PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — Friday marked the last day for Tony Venhuizen as chief of staff to Governor Kristi Noem. Venhuizen came back on a temporary basis as outside counsel prior to the 2020 legislative session and she officially named Venhuizen to the post in March 2020. He previously worked in several roles during the eight years his father-in-law, Dennis Daugaard, served as governor, including as chief of staff for the final four.
KELOLAND News reporter Bob Mercer recently asked questions of Venhuizen about his latest round.
You’ve had a variety of roles in this still-young administration as a senior advisor (through May 24, 2019), an outside lawyer and most recently as chief of staff. You’ve also been one of the previous governor’s closest advisers. Your involvement in public affairs has been much of your life. What led to your decision to get back into the fire as chief of staff for the current governor?
It was an honor to be asked back into the Governor’s Office by Governor Noem. My plan had been to leave the Governor’s Office when Governor Daugaard left office and to move to Sioux Falls, which I did in May 2019 after a short transitional period with Governor Noem’s office. I had enjoyed my time working with Governor Noem, though, and remained engaged with her team as outside counsel. When the position of chief of staff came open again just prior to the 2020 legislative session, I was happy to return, first on a temporary and then a permanent basis.
You and your family had moved from Pierre to Sioux Falls as Governor Daugaard’s second term ended. How did you manage your role as Governor Noem’s chief of staff while your spouse and children lived there?
Like most legislators, I came to Pierre every day of the legislative sessions in 2020 and 2021. My remote work from Sioux Falls really began following the 2020 legislative session. As it happened, this was at the same time that the Covid pandemic began in earnest, and for several weeks state office buildings were closed and everyone was working from home. That meant that my working from Sioux Falls was very easy because practically all of our work was via Zoom or the telephone anyway.
After offices reopened, I came to Pierre as necessary, generally for two to three days at a time. My wife has always been very supportive and our parents have also been helpful when the need has arisen.
The rest of the time, I spent much of my time every day in Zoom meetings or on the phone. The whole world became far more comfortable with Zoom meetings last year and that made my arrangement easier.
How did you and Maggie Seidel, the governor’s recent senior adviser and policy director, divide duties? The two of you are leaving at about the same time. (Seidel officially left shortly after legislative session ended March 29.) What led to your decision to step back?
Throughout my time in both the Daugaard and Noem offices, I have always split duties with other senior staffers. With Maggie, she oversaw communications and the policy staff, and I oversaw legislative relations and operational issues. We both had day-to-day responsibility for several cabinet departments. We would often discuss our work areas with each other, and as members of the executive committee, we along with several other senior staffers advised the governor on the issues of the day.
In announcing your plan to depart, the governor also announced she was appointing you to the state Board of Regents that governs South Dakota’s eight public-university campuses and the two special schools for K-12 students with vision and hearing disabilities. You had previously served as a student regent, and you know how time-consuming the role of a regent can be. What do you hope to help accomplish as you return to the board?
I was honored that Governor Noem appointed me and I’m looking forward to returning to the Regents. I want to get more involved before I develop a detailed list of goals. My primary goal is to have a quality university system that is efficient and accountable to the taxpayers and the tuition-payers. I am interested to see the recommendations of the Senate Bill 55 task force for that reason. Another key goal is to ensure that our universities are not overly politicized. We live in a time when politics in our nation seems to be interjecting itself into every other field. We want our students to understand political issues and to consider different viewpoints, but our universities should not be promoting a particular political agenda.
You followed Josh Shields as Governor Noem’s chief of staff. Did he have any advice, or did you learn anything from his time that you applied?
I enjoyed working with Josh and with his predecessor, Herb Jones. They were both thoughtful, conscientious guys and and I certainly learned from both of them. I’ve been fortunate over the years to work with many very talented senior staffers, from Jim Soyer and Rob Skjonsberg, to Dusty Johnson and Deb Bowman, to Jim Seward and Nathan Sanderson, to Kim Malsam-Rysdon and Liza Clark, and I’ve learned from all of them and many others. Our state has been well-served over the years by some very talented people who are willing to work in these roles.
Did you have any part in choosing your successor, Aaron Scheibe?
I certainly offered the governor my advice, but this was her decision. I have known Aaron for seven years or so. I think he is an excellent choice and will be a great chief of staff.
You’ve left some permanent marks on Pierre, such as your work on the Trail of Governors statues project and your participation in several South Dakota history collections, as well as your SoDak Governors blog. You also have a book in the works on Governor Bulow. And you’re a regular participant in the Augustana University annual history conferences at the Center for Western Studies. In the best sense of the term, you’re a true student of South Dakota government and politics. Any idea about why you’re so thirsty for the state’s history?
I’ve been interested in history since I was a kid, and I have also always had an interest in state politics, which I owe to my grandfather, Henry Poppen, who was a longtime state senator from De Smet. Through him I was able as a kid to meet people like governors George Mickelson and Bill Janklow, and many other political figures.
When I was younger, though, I was primarily interested in U.S. history, especially studying the U.S. presidents. My interest in South Dakota history, particularly in the history of South Dakota governors, really began in earnest after I joined the Governor’s Office in 2011. When you work in this office you are working amongst that history; you work in the Capitol building and with many people who have served in prior administrations. It’s an area that I’ve enjoyed studying and I’ve been fortunate to be in positions that allow me to learn about it and to promote awareness of it.
Tell a little about your family and what’s next in your lives?
In a few weeks I will be starting a new job at Standard Trust Company in Sioux Falls, and my service on the Board of Regents will begin next week. My wife is an electrical engineer and works for Raven Aerostar in Sioux Falls, where she helps design the electronic payloads that are carried by their balloons. Our kids will be in 4th grade, 2nd grade, and kindergarten next year and so, more and more, we are busy with their activities and schedules.
Is there anything else you want to say as you get ready to enter that coming chapter?
It has been a real honor to work in the Governor’s Office, for both Governor Noem and for Governor Daugaard. I would also be remiss if I did not mention Lieutenant Governors Matt Michels and Larry Rhoden, both of whom are first-class people who have become good friends and who I was privileged to work with.
I also appreciate the opportunities that Governor Mike Rounds gave me, starting when I was nineteen years old, to work on his campaigns and in his office, and to serve as the student member of the Board of Regents. Those experiences are what allowed me to serve in the other roles I have held since then.
We have been able to do some very good things for the people of South Dakota and it was fun to be a part of that. I’m certainly looking forward to continuing to be involved through the Board of Regents.