Remembering Dick Kneip

Dick Kneip would have turned 80 Monday.

Kneip was a dominant figure in South Dakota in the 1970s, when he won three consecutive terms as governor. That is unusual for two reasons: One, the state constitution limits governors and other top state officials to two straight terms in office.

Two, Kneip was a Democrat. Since his wins in 1970, 1972, and 1974, no Democrat has been elected governor. In recent years, no one with that label has even come close.

Kneip, first elected at the politically tender age of 37, was eligible to win three terms in a row because of a change in state law. He led an effort to reform and streamline state government, which changed the term in office for a governor from two years to four.

In 1974, near the end of his second term, and still highly popular, Kneip asked the South Dakota Supreme Court to consider his two two-year terms as one four-year term.

It was widely ridiculed at the time, and Kneip’s own lieutenant governor, Bill Dougherty, made plans to be the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 1974.

But the court surprised most people by agreeing with Kneip’s argument. Suddenly, he was eligible to run for a third term. Dougherty, who said Kneip had promised to step aside in his favor, decided to run against his boss in the primary.

Kneip won in a breeze after he picked state Sen. Harvey Wollman as his running mate. It was the first race in South Dakota history where the governor and lieutenant governor would run as a team instead of in separate races.

Wollman’s brother, Roger Wollman, was a justice on the state Supreme Court that voted to allow Kneip to run, but no one has raised the hint of a political deal.

Dougherty, who had been a close friend and advisor to George McGovern and the Kennedy family, never served in public life again, at least officially. Instead, he became a highly effective and successful lobbyist before he died in 2010.

Kneip handily won a third term in 1974, but he departed near the end of it to serve as ambassador to Singapore when President Jimmy Carter offered him the appointment. Harvey Wollman was elevated to the governor’s office, and served out the end of the third Kneip term.

But Wollman didn’t get a chance to win a full term in his own right, as he was upset in a 1978 primary by state Sen. Roger McKellips. McKellips then lost to Attorney General Bill Janklow, the first of four times Janklow would claim the office.

Some Democrats have told me those back-to-back bitterly contested primaries caused a split in the party that never properly healed. That’s one reason the Democrats have slumped to such a sorry state in South Dakota, they claim.

One thing is clear: Kneip has remained a Democratic icon in the state, although not of the stature of McGovern or Tom Daschle. Maybe that should change.

Janklow told me several times how much he admired Kneip, despite their different party affiliations, and said he spent time with Kneip’s eight sons in the following decades.

A lot of people who recall those times speak glowingly of the political and personal skills of Kneip, a lean, bulb-nosed milk implement salesman who was also a very effective three-term legislator from Salem before he knocked Gov. Frank Farrar out of office in 1970.

Sadly, Janklow and other admirers weren’t able to spent a lot of time with Dick Kneip in the years after he came home from Singapore in 1981.

Kneip tried for a comeback in 1986, but lost to Lars Herseth — Stephanie’s dad — in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. Herseth then lost in a close race against Republican George S. Mickelson, the son of a former governor whose son Mark takes office as a state legislator Tuesday.

It was the last time the South Dakota Democrats put up a good fight for the governor’s office, at least so far. Only five Democrats have served as governor, and only four won elections. A Democrat was elected South Dakota’s governor seven times — and three of those wins were by Kneip.

It’s worth noting that from 1970 to 1998, Kneip and Janklow combined to win seven of the nine governor’s races. A social to honor the two men, and an attempt to foster a sense of bipartisanship, was held in Sioux Falls last week.

He was only 53 when he tried for a comeback, but Kneip was already very ill with cancer, which he learned in early 1987. He soon died, ending a fascinating life.

And that doesn’t even get into the time he appeared on “Saturday Night Live” in 1977.

Russell Means and the Great Mystery

Russell Means is the latest South Dakota legend to die this year.

Means entered “the Great Mystery,” as he referred to it, Monday morning. His death adds to the toll this year that includes George McGovern, who died Sunday, Bill Janklow and Jim Abdnor.

Here is a statement from the Means’ family:

October 22, 2012
Hello our relatives. Our dad and husband, now walks among our ancestors. He began his journey to the spirit world at 4:44 am, with the Morning Star, at his home and ranch in Porcupine. There will be four opportunities for the people to honor his life to be announced at a later date. Thank you for your prayers and continued support. We love you. As our dad and husband would always say, “May the Great Mystery continue to guide and protect the paths of you and your loved ones.”
The wife and children of Russell Means
444 Crazy Horse Drive
Pahin Sinte, Republic of Lakotah

I wrote a long profile on Means a few years ago when I was working in Rapid City. He was a fascinating figure, a rebel who loved the Oakland Raiders, hated Mount Rushmore and appeared in movies and TV shows.

He was, like his old friend Bill Janklow, much, much larger than life. Means will go down in the history books as a major figure who stood up for American Indians at a time when they needed a champion.

Means was charming, controversial, a man who loved the spotlight, accepted risks and danger and wrote a great autobiography. I was surprised by his sense of humor and his enjoyment of everyday life while also striving to make dramatic changes in the world.

It’s being said today he may have been the most famous Indian — Russell despised the term “Native American” — since Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. All three men were Lakota leaders, and I am sure Means would welcome the high ranking and the esteemed company.

Explore the Great Mystery, Russell Means.

Stan Adelstein gets ‘interesting’

State Sen. Stan Adelstein has long been an interesting man.

I have enjoyed interviewing him and he always has a good quote to offer. Stan is not your typical South Dakota Republican: He’s an 81-year-old millionaire engineer, Jewish lay rabbi who is pro-choice and has liberal views on many social issues while being a pro-business, pro-growth politician as well as a paterfamilias for Rapid City and the Black Hills, often opening his checkbook for the community where he grew up and still lives.

Stan also loves politics, having served one term in the state House and being unopposed for a fourth term in the Senate. Adelstein has been a friend and adviser to Govs. Bill Janklow and Mike Rounds.

He has not been a fan of Secretary of State Jason Gant, whom he asked to resign this week. This summer, he called for a DCI investigation into Gant.

I am writing a story about the latest round in this battle. It will be in The Daily Republic Thursday and on our website shortly.

All this feuding and fussing among these SD Republicans caused the website to offer this witty image. Enjoy!

Jim Abdnor on speaking, dancing and working

Jim Abdnor had almost slipped into the history books when he died Wednesday.

The former legislator, lieutenant governor, congressman and senator was 89 when he died at a hospice in Sioux Falls Wednesday. He had last served in elective office in January 1987, so an entire generation had grown up not knowing him on the public stage.

They missed a unique figure who rose to prominence and power due to a skill with people, and a desire to achieve. Abdnor was a short, unremarkable looking man who was afflicted with a speech impediment, but he became a U.S. senator despite that minor flaw.

In 1986, then-Gov. Bill Janklow challenged Abdnor in the Republican primary. Janklow, who died earlier this year, said Abdnor didn’t have the speaking skills to serve in the Senate and to take on Tom Daschle.

This was Abdnor’s response:

And he went on to defeat Janklow in the primary, too. it was the only loss of Wild Bill’s colorful career, and the final victory for Jim Abdnor, who lost to Daschle that fall.


People loved him. People hated him. Almost all had strong feelings about him.

They adored him and voted him into statewide office six times, elevating him to nationwide prominence. They despised him and cursed him and celebrated his problems.

Few people had neutral feelings about Bill Janklow, who died Thursday at 72. He was a driven, angry, sentimental, caring, razor-sharp, bitter, vindictive, brilliant man.

I knew Janklow for more than 30 years and wrote about him many times. For some reason, we got along well and never had an argument, nor did he call me late at night to chew me out.

I admired him and feel his reputation will only grow. Others who I like and admire feel differently.

Now he belongs to the ages.