State Senator Strives Beyond Disability, Looks Toward Future


It’s a hard memory for Billie Sutton. It makes a listener wince as he recalls that moment in early October eight years ago when his life changed forever.

“The horse standing up and I was still in the saddle, and I knew it was bad because I felt like my hips were way out in front of me,” Sutton said. “And I remember grabbing the side of the chute and saying, ‘You guys get me out of here. I broke my back.'”

The saddle bronc he was to ride flipped into the chute, and Sutton was paralyzed from the navel down.

“It’s been kind of a long road since,” Sutton says. “But I tried to take a never say quit attitude. And it’s led to a lot of great things for me.”

Now in his third state Senate term from District 21 in south-central South Dakota, Sutton is considered a sign of future promise for the struggling South Dakota Democratic Party.

“He’s not the only one. We’ve had a lot of good young legislators come in,” says Democratic state Sen. Bernie Hunhoff of Yankton. “And I would put Billie right at the head of the bunch.”

The grandson of a state senator and lieutenant governor candidate of the same name, Billie Sutton offers West River connections which Democrats struggle to make outside of Native American reservations.

“I think he knows everybody West River,” Hunhoff said. “And obviously, if a Democrat can make some headway West River, he can probably do pretty good in statewide office.”

Sutton considers that as he works as an investment consultant at First Fidelity Bank in Burke. There, board chairman John Lillebridge, the grandfather of Sutton’s wife, Kelsea, admits his is ready to stray from his Republican roots to support Sutton — with money and his vote — for a statewide office.

“He’s tremendously fair,” Lillibridge says. “And he doesn’t have a lot of axes to grind. And he would lay out a position and stick by it.”

However, Lillibridge does have some concern about Sutton’s influence on his granddaughter.

“The only thing I regret, he’s kind of turned her into a Democrat. That bothers grandpa,” he said.

Two more Democrats are on the way. Billie and Kelsea are expecting twins.

“My life’s going to change a lot,” Billie says.

He has handled bigger change. He continues to work on physical therapy, and has made some gains — with movement reaching his hips.

“I’ve said since I got hurt that this wasn’t the worst time in history as far a technology goes, on what we can accomplish,” Sutton said. “I’m going to hold out hope. I think if you lose hope, you’re kind of done for.”

Billy Sutton doesn’t believe in hopelessness, in politics or in life. That goes for being a Democrat. Sutton has hope for a party comeback, and rejects advice to register Republican to improve his chances at higher office.

“I’m not going to change parties just to get elected,” Sutton said. “You know, if the people don’t elect me as a Democrat, then it wasn’t meant for me to be in that position.”

Right now, he likes his position in the state Senate, at the bank and, especially, back on the family ranch. There above the Missouri River, he and his wife are building a new home, and a bright future.

“Just to come home and be a part of it, and being tied to this area and that way of life, it means a lot to me, and I know Mom and Dad are going to enjoy having us back,” Sutton said.

As for that political thing, and a possible future run for statewide office?

“You never know,” Sutton said. “You just never know.”

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