Suppose you click around the Web and find videos of opposing candidates making closing statements at a public forum. One candidate ends with an attack on his opponent. His last words are negative, about the other guy’s sins. The other candidate ends with optimistic warm fuzzies about dog, daughter, and democracy. His last words are positive, asking viewers to vote for him and his party’s team.
Quick quiz: given just that information, which candidate do you think is the seven-term incumbent, and which candidate is the angry blogger running his first Legislative campaign?
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At the candidate forum hosted by the Aberdeen League of Women Voters and the Chamber of Commerce on September 24, we District 3 Legislative candidates were given one minute for closing remarks. Al Novstrup offered the following one-and-a-half-minute statement:
Thank you, everybody, for attending.
As I was sitting, memories came back to me, and I thought of who we are and what we do. First thing you need to know about us is we’re a citizen legislature. The legislators in South Dakota get paid $6,000 a year. That’s wonderful. That means that they have to have another job. They have to stay connected to the real world.
And as I thought through the memories, I thought of the high point and the low point, and I hope I have time to give them both to you.
The high point was we had a debate on abortion. We don’t ask for those debates; they show up. It’s our job. Somebody brings a bill, it’s there, it’s our job to debate it. We passionately debated it. Friends of mine who are on both sides. Debated it for almost two hours. At the end of the debate, Matt Michels, who was speaker of the House at the time, said, “You’ve served democracy well today. You’ve debated the issue with passion. You’ve disagreed, without being disagreeable. You’ve been adversarial without being adversaries.” That’s the high point. We served democracy well.
The low point is when a candidate for this office calls for the boycott of two thirds of the businesses owned by the legislators. That’s breaking relationships. Thank you [Rep. Al Novstrup, closing statement, candidate forum, Aberdeen, SD, 2016.09.24].
I’ll admit, I at first missed the full thrust of the last third of Rep. Novstrup’s closing statement, since I was watching county auditor and debate timer Maxine Fischer, who from “disagreeable” on was holding up the Stop card that Rep. Novstrup ignored. He was apparently too determined to throw his final punch to fret the rules. “Respectful and reasonable,” Al?
A couple minutes later, after closers from Rep. Dan Kaiser and Nikki Bootz, it was my turn. As you can hear in Ken Santema’s video but not in the League/Chamber’s video, I asked Max if I would get equal time. She nodded; I thanked her and proceeded with my closing statement:
Thanks, everybody, for coming. I know there are lots more fun things we can do on a Saturday—but actually, there aren’t. There aren’t! With maybe the exception of wrestling with my dog and my daughter, spending a Saturday morning talking about South Dakota politics, about South Dakota policies, about the ballot measures, about things that we get to do this November to make our state better, to set the rules that we’re going to live under, I don’t think there is something more fun than that.
I like watching sports, I like doing sports, I like going for a run, I like playing chess, whatever. But this kind of conversation, this opportunity to ask questions of our leaders and our future leaders about what are we going to do for South Dakota—nothing’s more important!
I think that important work is also fun, because when we leave here we’ll know we’ve talked about important issues. We’ll know that we’ve gotten more information to help us make good decisions for our democracy. And everyone of us will walk out of here better equipped—and everybody watching at home or on YouTube, wherever this video ends up—they’ll know they’re better equipped to be better citizens and make a better South Dakota.
When you make me your next Senator, I’ll be happy to continue to help you in that effort, to listen to your concerns, and to help us make South Dakota better.
Get out and vote on those ballot measures, send me to Pierre, send my team to Pierre, so we can keep doing good for you and for democracy. Thank you very much [Cory Allen Heidelberger, closing statement, candidate forum, Aberdeen, SD, 2016.09.24].
(Al’s delivery rate: 150 words per minute. Mine: 180.)
My extemporaneous words required no explanation. I emphasized democracy as my core value. I discussed the ballot measures in my opening statements and my responses to two of the five questions during the forum. My closing statement flowed naturally from much of what I’d already said in the forum. My closing statement emphasized positive values and aspirations that every South Dakotan shares. Perhaps most importantly, my closing statement ended with the essential call to action.
Al’s words did require explanation. No one had mentioned legislator pay during the forum. No one had brought up abortion (contrary to his statement, Al was asking for a debate on abortion, and was apparently disappointed he didn’t get to work up his sniffles over the issue earlier in the forum.) No one had hinted at any boycott of legislators’ businesses. Al’s parting shot about “a candidate for this office” left the audience scratching their heads. His words not only did not flow naturally from any topic previously discussed but ended on an awkwardly negative point diverting attention to the opponent instead of directly calling the audience to action.
Tim Kaine and Mike Pence went at each other last night far more vigorously than Al and I did a couple Saturdays ago. But Kaine and Pence both ended with strong, positive statements about their running mates. Even Donald Trump, who thinks he can get by with suggesting Hillary Clinton be shot, knows that a good candidate ends with “winning!” and “make America great again!” Even when you’re behind, even when attacking your opponent makes sense, you end with “believe in America!” and “dream great things!” (Yes, for the record, I’m citing Donald Trump for examples of effective speech-making. Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis peccatoribus.)
Al’s attack on me was poorly placed, but would it make sense anywhere in this campaign? Al has won seven elections in this district. He has an “R” in front of his name. He knows more people. He has more money. Why does a candidate with all of those advantages bother mentioning a Democratic blogger who is pedaling around in his first Legislative campaign?
Rhetorically and tactically, Al looks like the thin-skinned rookie… or maybe someone unnerved by a stronger challenge than he expected.
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But what was Al talking about? What’s this boycott “a candidate for this office” called for?
Return to February, during this year’s Session. Al and his son David had signed on as sponsors of House Bill 1107, a bigoted and dangerous bill disguising anti-LGBT discrimination as “religious freedom.” Called “Sharia for Jesus” by Patheos blogger Michael Stone, HB 1107 sought to allow business owners to discriminate against customers, employees, tenants, and anyone else who supports same-sex marriage, has sex outside of traditional marriage, or recognizes transgender identity. Prime sponsor Rep. Rev. Scott Craig (R-33/Rapid City) had the good sense to ask for his bill to be tabled, but not before Rep. Novstrup and the House approved HB 1107 46–10.
In response to the House vote, before Rep. Craig surrendered in Senate Judiciary, I suggested, “If these 46 Representatives and their Senate colleagues can’t be convinced that discrimination has no place in state law, perhaps decent South Dakotans should declare that they have no place in those legislators’ businesses.” I then posted a list, compiled by an eager reader, of businesses owned by, operated by, or employing legislators like Rep. Novstrup supporting HB 1107.
Rep. Novstrup was willing to use the force of law to protect business owners who would refuse service to certain customers based on their beliefs on marriage, sex, and/or gender. Yet Rep. Novstrup is aghast that I would suggest the logical, reciprocal response: that gay couples, single parents, and transgender folks who want to ride go-karts may want to consider patronizing Wild Water West instead of Al’s Thunder Road in Sioux Falls.
I point out what happens if customers behave the way Al wants business owners to behave, and Al says that’s the low point of his Legislative career. Yeah. Sure.
If I were looking for a low point over the last fourteen years of the Legislature, I’d perhaps look back to that abortion vote that gave Al the sniffles, the 2006 abortion ban that voters overturned, or any of the subsequent, demeaning abortion legislation Al has supported to make women second-class citizens. Or maybe the low point was Al’s vote in 2011 to gut K-12 education to fix the structural deficit Mike Rounds left us. Or maybe the low point was Al’s attempts in 2015 to undermine voter rights with Referred Law 19 and Referred Law 20. Or maybe the low point is Al’s ongoing refusal to expand Medicaid to save money and save lives. All of those seem a lot lower than facing the uncomfortable goose-gander logic of a bill Al sponsored.
Honest opposition and logical criticism seem to drive Novstrup père to defensive hyperbole as easily as they do Novstrup fils. But hey: if you don’t like the idea of customers boycotting your business, maybe you shouldn’t encourage businesses to boycott their customers.