Farmers Union District 7 Ready to Fight Gerrymandering, Resist Leadership Challenge

In good news, South Dakota Farmers Union members in District 7 have reaffirmed their support for Amendment T, the proposal to end gerrymandering by empaneling an independent redistricting commission. At their meeting in Aberdeen yesterday, District 7 members unanimously approved a resolution backing the measure that their organization’s successful 2015 petition drive placed on this year’s ballot. Anyone contending that the internal conflict over Farmers Union leadership somehow casts doubt on the merits of getting rid of gerrymandering is trying blow uninformed smoke.

Oh yeah, that internal conflict thing. The drive to force the resignation of South Dakota Farmers Union leadership hit a speed bump at yesterday’s Aberdeen meeting. Assembled in Farmers Union president Doug Sombke’s home county, District 7 members rejected two other resolutions—one calling for the resignations of Sombke, vice-president Wayne Soren, and secretary/treasurer Karla Hofhenke; the other calling for the Farmers Union board of directors to meet and vote out those leaders—brought by a group of members calling themselves the “Save Farmers Union Coalition.” According to AAN reporter Elisa Sand, those two resolutions failed 7–46 and 8–46.

Chad Johnson prepares to open the District 7 meeting with a full house at the West meeting room in the Brown County Courthouse basement.
Chad Johnson prepares to open the District 7 meeting with a full house at the West meeting room in the Brown County Courthouse basement.
Chad Johnson, SDFU District 7 chairman.
Chad Johnson, SDFU District 7 chairman.

Sand, KELO-TV’s Erich Schaffhauser, and I were hoping to witness the debate and the vote on those resolutions, but District 7 president Chad Johnson said the meeting was closed and asked media to leave when he gaveled the group to order at 1 p.m. Tuesday. Mary Lou Davis, long-time secretary to former SDFU president Ben Radcliffe, told me she wanted Farmers Union to be honest and open to everyone, including the press, but then Davis wasn’t running the meeting.

Before the meeting began, I visited with a variety of members. Several preferred not to say anything to the press.

Longtime Farmers Union member and Janklow-era ethanol advocate Orrie Swayze from Wilmot said he is disappointed with the “thinly veiled hate rhetoric” he said he’s heard. Swayze hoped those making the ruckus will at least tone down their language. Swayze said Farmers Union has never been in better shape and has “the best” leadership.

Tim Gonsoir of Groton said he came to Aberdeen to hear “what all the fuss is about.” Gonsoir (whose wife Kristen coaches debate at Groton, and I’ve judged her kids at contests—everybody is connected in South Dakota) said he worked for Sombke for ten years. He said Sombke can be a tough boss, but bosses need to be tough. Gonsoir said Sombke is a good leader for Farmers Union.

Farmers Union president Doug Sombke celebrates the votes and defies critics after the District 7 meeting in Aberdeen Tuesday.
Farmers Union president Doug Sombke celebrates the votes and defies critics after the District 7 meeting in Aberdeen Tuesday.

About ninety minutes later, the meeting ended, and Sombke spoke to the journalists’ mob (o.k., Elisa, Erich, and me) waiting outside the courthouse. He declared the resolutions killed and said the current dispute is “not about Doug Sombke” but “about the future” of Farmers Union. Sombke said he is “proud of my record” and “proud of the work we’ve done in Farmers Union.” He noted that in a year when South Dakota lost 400 farms (not to mention saw profit drop 77%, a stat that came out yesterday), his organization managed to add members.

Buoyed by his home district’s support, Sombke swung at his detractors. He said the coalition pushing for the three leaders’ resignation are “accusing good folks of being crooks.” Sombke also singled out Michael O’Connor, a leader of the “Save Farmers Union Coalition,” saying that O’Connor has no place to criticize how the organization conducts its elections given that “Mike hasn’t been to convention for years.”

O’Connor disputed this statement last week when SDFU spokesperson Kecia Beranek first launched it on WNAX Radio; O’Connor says he’s “been to most of the Farmers Union elections in the last ten years.”

Beranek distributed a paper reaffirming the Farmers Union directors’ support for the December election results and refusal to call any new election. The paper also asserts that, contrary to allegations from the opponent coalition, Farmers Union leaders “have not destroyed the official election ballots or credential report, they are sealed and the membership is welcome to view those with lawyers present.” In other words, those records are for members eyes only, not the press… and even members need to wait until lawyers show up to watch their review.

Coalition members say their concerns were not given a full hearing at the District 7 meeting. I’m reviewing their documents and will prepare a more detailed report on their side of the issue. For the moment, if the leadership ouster had any momentum from three district-level victories, that momentum was checked yesterday by a strong showing of Sombke supporters in Aberdeen

South Dakota Farmers Union districts
Districts 1, 2, and 3 have approved resolutions calling for the resignations of South Dakota Farmers Union president Doug Sombke, vice-president Wayne Soren, and secretary/treasurer Karla Hofhenke. District 7 yesterday rejected those two resolutions.