Kaleb Weis should be mad. No matter how forgettably dull the Republican District 2 House candidate’s performance may have been at Saturday’s House candidates forum here in Aberdeen, there’s no excuse for the newspaper’s omission of his name from the summary of attendees:
Poor Kaleb! He makes all that effort to put himself in the public eye doing things that aren’t in his primary skill set—discussing serious policy, speaking in public, sounding alive—and the Aberdeen newspaper mentions a Democrat from two counties away who skipped the forum instead of him.
To rectify this egregious error. I will give Weis special attention in my discussion of Saturday’s House candidates forum.
This unwieldy ten-candidate forum began with three-minute introductions.
Drawing last in the random order (which left the thirty-some audience members hearing from District 2, 3, 3, 1, 3, 1, 2, 2, 3, and 2), Weis rose at 26:20 to dispassionately declare his absolute love for his family and warn that “we are seeing the very core values of our families being eroded.” (I’m sorry to hear his family values are eroding. I wish he had explained what is causing that erosion so my healthy and happy family could watch out for this alleged erosion.)
After an awkward freeze, Weis said, “I am an opponent” [consider this moment an object lesson in the need to enunciate] “for the Second Amendment. I believe it is very important that we are able to defend ourselves.” Weis recalled how when he was growing up in a rural area, it could be hours before the police showed up. He also warned that tourism will be hurt without our gun rights, although of course, he failed to name who among the candidates is threatening to take away the right to shoot pheasants or deer. Weis said that, with three kids, he wants to make sure we have a solid education system with lots of small-town schools and small classrooms. But instead of telling us how he’ll fund those smaller schools, Weis tacitly promised to destroy public schools by parroting the Betsy DeVos line that “competition” will help schools perform better with less money. (Weis did not explain how small South Dakota communities that can barely afford to keep their public school open can also afford to start a private school.) Weis then stammered through a claim that we need more ethanol-related jobs for all the people he thinks migrate here because of our low taxes (which is actually false: taxes have negligible impact on migration, even among millionaires).
Compare Weis’s stammering, slogan-y performance with District 3 Demcorat Justin Roemmick (#3 in the line-up, 5:40), who stuck doggedly to his regular opening line that working people need more voice in Pierre and repeated his policy priorities of paid parental leave, equal pay for women, raising the minimum wage, and repealing the immoral and regressive food tax. Compare also District 1 Republican Tamara St. John, who proved it wasn’t too foggy to get to Aberdeen from Sisseton, where Rep. Steven McCleerey may have stayed in bed), who described herself as a historian committed to community building, diversity, research, and facts, thus positioning herself as the antithesis of her own Republican Party.
The first question, on what the Second Amendment means in modern America, gave Weis a chance to defend his keen concern about defending himself.
Weis didn’t really say what the Second Amendment means, but he said, “Guns aren’t the problem. It’s a lack of education about guns that’s the problem.” Whether Weis intends to include gun education in our public school curriculum remained unsaid.
If anyone is living up to Weis’s allegation that someone is out to take away our Second Amendment rights, such gun-grabbers aren’t on this ballot. Weis’s Democratic challengers, Mike McHugh and Jenae Hansen, both stood up to second the Second and echoed Weis’s call for more education. District 2 Rep. Lana Greenfield said there should be “no restrictions on the right to bear arms.” District 3 Republican Carl Perry found that too radical and said he opposes hunting pheasants with bazookas. Only District 3 Democrat Brooks Briscoe had the guts to say that his love of guns does not extend to the NRA, which he said is just a big-money lobbying group for gun manufacturers.
The forum then turned to the online sales tax that the Legislature enacted last week in Special Session.
Weis said we’re not really taxing out-of-state retailers but taxing the citizens of South Dakota who are buying from out-of-state retailers. He said we’re only changing how we collect that tax… although it’s more accurate to say we’re changing from not collecting that tax (seriously: did the State of South Dakota ever chase down any South Dakotan for not paying tax on Amazon purchases?) to conscripting non-South Dakotans to serve as tax collectors for South Dakota (an extra-territorial extension of state sovereignty that will have conservative Weis screaming when Minnesota, Massachusetts, and California start drafting South Dakotans to collect sales tax for those states).
Everyone on the panel endorsed online sales tax as heartily as they endorsed gun rights. The only caveat came from District 3 Rep. Drew Dennert, one of only seven legislators who voted against last week’s increase in sales tax collections. Rep. Dennert explained that the Department of Revenue said that as written, the new sales tax law will not be revenue neutral; the Partridge Amendment will not kick in automatically to lower the state sales tax rate as increased collections come in from Amazon, Wayfair, and other remote online vendors.
The candidates also showed no daylight between their positions on ethanol:
Kaleb Weis pointed out that his dad and brother worked in ethanol plants and that his sister continues to work in an ethanol plant. We may thus interpret his support for ethanol as a personal conflict of interest.
Dennert showed his ability to learn by noting that he switched to using 30% ethanol blend in his vehicle after hearing testimony in Legislative committee on the more home-grown fuel. Briscoe again distinguished himself by noting slyly that while he supports ethanol and the use of E-30 in state vehicles, we need to be careful that South Dakota doesn’t become known as “The Subsidized State.”
Someone in the audience gave Weis a chance to shine by directing at him specifically a question about how to improve the existing programs for recruiting people for jobs. I’m not sure he made the most of that chance:
Weis said we just need to expand the industries that support our farmers and people will come for our low taxes. Hansen rose to note that our housing shortage makes it hard to recruit workers. She also mentioned that we should review licensing laws as possible barriers to entry.
Candidates then got to tackle the question of how to raise teacher pay from the bottom of the national rankings:
Weis didn’t sound very interested in raising teacher pay. He said he sends his kids to private school, where we know teachers are paid less than in public school. His call for “competition” is code for less funding for public school, which can only mean lower pay. Weis did suggest we could increase pay by cutting waste in government, like the $75,000 cut that Rep. Dennert mentioned in his opening speech was requested by Secretary of State Shantel Krebs. (Weis did not do the quick math that shows $75,000 would provide South Dakota’s 9,400 teachers an $8 raise.)
District 2 Republican Representative Lana Greenfield continued her assault on her former colleagues in education, saying that people in a “caring” profession don’t need pay raises or decent paychecks. She said she loved teaching for just 180 days and having the rest of her time to herself. She continues to ignore the fact that, even if teaching is such a leisurely job, it’s that leisurely in every other state that manages to pay its teachers thousands of dollars more than South Dakota does, leaving us at a competitive disadvantage.
Someone just had to throw in an abortion question.
Weis said life begins at conception and “that baby should have a choice.” (If babies deserve autonomy, I dread what sort of parenting happens in the Weis household.)
Rep. Greenfield did a far better job of laying out the real Republican agenda on abortion. She didn’t namby-pamby around with talk of the sanctity of life. She said you make your choice when you have sex, and sex has consequences. A baby is thus a consequence, a punishment for all your naughtiness.
None of the candidates expressed a “pro-abortion” standpoint. But Hansen said she can’t make that choice for anyone else and said we need to “use evidence-based programming in education” so “young females won’t find themselves in that situation, having to make that choice.” Briscoe affirmed that women should have the right to make choices about their own bodies and noted that we men lack authority to speak on the issue since we don’t have to go through the unique burdens of pregnancy. Roemmick backed Briscoe, saying such choices are the purview of women and their doctors.
We Senate candidates we spared the abortion question, but I wanted very much to tell Lana Greenfield to get the hell out of my bedroom and my wife’s uterus.
Asked about how to deal with meth and opioid addiction, Weis seemed to say we need more law enforcement:
Weis said “a couple years ago, the Legislature… tied the hands of our police officers.” Maybe he was referring to 2013 SB 70, which Rep. Dennert mentioned in his subsequent response, but Weis did not make clear what hand-tying took place or what action he wants cops to take to solve addiction.
Rep. Greenfield lamented the state sale of the STAR Academy in Custer and expressed her desire to warehouse addicts in some calm remote place. Tamara St. John expressed a more humane and sensible response, saying that we need to end the stigma around drug addiction and bring them back into the community. Hansen said we need community-based treatment.
Asked how to lower the cost of vo-tech education, Weis said he and his wife paid off their student loans for their Lake Area tech degrees with no problem, so we should focus instead on lowering the cost of university education.
Yay for Weis supporting higher education! Boo for Weis ignoring the very recent evidence that South Dakota’s universities are far more cost-competitive than our vo-techs, whose tuition is the highest in the region and third-highest in the nation.
Rep. Greenfield dismissed even Weis’s small sop to higher ed, saying 50% of the state budget already goes toward education, so we shouldn’t invest any more in education. “I think this problem is going to work itself out” said Greenfield, since businesses will step up and pay tuition for vo-tech students who sign themselves into peonage. Ah, the Magic of the Free Market, one of the surest signs that a legislator has no practical ideas.
Finally, final statements! Weis got to start!
Lower taxes, limited government, Second Amendment rights, family, better education for our children—that’s Kaleb!
Greenfield have a similar recitation of bullet points, then declared herself “not a politician,” even though she is an incumbent legislator seeking re-election. If she’s not a politician, I don’t know who is.
Briscoe said he can work with anyone from any party. Hansen reminded us of her already substantial experience working in Pierre and building relationships.
District 1 Democrat H. Paul Dennert didn’t waste time selling his own merits. He told everyone to get out and vote. Carl Perry seconded Paul’s wisdom. St. John again emphasized the need for listening and research (Tamara! Again! You’re in the wrong party!).
Roemmick continued the war cry for the working people, saying Pierre needs to work for everyone, not just the wealthy few. Drew Dennert reminded everyone of his commitment to transparency in posting Facebook explanations of every vote he makes (which beats the pants off the radio silence we get from his fellow District 3 Republicans). McHugh said the Legislature will benefit from his experience in finance and agriculture.
The Aberdeen American News did Weis a disservice by leaving him out of their summary of the forum. (They did tuck him into one front-page mention, pairing him and Hansen in discussing the sales tax collection shift.) I hope my focus on Weis helps District 2 voters see that Weis is not qualified to represent them in Pierre. Kaleb Weis distinguished himself only in vapidity and diffidence. His Republican ticketmake, Rep. Lana Greenfield, distinguished herself with her regressive and sometimes bitter rejection of good, evidence-based policy. District 2, if you want representatives who can speak confidently for your needs, your better choices are Democrats Jenae Hansen and Mike McHugh.