“In my small business, we practice nepotism,” said Senator Al Novstrup (R-3/Aberdeen) yesterday in defense of Governor Kristi Noem’s hiring of her low-20-something daughter as a $50,000-a-year policy analyst (and, while not mentioned yesterday, the State Treasurer’s hiring of Noem’s imminent son-in-law Kyle Peters as a Legislative liaison).
The question of nepotism was raised pointedly last week when Senate State Affairs took up and ashcanned Senate Bill 39, an attempt by Republican Senator Stace Nelson (R-19/Fulton) to ban state officials from serving in a supervisory capacity over or contracting with their kids, kids-in-law, siblings (full, half-, or step-) or parents. Senators Novstrup and Brock Greenfield (R-2/Clark) both joined the unanimous Senate State Affairs vote to kill SB 39 Wednesday; both defended their vote at the Aberdeen crackerbarrel yesterday.
Local radio newsman Adam St. Paul (who is giving the Legislature extra coverage this year) asked if, independent of how we feel about Kristi Noem herself, rules against nepotism are reasonable.
Senator Greenfield seemed to want to answer the question affirmatively, to admit that, yes, nepotism is bad. But at the crackerbarrel as in committee, he could not separate the policy from the person. Senator Greenfield spent a lot of time insisting that Kristi and Kennedy Noem are both great people with a “very strong relationship” and that Kennedy is one of “the best possible people” to have around Governor Noem, in whom “the people of South Dakota” have “placed their trust”—all of which mingles the personal that St. Paul explicitly asked Greenfield not to mingle in the policy question.
“[S]he knew that she was going to come up under scrutiny by hiring her daughter and she chose to anyway,” said Senator Greenfield, suggesting that nepotism is excused by Trumpishly acting with obvious disregard for general standards of proper conduct.
Senator Greenfield slogged further into the personal slough: “[E]specially at this time, given the immediacy of the issue and how raw a nerve it strikes, because it’s very—because it does tread too closely… I thought it was an ill-timed bill.” Here Senator Greenfield seems to be saying that we can’t talk about nepotism when it’s happening right in front of us, kind of like how we can’t talk about gun control right after a mass shooting, or we can’t talk about building a wall when people are crossing the border. Feelings are too raw when actual harm is happening, Senator Greenfield is saying. Let’s not talk about solving problems until there are no problems…
…or until there’s a governor Brock doesn’t like:
I’ll be honest, you, you— it’s a valid concern. I mean, if somebody that I had a little more objectionable, or that I was a little more objectionable toward was the Governor, I’d probably already be like, not trusting, and would see decisions being made, and think, well, there’s another, you know, bad decision, so I get it, but… with respect to this hire, I think it was a good one, and I do support the Governor’s ability to make those decisions [Senator Brock Greenfield, response to crackerbarrel question on nepotism, Aberdeen, SD, 2019.01.26, timestamp 4:10].
Having thus taken the position that one (A) shouldn’t bring legislation against hiring close relatives immediately after the Governor’s hiring of a close relative and (B) may bring such legislation later under a Governor about whom one feels differently, Senator Greenfield then criticized Senator Nelson for not bringing such legislation immediately in 2011, when Governor Dennis Daugaard hired his son-in-law Tony Venhuizen and the PUC hired Daugaard’s son Chris.*
Senator Greenfield then spoke vaguely of a similar situation in the Rounds Administration when legislation arose in response to an apparent instance of nepotism, didn’t succeed while the issue was ripe, but passed years later. This comment prompted St. Paul to follow up and note that the question of nepotism has arisen multiple times.
Apparently sensing (like others in the audience) that Senator Greenfield’s seven-minutes of self-contradiction were losing the argument, Senator Novstrup rose (around the seven-minute mark) to blow some smoke. He cited the dictionary definition of nepotism (and kids, understand: your English teachers leading off with a dictionary definition as a sign that they’re in for a weak paper) as “when you hire your friends and family.”
Now I know everyone in this conversation is using the word nepotism, but it is worth noting that Senate Bill 39 does not contain the word nepotism. It does not mention hiring friends. It speaks only to hiring certain close family members. So right out of the gate, Senator Novstrup is trying to stretch the debate beyond Senate Bill 39 itself.
Senator Novstrup pulled us further from the topic by distracting by quip: “I go wow: I can’t hire my friends, so I hire my enemies? That’s not a good idea.”
Nowhere did SB 39 demand that state officials hire their enemies.
Senator Novstrup went on to endorse nepotism in business:
In my small business, we practice nepotism. I try to hire my friends and family because they’re good people. At one time we had nine family members working my small business, and that was nepotism at its finest, people that worked and people that I could trust—what a deal [Senator Al Novstrup, crackerbarrel, 2019.01.26, timestamp 7:30].
There is a vast difference operating a family go-kart business and governing a state. Al’s business is his business. He can hire his son David and all the other kin he wants… although even within that business, if he has a cousin and a non-relative working the gate, and both have been working equally hard for equal years, but Al gives his cousin $12 an hour and the other guy only $10 an hour, that’s not fair.
Governor Noem is not running go-karts. She is running the State of South Dakota, a great public enterprise. She and the people she hire wield far greater influence than any small business, and that influence must be shared and checked with far greater care. To favor her immediate family members for jobs crafting public policy that will affect 870,000 South Dakotans represents a an unhealthy concentration of power that warrants greater scrutiny than Al’s summer hires.
But Senator Novstrup self-righteously barreled on, plowing through his misrepresentation of Kennedy Noem’s salary (it is now $50,000, already a $10,000 raise from her starting salary in November on the transition team) to declare that Kennedy is great gal and definitely not overpaid. He assailed Senator Nelson for daring to say South Dakota has a “culture of corruption.” Senator Novstrup said the EB-5 and GEAR UP scandals were clearly no big deals because hardly anyone was convicted of anything. He said legislators and lobbyists are all “good ethical people” and vowed that “I’ll push back all day long on people that attack the integrity of South Dakota and South Dakotans.”
Novstrup’s closing tactic here is to make his audience think that a bill he doesn’t like is really an attack on the audience, on South Dakota, on something holy and inviolable. If there were logic to his attack—if proposing a law prohibiting state officials from hiring close relatives were really an attack on the integrity of all the residents of the state—then several other states are attacking their own citizens’ integrity with anti-nepotism laws. Alabama prohibits state officials from appointing or contracting with relatives out to the fourth degree of kinship. Iowa’s prohibition extends only to third-degree relatives. Alaska says close relatives of legislators can’t work for the legislature. Nebraska forbids nepotism in the executive branch.
Restrictions on nepotism don’t attack anyone’s integrity any more than the governor’s veto power says legislators are idiots. Both are reasonable checks on the power of elected officials. Senate Bill 39 was an effort to prevent elected officials from concentrating public powers in private clans.
Nepotism in government is bad for democracy. Confronted with that principle, Senator Novstrup and Senator Greenfield get all flustered and can do nothing but cluck about personalities.
Stay tuned: more crackerbarrel coverage coming up! But you don’t have to wait: view all fifteen of my videos from yesterday’s crackerbarrel on this YouTube playlist!
*p.s.: On Venhuizen and Daugaard: Both of those young men came to their state jobs with résumés that dwarf Kennedy Noem’s. Both were Briggs Scholars at SDSU and studied in the Honors College. Venhuizen won a Truman Scholarship. Daugaard made significant marks in student government and other activities at SDSU. Venhuizen served for five years on the Board of Regents and brought a law degree to Pierre. Kennedy Noem has done nothing of public note other than work on Mom’s campaign. When Greenfield and Novstrup say, Dennis (with help from the PUC) nepotized, so why can’t Kristi?, they are comparing reasonably juicy apples to an unripe orange.