Governor Kristi Noem’s attack on Representative Taffy Howard over Howard’s open-records legislation reminds me of another instance where Noem’s brittleness and arrogance drew her into another unforced error of petty retribution against another gal named Howard.
In 2019, the Governor’s Office pressured Girls State officials to expel Sioux Falls Roosevelt student Madison Howard. The Governor’s Office pushed for this punishment after Madison Howard posted a photo online of the Governor visiting Girls State while Madison held a coffee mug advocating impeachment of Noem’s party leader in the frame.
Madison Howard snapped and shared a similar impeachment-mug shot earlier that school year of Senator John Thune. Senator Thune apparently didn’t feel the photo warranted any response. Madison’s photo was not threatening or personally insulting. It certainly didn’t affect any elected official’s ability to get up and go to work.
But Governor Noem used her power to punish harmless and legal speech in a way that only brought more attention to that speech and to Noem’s thin skin.
Turn now to the debacle Noem has created over Representative Taffy Howard and House Bill 1089, the proposal to make the cost of security for the Governor and all other public officials public record. Representative Howard is one of those headstrong Rapid City legislators who is more consistently and radically right-wing than Kristi Noem or any of the establishment opportunists in charge of the South Dakota GOP.
Representative Howard is playing a game we’ve seen from other Black Hills mugwumps: They introduce bills that tweak the SDGOP establishment by actually holding the SDGOP to their stated principles (in this case, the commitment to transparency and fiscal responsibility). These bills from the Black Hills mugwump caucus give the sponsors their day or two of fun, allow us Democrats to join in with our chuckles, and then suffer swift death at the hands of the gubernatorially-cowed mainstream GOP majority. The mugwump bills never pass. They never hurt anyone. And most importantly for those playing real Pierre politics, they never stop the Governor’s primary budget and policy priorities from advancing through the Legislature, they never take any real power away from the Executive Branch, and they never cost the Governor reëlection. Nothing about these mugwump bills warrants the expenditure of one iota of political capital by the Governor.
Even if the Rapid City mugwumps could cobble together a bill that could survive floor votes and really step on the Governor’s toes, the Governor wouldn’t have to launch a mass-texting campaign to quash it; she could just flick her veto pen, and, as Bob Mercer reminds us at the very bottom of his story on the Noem/Howard tiff, that veto would likely stand. Then Noem would be free to pour $100K into sponsors’ primary opponents’ coffers in 2022, and that’s the last we’d see of them in Pierre
But in this instance, faced with a bill that draws attention to her lavish out-of-state travel and use of state troopers to serve as personal bodyguards on political campaign trips, Governor Noem launches an open attack on Representative Howard and her bill co-sponsors. That attack is as gratuitous, petty, and counterproductive as her attack two years ago on Girls Stater Madison Howard. Attacking Howard only amplifies the House Bill 1089 itself, which would have gone mostly unnoticed in the press amidst the hoo-hah about South Dakota’s continued culture war and fetus fetish and would have been killed quietly in committee but now gets front-page play. Noem’s unforced error gives Representative Howard a statewide spotlight in which she sounds less like a radical mugwump going off topic and more like a sober Joan Callamezzo making the very sensible point that, as a member of the Appropriations Committee, she kinda-sorta has to know how much the Governor is spending on security so she can appropriate the appropriate funds. The press contrasts those sober policy pronouncements with Noem’s non-responses that lay bare her fickle commitment to her campaign pledge of transparency.
Noem made a fuss that she didn’t need to make. Because of that fuss, Howard’s bill and Howard herself look good and Noem looks bad.
Any rational propaganda team would have seen that attacking Howard and this sure-to-die bill had no upside and would have kaboshed any thought of unleashing the hounds of text-war. But brittle Team Kristi can’t take the slightest slight. Kristi Noem will attack people who don’t need to be attacked—acerbic high school students, fellow Republicans with doomed bills, New York reporters—and make herself look arrogant and petty.
That brittleness may be Kristi Noem’s downfall, especially if smart primary opponents know how to exploit that Achilles heel in 2022 or 2024.