PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — South Dakota’s state legislature only has 11 Democrats while the other 94 legislators are Republicans. Democratic Sen. Red Dawn Foster of Pine Ridge says being among such a minority isn’t easy.
“There’s a couple committees that we do not have representation on, so there are interns just as note keepers in there, so that they keep abreast of what’s going on in those committees, and so it definitely has been a challenge,” Foster said.
She’s one of only three Democrats in the Senate where there are 32 Republicans. Over in the House, there are 62 Republicans and just eight Democrats.
“It’s always an uphill battle, there’s nothing we can do without bipartisan support and making a friend, so in that way it makes us make sure that anything that we bring is vetted that we want to get passed,” Democratic Rep. Jamie Smith of Sioux Falls said.
“It’s two-fold,” Democratic Rep. Oren Lesmeister of Parade said. “One, it gets frustrating sometimes. We try to pass some legislation, and there’s times that it’s dead on arrival as they would say.”
But there can be camaraderie in any small group.
“The other side of the coin is, though, being such a small caucus as we call it, with eight in the House and three in the Senate, 11 total, we’re like family,” Lesmeister said. “So we know everybody’s bills, we know what’s going on, we understand issues that are coming up, whether it’s in the Senate or House.”
“You automatically get drawn in to one another’s lives, and we do. There’s a great amount of care between all of us, and you got to have somebody that has your back in Pierre, and we know we have each other’s backs,” Smith said.
“I know everyone in our caucus, and I’ve gotten a lot of support as a new legislator because I am the only new Democrat as well, so I’ve seen some advantages there to having a small group that maybe I could get lost in the shuffle in a bigger group,” Democratic Rep. Jennifer Keintz of Eden said.
Foster says there is more than one issue with having that 94 to 11 split.
“I think that it’s not only difficult to accomplish the legislative goals, but it doesn’t make for good dialogue, because diversity of thought, diversity, inclusion and being able to really flesh out legislation and ideas, especially the communities that we represent are underrepresented in the legislation,” Foster said.
While the legislature is about 90% Republican, as of February 1, only about 48% of active registered voters in the state were Republican.
“I still don’t think it’s totally Republican-dominated,” Lesmeister said.
“When you look at the number of registered Democrats, independents and things like that across our state and how conservative our legislature has swung, it doesn’t represent the state in the way that I think we should, and you see that when we pass things like the marijuana bill that passes,” Smith said. “That’s a fairly liberal idea, right, not just to do medical but also do recreational in the same sweep.”
“I think the Democrats have gotten behind what the public wants to do, and we’ve championed their cause,” said Democratic Rep. Shawn Bordeaux of Mission.
And as Keintz points out, a stance on an issue doesn’t have to be partisan.
“It’s not always just a strictly Democrat/Republican viewpoint on a lot of issues, so I don’t always see it just on strict party lines with everything,” Keintz said. “You know, there are some things that don’t have to do with only party, but I do think that some of the ideas are getting lost or not really being elevated because we do have a small number.”
11 is a comparably small number, but it’s neither lonely nor insignificant.
“There may be only eight of us in the House, but, three in the Senate, but they still count,” Lesmeister said.