist.

  6. Roger Cornelius

    I’ve heard Allender use the term “Indian activists” a number of times and question what he infers.
    When South Dakotans and Rapid Citians hear the term “Indian activists” they immediately think of Russell Means and AIM.
    When Indians attend community meetings they are activists, when whites attend community meetings they are concerned citizens.

  7. Bill Fleming

    We have several Roger Broers, Don Monteleauxs, and a number of other Indian artists’ works in our collection. I don’t consider them “tokens” at all. I consider them fine art. Seems to me Allender is perhaps projecting. I wonder what kind of pictures he has on his walls, and whether or not he thinks they’re tokens of something. I’d very much like to hear what he has to say about the arts and culture in general, since in my vision, that’s one of Rapid City’s most legitimate economic development opportunities.

  8. Excellent point, Mr Cornelius. I think there is a vast difference between the incumbent and the challenger in this contest. Much as I like to change the sheets frequently, this would definitely NOT be an improvement (at least IMO).

  9. Roger Cornelius

    Curt,
    It was nice meeting and visiting with you at Democratic mixer last week and please call me Roger.

    The pulse I’m getting from the Native community is a continued support for Sam. He may not have accomplished much in racial relations but he has reached out and continues to reach out to “Native activists” and those of that are concerned citizens that happen to be Native.

  10. Deb Geelsdottir

    Excellent points Roger. It’s the same for other minority groups too.

    A Democratic mixer? Yay! I hope the room was crowded. Go Dems!

  11. Bob Newland

    I still recall that Allender referred to legalization of possession of rather small amounts of cannabis in Colorado as “legalizing criminal behavior.” Well, when keeping slaves is made illegal, that’s tantamount to criminalizing legal behavior, right? I am not sure Allender has candlepower of the sort I’d like to see in a mayor.

  12. Deb –
    We would love to have seen you there – I know, kind of a long drive, and last week the limit was still just 75 mph. Anyway, the event was well-attended … and Mr Heidelberger stole the show.

  13. Deb Geelsdottir

    Thanks Curt. I’ll be back this summer for a visit and I’ll try to connect with Roger or someone else to find any Democratic activities. Last year I got to meet some West River Dems at Rickstock and I really enjoyed it.

  14. My good friend Mr. C’s take on the mayor thing is interesting to me. It will make me do some rethinking. I respect his take on things and I am surprised on this one so put me back in the “undecided” category. I will watch closely for more input from people I respect like Mr. C.

  15. a visionary certainly would not claim there is nothing rapid city can do concerning treaty issues. rapid city should be at the forefront of righting a wrong the continues to get worse.

  16. Ernestine Chasing Hawk

    I am Native and I wear wasicu clothing and jewelry is that tokenism too? LOL