Sutton Rodeo Story Informs Governing Vision

Sen. Billie Sutton, speaking in Aberdeen, SD, 2017.11.13.
Sen. Billie Sutton, speaking in Aberdeen, SD, 2017.11.13.

I heard another good speech by Senator Billie Sutton yesterday. Our Democratic candidate for governor told a capacity crowd (46, by my count) at the Brown County Democratic Forum about that “pretty stark moment” in his life, when Ruby, a rodeo horse he’d ridden and won on and trusted to do her job, flipped over in the chute, broke his back, and put him in a wheelchair. With the small exception of never walking again, Senator Sutton has recovered well, to become a financial advisor, a party leader, and a father.

But “I didn’t do it alone,” Sutton told his audience. Before that 2007 accident, rodeo-star Sutton was very independent, inwardly focused, “very much about me.” He recovered only because his family, his community, and his state invested in him. He realized how much everyone depends on others, and his focus shifted from himself to others. By recognizing his connection to his community, Sutton became a bigger, fuller man. “The only way we accomplish big things is together.”

Sutton told his personal story sincerely and affectingly. But then, in alignment with his life-changing paradigm shift from self to others, he turned to his vision for governing South Dakota. He vowed that “the good-old-boys’ club is done when I win.” He said the corruption of “the same old players” keeps us from tackling hard problems that leave working South Dakotans behind, like high tuition, low teacher pay, and no state support for preschool.

And as he spoke about cleaning house in Pierre and making government serve all South Dakotans, his voice rose, his eyes caught fire, and his hands reached out and accented his points with a passion not seen when he talked about himself. His tone and emphasis showed that he meant what he said, that his rodeo accident really did change him, and that he really is more interested in serving the people than serving himself.

In that regard, Sutton’s personal story can resonate with voters far better than Republican opponent Kristi Noem’s tired old tale about her family almost losing their farm to the estate tax. Not only is Noem’s story outdated and misleading, but it is pageantry rather than personal saga. Noem’s farm tale does not resonate the way Sutton’s did yesterday because it never leads listeners to an understanding of how Noem grew or changed as a person. She trots it out simply to lard emotion onto one more party talking point in support of helping the rich stay richer. Sutton’s rodeo tale is no cheap soapbox for rodeo regulation or tax breaks for wheelchair manufacturers. When Sutton talks about Ruby and his last rodeo, he tells us how he changed, how he became the man he is, and how he would govern South Dakota for all South Dakotans.