About Tom Lawrence

I'm a South Dakota native who has covered the state since 1978. The events, officials, celebrities and news have provided a remarkable pageant to watch pass. Spending time with and learning about the people of South Dakota, almost always strong, modest, wry, smart, decent and friendly, has been the best part of the work. I live in Mitchell.

Checking out the R and D rosters

Let’s say it’s a ballgame. The first pitch has yet to be thrown in the 2014 game, but how about setting the lineups?

The Republican team is easy to write down. The Democrats? Not so much, and the two biggest names both want to bat third and play center field.

Let’s run down the lineups.


R: Gov. Dennis Daugaard, who it turns out is not serving the third term of the Rounds administration, and loves to joke about running out of paper. He’s a caution.

D: Stephanie Herseth Sandlin? Bernie Hunhoff, who tried for it in 1998, and now says he doesn’t have the dough, and is not interested? Wild, wild guess sure to be wrong, but how interesting would it be — Tom Daschle. Even wilder? Sioux Falls native, TV star and party guy Pat O’Brien.

Lt. Governor:

R: LG Matt “The Nurse/Lawyer” Michels, unless some up-and-comer shoves him aside.

D: Um, well, let’s say Nancy Turbak Berry, or Jeff Barth. Would you believe Matt “Corn Dog” Varilek? Hell, in 2010 the Dems ran a Republican for this office.


R: Former Gov./Insurance Pitcher Mike Rounds. Maybe Rep. Kristi Noem, who declines to decline every chance she gets and had time to complete her long-lost college education during her first term in office.

D: Here they have a name or two, in either SHS, Zach’s mom and a recovering lobbyist who is pondering a comeback, or U.S. Attorney/Son in Waiting Brendan Johnson.


R: Noem, or maybe Dusty “PUC? Just kidding.” Johnson or some other eager young GOPer if she tries for the Senate.

D: Whoever loses the coin toss between SHS and Brendan? Bernie? Another try by Varilek?

Constitutional offices:

R: They hold all the offices, so it’s likely the same starters as 2010. Secretary of State Jason Gant may well face a challenge by another Republican, who can assuredly count on Stan Adelstein for a campaign donation or two.

D: If they nominate Ron Volesky for attorney general again we’ll ask for a Black Sox investigation.

Lentsch to replace Bones at SD Ag Department

Walt Bones is headed back to his family farming operation in rural Parker, and a familiar face and name in South Dakota Republican Party politics will replace him at the helm of the state Agriculture Department.

Lucas Lentsch will be the new head of the Ag Department, Gov. Dennis Daugaard announced Tuesday morning.

“Lucas Lentsch will be a great secretary of Agriculture,” Daugaard said in a press release. “He is well-known across the state and well-respected in the ag community. Lucas will be an effective advocate for South Dakota’s farmers and ranchers.”

Since last year, Lentsch has been with Reinke Gray Wealth Management of Pierre as a financial adviser for farm and ranch families. Prior to that, he worked for two years as director of Agricultural Development for the South Dakota Department of Agriculture.

“It is a tremendous honor to be asked to serve as secretary of Agriculture,” Lentsch said.  “I look forward to partnering with Governor Daugaard, industry leadership, and our state’s farmers and ranchers to support South Dakota’s leading industry.”

In addition to his work in the ag industry, Lentsch served for two years as executive director of the South Dakota Republican Party. Before coming to Pierre, Lentsch spent 10 years in business development.  He was also a founding member and chairman of Glacial Lakes Area Development, a community development nonprofit organization in northeastern South Dakota.

“It has truly been an honor to serve as Secretary of Agriculture,” Bones said in another release. “I’ve served with a group of dedicated public servants – from the governor, who really understands the role of agriculture, to his staff and Cabinet members, our Legislature, and especially Department of Agriculture employees, everyone has worked hard to promote and protect the best interests of our industry.”

Daugaard offered praise for Bones for his service.

“Walt Bones is a great leader in the ag community, and I have appreciated his hard work for South Dakota’s No. 1 industry,” the governor said.  “I thank him for his service to South Dakota and wish him well.”

Stephanie’s big fan: Brendan Johnson

Brendan Johnson isn’t running for anything.

Not the Senate. Or the House. Or governor, attorney general or anything else. Not yet, anyway.

After talking with him Wednesday, I am clear on that. He remains consistent that as South Dakota’s U.S. attorney, he enjoys his work, and is not ready to make an announcement that he is entering the political field his father is leaving.

Will he jump into a race? Maybe, maybe not. A draft Brendan committee has been formed, and he is aware of that.

But one thing Brendan wanted to make clear: All the political palavering that he and his father are in a feud with Stephanie Herseth Sandlin is false.

“That is not true at all. I like and admire Stephanie,” he said. “I have all the respect in the world for her.”

Herseth Sandlin has expressed admiration for Tim Johnson repeatedly, and did so again on Tuesday, when South Dakota’s senior senator made it official: He won’t run in 2014.

“Today is Senator Johnson’s day, a day to reflect on his extraordinary service to the state of South Dakota. And while I’ve appreciated the encouragement I’ve received, I haven’t focused on future political opportunities,” she said. “Rather, like countless others, today I’m focused on Tim.”

Now, this will surely disappoint the GOP and its online troops, who are eager to stir up a battle between the two. And it still may happen if they set their sights on the same race, and wind up in a Democratic primary.

SD’s Democrats are trying to create the same fracas between former Gov. Mike Rounds and Rep. Kristi Noem. They are hoping those two end up in a squabble and a primary.

Rounds and Noem have also said they like and admire each other. That doesn’t mean they won’t end up battling for the Senate nomination in 14 months.

Right now, Rounds said he’s running for the Senate seat Tim Johnson is vacating. Noem is pondering her options, Herseth Sandlin hasn’t indicated what, if anything, she will run for in 2014. And Brendan Johnson is prohibited from talking politics publicly.

Things could change soon. Names, and elbows could be thrown. But right now, Brendan Johnson says don’t believe the hype.

The party officials, the partisan bloggers, the letter-writers and party activists, are acting like kids in the school yard: They are egging the potential opponents on. Will it work?

It’s also well worth noting that in March 2009, no one was discussing state Rep. Kristi Noem of rural Castlewood as South Dakota’s next member of Congress. A surprise candidate could emerge in either or both parties.

Tim Johnson’s secret to success

It’s not difficult to get things done, according to an old saying, if you don’t care who gets the credit.

That may be a fitting tribute to Tim Johnson, one of three South Dakota Democrats who served more than 20 years in Congress in the past six decades. He announced his retirement Tuesday at USD, in a typically low-key event that blended humor with touches of sadness.

Johnson was the least charismatic, the least well-known, the least controversial of the three big Democrats. He was also the most politically successful.

George McGovern was a national, even a global, figure for four decades. Tom Daschle rose to become the Democrats leader in the Senate, and a key adviser and mentor to President Obama.

McGovern, who served for 22 years, ran for president three times, and considered races for the White House in two other election cycles. Daschle, who put in 26 years, pondered runs for the presidency in both 2004 and 2008.

Tim Johnson, who almost certainly will leave with 28 years in Congress, never saw himself as a future president, at least as far as we know. He had other goals.

Johnson mentioned a few on Tuesday as he announced his plans to retire from his business in less than two years: He worked to bring needed water to both cowboys and Indians in South Dakota.

Johnson pushed to keep Ellsworth Air Force Base open. He backed projects that boosted his home state, using the old, often-arcane rules of Congress, and was a very effective legislator.

And he reached out to Republicans and independents in SD, and enough of them noticed to elect him to the Legislature four times, to Congress five times, and to the Senate three times. He did so, it’s worth noting, by landslide margins in 6 of his 8 statewide races.

The two times he was in close elections, he defeated Republican icons: Larry Pressler in 1996, and John Thune in 2002. Who else in state history defeated such a pair of opponents in back-to-back elections?

No one.

Meanwhile, both McGovern and Daschle ended their careers as defeated candidates, rejected by the voters of their home state. It stung.

Tim Johnson rolls off into the sunset undefeated, 12-0 in general elections, and 15-0 in all races, with a reputation as a decent, modest and successful politician with a wry, clever sense of humor. He is admired by his fellow vote-chasers, too.

I hope he writes an autobiography, because he has been much, much more than just another politician.

South Dakota voters knew that for 36 years.

Tim Johnson heads home for announcement

Tim Johnson is headed to his hometown for his big announcement Tuesday.

Sen. Johnson will announce his plans for 2014 at 3 p.m. at the Al Neuharth Media Center on the USD campus in Vermillion. It is widely believed he will announce he will end his political career in January 2015, and will not seek a fourth Senate term next year.

In fact, the Reuters News Service has issued a breaking news alert that Johnson is retiring. It all seems to make sense — he’s 66, his health is fragile, he is trailing in polls to both former Gov. Mike Rounds and Rep. Kristi Noem, and he has made no steps to run again.

It all points to a retirement announcement. What’s next for Tim? He told me last year he would return home, and would not work as a lobbyist.

What’s next for the South Dakota Democratic Party? Whom will it find to run in his place? Former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, and U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson, the senator’s son, are considered the leading contenders for their party’s nomination.

And what’s next for Noem — will she challenge Rounds in a GOP primary? If not, will some other Republican seek to run to his right in the June contest?

But last things first. If Tim Johnson does retire after winning every race he has undertaken for office, few will be surprised, but all need appreciate the years of service he gave to South Dakota. He has carved out an independent course, has maintained a moderate to liberal stance over the years, and has been a decent, smart, good man while serving more than a quarter century in D.C.

If tomorrow is the first stanza in a farewell song, it will cap a long and successful career. Before everyone jumps all over the 2014 speculation, let’s remember that.