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Merrill Beats Cunningham as Democrats’ Pick to Replace Slaight-Hansen as Chair

Friend of the blog John Cunningham continues to offer his services to the South Dakota Democratic Party, and the South Dakota Democratic Party continues to tell him no. The Sioux Falls man has run for statewide party chair every time the party has elected new leadership since 2019. This Saturday, Cunningham threw his hat in the ring (or is it a circular firing squad?) to replace ousted chair Jennifer Slaight-Hansen, but at the State Central Committee meeting in Rapid City, insider Dems chose to promote previous vice-chair Shane Merrill of Parker from interim to regular chair:

Merrill defeated John Cunningham of Sioux Falls 94.37% to 5.63% in a weighted vote based on votes for Democratic candidate Jamie Smith in the 2022 gubernatorial race. The actual vote was 77-2.

That is a larger margin than Slaight-Hansen got in February, when about 93% of Democrats supported her. I think they are trying to tell Cunningham, who has been a critic of the party’s leadership and campaigns, something [Tom Lawrence, “South Dakota Democratic Party Removes Interim from Shane Merrill’s Title, Make Him Leader of Troubled State Party,” South Dakota Standard, 2023.09.17].

Merrill beat Cunningham in part by appealing to his fellow Dems’ sense of rurality:

Merrill said he is glad the turmoil of this summer is behind them, and sees a path forward.

“We must reach out to rural voters, disinterested voters, independents and moderates just like George McGovern did,” he told me. “I think we needed a rural voice, a farm voice, a moderate voice as chair” [Lawrence, 2023.09.17].

Hmm… focusing on a dwindling portion of the population… are we sure that’s a growth strategy? 82% of South Dakota’s estimated population growth in 2021 happened in Minnehaha, Lincoln, and Pennington counties, and the friendly voters in those urban counties are a lot easier and cheaper to reach with voter registration drives and other outreach campaigns. In 1960, the three most populous counties (Minnehaha, Pennington, and Lincoln) had 26.3% of South Dakota’s population and the ten most populous had 43.8%. In 2021, the top three counties (Minnehaha, Pennington, and Lincoln) had 42.4% of the state’s population, and the top ten had 64.8%. In 1959, South Dakota had 55,727 farms. In 2022, South Dakota had 29,400 farms.

There’s nothing wrong with driving around the countryside getting farmers on our side the way George McGovern did 70 years ago, but let’s not miss growth opportunities in a South Dakota that looks very different from the South Dakota George McGovern shook up 70 years ago. (Oh, yeah, did I mention the McGovern rural strategy worked 70 years ago?)

John Cunningham may continue to offer his services and advice, but ousted chair Jennifer Slaight-Hansen is done fighting. A special party committee heard and rejected her appeal of her ouster, and she said she won’t try challenging the decision in court. But she takes to the pages of the South Dakota Standard to say her ouster was unfair, bullyish, and even a bit sexist:

I am deeply saddened by the personal attacks launched against me. It is disheartening to see that in this day and age, individuals still resort to sexist and derogatory comments to undermine the credibility and qualifications of women in leadership positions. The portrayal of me as a “shrill, brutish dilettante, with delusions of grandeur” is not only offensive but also a reflection of the challenges women continue to face in breaking through gender biases and stereotypes.

The situation took a disturbing turn when individuals were sent to my home to threaten me. The recently elected chairwoman of the Pennington County Democrats drove all the way from Rapid City to Aberdeen. Her message: “Things will get much, much worse” if I didn’t comply with their demands to sign a resignation letter. It was both intimidating and unacceptable.

I stood my ground and refused to be manipulated into leaving quietly, allowing baseless accusations to tarnish my reputation.

The Executive Committee, once a group of trusted advisors, performed a coup, systematically stripping away my authority, leaving me powerless to carry out my duties. Every move I made was scrutinized, every decision questioned, and every action undermined. It became evident that the whole situation was orchestrated by those who sought to take over the party and remove me from my position. The actual recall vote was just a formality.

It was clear that this was not just a disagreement or a difference in opinion. This was a calculated and well-orchestrated plan. Even throughout the appeal process, it was evident that justice was a mere illusion. They manipulated the rules, twisted the truth, and silenced any dissenting voices. It was a betrayal, not just to me but to every member who had placed their trust in our party [Jennifer Slaight-Hansen, “Former SDDP Chair Slaight-Hansen: Recall Was a Coup and Was Part of ‘Calculated and Well-Orchestrated Plan’,” South Dakota Standard, 2023.09.13].

But the chair fight is over, surely much to the relief of Merrill and of every Democrat who just wants to recruit candidates, raise money, and win elections.


  1. P. Aitch 2023-09-18 12:55

    McGovern won with a message of stopping USA from stealing teen age males from their families and sending them to a poisonous snake infested jungle to kill people posing no threat to American anything. Even worse, rich people’s boys could just go to college and let the poor people’s kids do the “dirty, deadly deed”.

  2. jkl 2023-09-18 17:00

    The chair fight is a fight over nothing. Go ahead and kick the dirt, you won’t find enough democrats to be worth your while. Idiots.

  3. Frank Kloucek 2023-09-18 22:51

    Shane Merrill represents Rural South Dakota and Jessica Meyers represents urban South Dakota. They are solid leaders for all South Dakotans!

  4. P. Aitch 2023-09-19 05:02

    People who feel intellectually inferior call others “idiots” as a defense mechanism and as a way to cope with their own feelings of insecurity – shame – envy and lack of self- appreciation.

  5. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2023-09-19 06:52

    New Democrats and justice may be rare in South Dakota, but we need leaders to fight for both.

  6. leslie 2023-09-20 05:11

    Gee, jkl, thanks. I guess as long as you’ve got all those independent votes locked up (you don’t), you’re covered, eh?!

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