Rick Weiland spoke to the Brown County Democratic Forum this noon about the ballot measures his organization, TakeItBack.org, is promoting. If these three initiatives make the ballot (still no word from Secretary Krebs on any petitions!), Weiland says South Dakota voters will “have an opportunity to completely transform politics in South Dakota.”
Weiland emerged from his defeat in last year’s Senate campaign against Mike Rounds more convinced than ever that big money has ruined American politics. When both parties spend billions of dollars to destroy each other’s brand and polarize the electorate, democracy cannot function. That’s fine, says Weiland, if you’re a member of what FDR called the “economic royalists”: the rich like the gridlock that results from polarization. They like the status quo, which lets them accumulate wealth and power unchecked.
To put voters back in the driver’s seat of democracy, Weiland is advocating a “trifecta” of initiatives, two that his organization wrote, and one on which Farmers Union has taken the lead.
The Farmers Union measure is the proposal to create a non-partisan redistricting commission to end gerrymandering. Weiland knows about the impact of redistricting firsthand. He lives in District 13 in Sioux Falls. Before 2011, his district had 400 more Republicans than Democrats, but it elected Democratic leaders like Scott Heidepriem, Susy Blake, Bill Thompson, and, in the preceding decade, Jack Billion. After the Republicans redrew the legislative map in 2011, District 13 had 4,000 more Republicans than Democrats, and all Republicans have won there since.
At the state level, gerrymandering reinforces the one-party rule that leads to rampant corruption (more on that in a moment). At the federal level, Weiland says gerrymandering creates gridlock. Congress can’t function when “people are rewarded for being extreme,” when “people are rewarded for not looking for compromise… we have to fix that!” Putting redistricting in the hands of a non-partisan commission would check South Dakota’s one-party rule. If the idea spreads to other states (Iowa and Arizona already do it, and if the anti-gerrymandering initiative works here, Weiland has his eye on 22 other states that have some sort of initiative process), non-partisan redistricting could make Congressional elections competitive and break the federal gridlock.
The second part of the reform trifecta is non-partisan elections. Weiland says Nebraska elects its unicameral legislature on a non-partisan ballot—i.e., no party labels, and all candidates on the same primary ballot, with the two top vote-getters advancing to the general—and gets good legislative results. Even though Nebraska, like South Dakota, has more Republicans than Democrats, Nebraska legislators elect several Democrats to committee chairships and even the speakership. Weiland also says the Nebraska legislature has produced more progressive policies, like repealing the death penalty, implementing corporate and personal income taxes, and paying teachers more.
On this side of the border, Weiland points to Ritchie Nordstrom, a Rapid City alderman who happens to be a good Democrat. Nordstrom votes on an unabashed set of Democratic and labor values, but he has won multiple municipal elections. When Nordstrom ran for District 32 House in 2014, he lost to two Republicans. Weiland says Democrats hold a higher portion of seats in municipal governments than they do in the Capitol. Weiland contends that a big part of the difference is that municipal elections are non-partisan.
Weiland recognizes that a number of his fellow Democrats oppose the non-partisan primary. They tell him that a non-partisan primary takes away an opportunity to build the party brand. Weiland responds that he’s “not throwing in the towel” on the Democratic Party; he’s just saying that both sides need to look past party labels and vote on values and policy. Democrats should relish that opportunity because, as Weiland says, when citizens have a chance to vote directly on policy on ballot initiatives, they more often vote in ways that reflect Democratic values. Advance our values, get the job done, and the brand of the party that aligns with those values will advance itself.
The third leg of the trifecta is the South Dakota Government Accountability and Anti-Corruption Act. Weiland and allies campaigned hard on the GOED/EB-5 scandal in 2014, but even he did not anticipate that the GOED scandal would resurge with such force this fall. Add GEAR UP and Gant and South Dakota’s latest F for risk of corruption, and Weiland says he couldn’t have picked a better time and topic for the Anti-Corruption Act.
“There’s a connection between money in politics and wealth inequality,” says Weiland. Tackling the disequalizing, anti-democratic influence of money in politics requires a three pronged attack: stronger campaign finance and lobbying rules, a statewide ethics commission to enforce those rules and watch for corruption, and public campaign financing.
Weiland knows the public campaign financing plank of his Anti-Corruption Act is the easiest piñata (one fair observer calls it a poison pill) for the entrenched powers to whack. Some interested parties are already kicking up online dust to the Anti-Corruption Act’s provision of $100 in “Democracy Credits” for all voters to give to the candidates of their choice who agree to follow strict campaign finance rules. Weiland says public campaign financing dilutes the impact of the big check writers “who can curry favor with a thousand bucks.” As for the sticky question of directing tax dollars to candidates, Weiland asks, “How often do you get to tell Pierre how to spend your tax dollars? It makes for better government. It makes for better public policy. It makes politicians less beholden to the big money.”
One-party rule is bad. “Look at Illinois,” says Democrat Weiland. “Wherever there aren’t enough checks and balances, it’s like gravity:” corruption follows. Non-partisan redistricting, non-partisan elections, and the Anti-Corruption Act together give South Dakotans a “golden opportunity” to challenge one-party rule.”We’ve loaded the bases” with these three ballot measures, says Weiland; now voters just need to come to the plate and hit the home run.
Following his discussion of the potential political reform trifecta of 2016, Weiland took questions and commented on Presidential politics. He said nominating Donald Trump “could be the death of the Republican Party.” Weiland suspects a majority of Republicans recognize that danger and hopes they will eventually circle the wagons (perhaps at a brokered convention), because, in Weiland’s words, to “put a joke like [Trump] on the ticket… demeans our democracy.”