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South Dakota Resists Change, Loses Talent

A friend is having trouble generating momentum on a reform campaign in South Dakota and asked me why that might be. I would suggest that reason #1 is you have a Governor running around telling everyone not to change South Dakota, and reason #2 is that you probably have a majority of South Dakota voters saying the Governor’s brittle, defensive, short-sighted, and counter-productive attitude is A-OK.

I offered my friend a longer sociological argument about people being too busy turning crap wages into livable paychecks to invest their scarce energy in likely losing campaigns against a one-party regime…just as a friend of the blog reminded me of an SDPB report from last month that found some support for the idea that many advocates of change would rather move than fight:

Jeff Kleeman was born in Vermillion. He and his family left last May.

“South Dakota is so behind on the times with everything. That was one of the main reasons we left,” he said. “A lot of people are repressed and treated differently if they’re not your traditional white person.

Kleeman added some South Dakotans deal differently with people who are transgender, gay, lesbian, or people of color.

“They’re all not treated as equal as white. And that was the reason we moved because I want my kids to grow up in an environment where they’re welcoming of all people. And that’s not South Dakota, unless you share their similar views,” he said.

…He and his family now live in Lincoln, Nebraska. He has a job he loves, and his family is happy. He says while Nebraska leans conservative, Lincoln is more progressive and his family is not moving back [Megan Feighery, “#1 Reason People Consider Leaving South Dakota? Survey Says It’s Politics,” SDPB Radio, 2021.05.26].

Insularity combined with a lack of opportunities don’t compensate for fresh air and friendliness, says former Board of Regents exec Paul Beran:

“The problem that South Dakota has is it’s a very insular state,” he said. “So, while you want people to stay there, they also need to have growth from the outside. It’s not necessarily a particularly engaging place to be if you are not from South Dakota.”

After politics, employment is the second most common survey response to why someone might leave. And while some actively look for job out of state, not everyone wants to. But, as Beran points out, there just aren’t as many options.

“I think it’s difficult to recruit people to a state that has really two centers of commerce and enterprise, essentially. You know, East River and West River,” he said. “On the east side, I mean there’s only one big city. On the west side, there’s tourism. And, frankly, there’s just not a lot in between other than agriculture.”

Beran isn’t from South Dakota and he no longer lives there. He was let go from the Board of Regents after less than two years, and he thinks he might know why.

“They’re really not friendly to outside ideas,” he said. “They’re limited because, frankly, people in the state, the board, they don’t want to hear about or discuss, or have anything brought up about equities of different people” [Feighery, 2021.05.26].

I can easily imagine many South Dakotans responding to such critiques with, Good riddance! We don’t need your kind here anyway! But we kind of do need your kind, and that kind, and all kinds. When we throw native talent out of our bunker, and when we refuse to welcome people like Beran who we sometimes recruit into the bunker, the bunker is going to get stale and inbred. It’s going to miss out on innovation and opportunities that will blossom in the other places that welcome the talent we reject.

Our bunker mentality does more than make it hard to organize campaigns for political reform. It deprives South Dakota of economic talent that would improve our business climate, our tax revenues, and our quality of life.


  1. Guy 2021-06-17 09:27

    I don’t think it is necessarily a “bunker mentality” as it is “reasonableness” and lack of on both sides of the political spectrum. I have lived in both South Dakota and Oregon. Both states suffer from one-party rule and corruption. We need a middle-ground of reasonable leadership. Stephanie Herseth may be done with seeking another political run, but, we need more people like Herseth. I’m NOT looking to support radicals on either side.

  2. ABC is a real person 2021-06-17 10:36

    Call her Juneteenth Noem.

    It’s fair.

    We will build South Dakota in the vision we hold.
    Bad vision, bad build.
    Great vision, great build!

    Because of Joe Biden and the Senate and most of the House, we have Juneteenth holiday!

    Let’s build great and add everyone!

  3. Donald Pay 2021-06-17 11:37

    I moved, but I loved the fight. I did it for five years, left to attend college/grad school, then returned. I didn’t return to fight, but it just was something I fell into naturally, I guess. After twenty years and a daughter who graduated high school, I found a way to make a living that wasn’t strictly survival, as it was in South Dakota.

    We moved. There were a number of reasons. First, is employment, but it spills over into much of what ails South Dakota culture. Sure, wages are a real problem. I left South Dakota for a similar position and made nearly twice as much after one year. But it isn’t just money. A real problem in South Dakota is middle level management. Their view of climbing the ladder of opportunity is to get three rungs up on that ladder and start kicking people down. I’m not sure why people are so insecure there, but I think it has to do with the fact that there aren’t a whole lot of jobs people can go to, so they cling to their position as if God gave it to them. Generally that’s what upper level managers feel as well, so you’re stuck with the same awful supervisors in the same goddamn job forever. Hey, if you move, you end up making more, plus having a good supervisor who encourages you to climb the ladder, and doesn’t try to kick you down.

    Second, political leadership and government there sucks. Mostly it’s because it’s a one-party state. Any one-party state, no matter which party it is, has more corruption, more arrogance, less transparency and less need to compromise. There’s a Roman Empire-style patron-client aspect to government, where the people who grease the patron are served, while the vast majority are ignored. They really don’t want to hear anything you have to say. We just decided, fine, we’ll go where the leadership is much more open to consider new ideas. Unfortunately, Scott Walker got in and turned Wisconsin into South Dakota. You can’t move away from fascism. You have to fight it where you are.

  4. Mark Anderson 2021-06-17 12:15

    You know, its different elsewhere. Sarasota has been Rino since we have lived in the county. Its a liberal city in a Republican state. It isn’t Republican by far and DeSantis is a real trumpie who may push the citizens too far. It will be interesting because its a much more 50/50 state than people realize, full of loyal trumpies now but also full of people who don’t swallow the bs. Should continue to be interesting, nobody wins in a blowout.

  5. Amy Scott-Stoltz 2021-06-17 12:54

    If you want to help change the political climate, join us at Drawn Together SD as we work for redistricting reform. We are currently circulating a petition for an Independent Redistricting Commission in SD. If you are interested in circulating a petition or donating to the cause, go here: .
    We are finding a lot of support from all sides of the aisle on this issue as it is a ‘good governance’ piece. Legislators should not be allowed to pick their voters, and that is how it currently is done. Join us in the good fight!

  6. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2021-06-17 13:18

    Guy, I have to resist the both-sidesism here. I hear a lot more conservatives telling liberals to leave than I hear liberals telling conservatives to leave. One-party rule certainly fosters corruption wherever it happens, Daley’s Chicago or Noem’s Pierre, but Beran and Kleeman are talking about an insularity and resistance to new ideas that goes beyond typical political corruption or complaints about political radicals. I don’t think they were driven out by radicals per se, outliers who make life hard. They are talking about a pervasive community attitude that makes people feel unwelcome. South Dakota seems, strangely, to not be nearly as “live and let live” as our purported conservative politics would lead one to believe. We are more, “Live the way we expect or leave.” Politicians like Kristi glom onto that attitude to keep power, and the political regime and the cultural attitude intertwingle, but there’s something deeper going on that can’t be likened easily to observations of political corruption in places where Democrats hold power.

  7. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2021-06-17 13:21

    Look to Donald’s second paragraph about culture rather than politics. There is something in our limited opportunities that perhaps causes those middle managers hoping to advance to the few available positions of real wealth and power to feel desperate about blocking and knocking down other climbers. Outsiders pop in and we’re like, “Yeah, fine, move in, but don’t even think of getting ahead of me. I’ve been here forever, and I deserve advancement in South Dakota, not you.”

    Something in our culture isn’t working.

  8. MD 2021-06-17 13:25

    When there is a super majority, one must be very careful, particularly in a public facing position, of their political leanings in order to keep their political capital.
    When there is a super majority that seems more interested in ideological warfare than using sense (or science), in a public facing position, that warrants leaving the position and/or state in order to avoid the loss of all credibility by association.
    The people are harmed, but survival is important.

    South Dakota is slowly seeing an erosion of the people that can change it, leaving the state or unwilling to use their voice because of the ideological warfare and stupidity of the government. What is left are the people that continue to be complicit to this system. This is the same evolution that is happening across rural america, and it is a tragedy. It is creating isolated communities that instead of shriveling up and dying when the dissenters leave, are finding others like themselves and growing. The loss of logic is astounding.

    I moved from SD to ND for school, and have never returned. ND isnt that far off from SD, but still has a logical governor. I am even having my doubts staying here. Fortunately, I still sufficient logic in my community that I feel I can still continue to provide benefit to the community without being ostracized – I just have to make sure I am coming across as moderate as possible.

  9. Donald Pay 2021-06-17 13:36

    Guy wrote something about “reasonable leadership.” I never saw that much reasonableness in the middle of the political spectrum in South Dakota. On some things, maybe, but on things I worked on it was mainly the middle versus the reasonableness of the left and right working together to defeat things like nuclear waste, giant garbage dumps, etc. The water pipelines that provide water to a lot of folks in South Dakota were initially developed in opposition to the “moderate” business interests that ran the state. The moderate business interests wanted nothing to do with a wind or solar industry, so they pissed that away. In the beginning, they almost did that with the ethanol industry. Yet, they hopped right on board with the sewage ash scam and about any other cockeyed development that some out-of-state fly-by-night salesman. If the idea came from the grassroots people, they turned it down, because it would require they invest in something good for the state, rather than getting a payoff for themselves. Maybe that’s reasonable, I don’t know, but it leaves the state going backwards.

  10. Porter Lansing 2021-06-17 13:49

    South Dakota is a depleted gene pool of ignorance.

  11. John Dale 2021-06-17 14:50

    Information systems economic development is my pain point.

    We’ll get there, but we’re very conservative here.

  12. Guy 2021-06-17 15:28

    Corey, I would actually disagree with you that it’s just conservative states. Those attitudes of “close-mindedness” toward anything conservative exist in Liberal Oregon. I know, because I lived in Oregon for 3 years. If you don’t have their “liberal” mind -set, you’ll will have a difficult time of “networking” into job opportunities. Many moderate and conservatives have left Oregon because of this attitude from the leftists that run that state. I witnessed and experienced it first hand when I lived there.

  13. Arlo Blundt 2021-06-17 17:38

    Well..I’ve always said that young people can smell opportunity and its very hard for a young person to find in South Dakota. I’ve lived in several other states and the first thing I noticed was an actual economy…people had their heads up, were engaging and optimistic, and liked discourse. People routinely bought and sold things. People went out at night and interacted, laughed, did new things. They didn’t stay home and watch Lawrence Welk reruns. Its that simple. In an economy, people are busy about being productive and being consumers. In South Dakota, people are busy worrying that their neighbors are somehow, getting ahead of the crowd. Young people quickly get bored with living in South Dakota and,, literally, pack their bags and take off for the great unknown. At the least, its exciting.

  14. Mark Anderson 2021-06-17 18:38

    Oh John Dale, the only reason that South Dakota is conservative is that they get money from liberal states like the rest of the rural states. Its easy to check. If congress would allocate money appropriately, South Dakota would be screwed.

  15. Joe 2021-06-17 18:43

    Frankly, the only reason I have my hometown of Rapid City on the radar screen as a possible retirement destination is that it’s literally not the same town I grew up in,, in the ’60s and ’70s. Yes, some of the newcomers are Trumper tax refugees. But many are not. The city government seems reasonably competent and actually wants to serve its constituents.

  16. Mark Anderson 2021-06-17 18:59

    Well Guy, you could just moved to Prineville.

  17. Guy 2021-06-17 19:53

    Mark, I tried to move to the Bend-Redmond-Prineville-Sisters area…there were absolutely NO job opportunities or affordable housing in those areas due to all the wealthy moving into that area. So, it was either I stay in Eugene or move. I certainly wasn’t going to give up, retire early and live a homeless life on the streets of Eugene & Portland.

  18. rradical 2021-06-17 21:51

    Joe, after the last school board election in Rapid City, and all the happy buzz about town of the return of the nuclear annihilation business to Ellsworth as a major local industry, it feels like we may be headed back to the 60s and 70s, not forward.

  19. Richard Schriever 2021-06-19 12:45

    Fellow who worked in Lennox as the finance officer for a while described his main social impression of the little town as “cold’. Even a fellow who had lived in the town for 40+ years and managed to gtet himself elected mayor a few years back was Often referred to as “that new guy” in town. so yes, insular is typical of the state’s culture – PARTICULARLY outside the city limits of metro’s #1 and #2 – which exhibit their own – only slightly lower R factor brand of insulation.

  20. Mark Anderson 2021-06-19 19:02

    Here’s South Dakota guys, my family moved to Highmore in 1963, when my father died in 1981 he was still a newcomer.

  21. Arlo Blundt 2021-06-19 21:11

    Well…in South Dakota towns, you’re a newcomer until you have two generations buried in the cemetery.

  22. mike from iowa 2021-06-20 09:04

    iowa wants change. According to politico, 64% of iowans want traitor Chuck “assume deer dead” Grassley out as Sinator after 40 years. Putie Tootie can have former KGB agent Ivana Kuturnutzov back, as well.

  23. grudznick 2021-06-20 20:14

    Mr. Joe, let me recommend some of the outskirt areas of Rapid City for your retirement. I think you will find land for sale and a few nice homes that would make you and your blushing bride very happy. I, for one, an happy to welcome you to town.

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