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.