Daschle says no to chief of staff

Four years ago, Tom Daschle was very interested in formally joining the Obama administration.

Today? The thought of Daschle taking a key role in the White House is being floated, but early Friday, he told me he is not a candidate for the chief of staff job.

“Denis McDonough, who used to work with me; Ron Klain, who also worked with me; and Tom Nides, a good friend, are the men under consideration,” Daschle said in an email from Tokyo, where he is studying high-speed rail for possibly bringing such a system to the northeast in the USA.

“We should know soon,” he said. Some journalists agree with his assessment.

Daschle, who served four terms as a South Dakota congressman (1979-1987) and three as a senator (1987-2005), was President Obama’s initial choice to be secretary of Health and Human Services back in 2008-2009.

But revelations about tax problems and a preference for limos and a driver forced Daschle to drop out. The Aberdeen native with a reputation as a smart, low-key guy who used to drive himself across South Dakota and stop in every county during his tenure in Congress was seen by his critics as a privileged insider.

His life in politics and government seemed at an end, and he told me he no longer followed South Dakota politics closely. He did appear in the state a few times in 2012, speaking at the funerals of Bill Janklow and George McGovern.

But a political comeback seemed possible, at least for a short time. In the past 24 hours, The Hill posted a blog suggesting Daschle, 65, would be an ideal choice to serve as Obama’s latest chief of staff.

Obama nominated his current chief of staff, Jack Lew, to serve as secretary of the treasury on Thursday, as a typical cabinet shakeup takes place at the end of a first term.

“Daschle has enormous credibility, respect and experience throughout the upper strata of American political and business leadership. He is trusted by leading Democrats and has long-term relations of trust with a long list of leading Republicans, which will be essential to achieving major goals in the current political climate in Washington,” Brent Budowsky wrote.

The idea quickly swept across the web, but Daschle was not on board with the plan, according to Maria Recio of Planet Washington.

“Daschle is now a senior policy adviser at DLA Piper, a high-powered law firm and his wife Linda is a well-known lobbyist. Ethics rules would restrict her ability to lobby — an apparent deal-killer for him to take the job,” Recio wrote.

Daschle seems happy, making a ton of money, living a life free of the stress he dealt with on a regular basis when he was the Democratic leader in the Senate. He has been mentioned as a possible chief of staff before, and didn’t take it then.

He still lunches with and advises Obama on a regular basis, and since many of his former staffers have worked in this White House, he has influence and contacts. His former chief of staff, Pete Rouse, spent three months as Obama’s chief of staff in 2010-2011, so Daschle could ask him how that worked.

But why would he want to serve as chief of staff? It’s a high-pressure job, and Obama has already plowed through four of them in his first term.

Plus, Daschle once held dreams of the presidency. When he thought of working in the White House, he pictured himself seated in the Oval Office, not serving the person in it.

However, he is still very interested in how things work, or don’t work, in Washington, as he told CNN last year. He shared an interview with his old colleague and sparring partner Trent Lott, the former Republican senator from Mississippi. Which offers a chance to share this piece I wrote five years ago about the two men for my old Montana newspaper.

I doubt Daschle will serve in the White House in any capacity, but he will likely remain an influential voice in the next four years.

When I asked for a final confirmation that he was not interested in the chief of staff’s post, and it was safe to report that, his answer was succinct: “Yes,” he wrote.

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.

Tim Johnson’s advice: Stay in the middle

Sen. Tim Johnson said he isn’t in the business of helping the Republican Party, but he did offer a few thoughts about its tough Election Night, nationally that is.

“The problem with the Republicans was their primary,” Johnson, a moderate Democrat who has thrived in bright red South Dakota, said after a Tuesday meeting with the South Dakota Farmers Union, and some farmers, ranchers and others in the ag industry.

Politics popped up after the farm bill discussion, and Johnson said he feels the GOP was forced too far to the right in the spring, and Mitt Romney ended up viewed as a right winger by enough voters to doom his chances.

“I have spent a lifetime going to the middle and I think the extremes don’t make any sense at all,” he said. “That’s my opinion.”

Johnson said he knows South Dakota Democrats had another bad year, with losses in all statewide races, and another drubbing in legislative races. “We’ll be back,” he said with a sunny smile.

He said he hopes his former staffer Matt Varilek, who lost a bid for the state’s sole House seat, and Matt McGovern, who was beaten in a bid for a PUC seat, run for office again. Johnson said he wasn’t sure if Varilek would come back to work for him.

“Give him time,” he said. “He deserves the rest.”

Johnson passed on the question when he would announce his plans for 2014. Will he seek a fourth term in the Senate, or retired unbeaten in nearly 40 years in elective office? He didn’t give me an exclusive on that.

“I’m not done with the lame-duck session yet,” Johnson said. “There’s plenty of time. Sometime next year.”

Noem opts out of GOP leadership role

Rep. Kristi Noem will not seek a new term as a member of the House of Representatives leadership team, The Daily Republic first reported tonight.

She was a freshman liaison to the House leadership, which was hailed in 2011 as a sign of her immediate acceptance by Speaker John Boehner and other Republican leaders. But it almost became a negative for her when the farm bill stalled this summer, and her Democratic opponent, Matt “Corn Dog” Varilek, assailed her for not working to get the bill passed.

Noem waffled, but finally went against the House leaders and was the first freshman to sign a petition to try to force a vote on the farm bill. It didn’t happen, but it allowed her to blunt Varilek’s criticism and show she was working for South Dakota farmers and ranchers.

Did she know she had no chance? Did the speaker give her a shove? Is she making other plans for her time and energy? Was she frightened by the idea of more committee meetings?

Today, Noem sent this letter to the large Republican class of 2010:

Freshman Class Colleagues:

For the last two years, I have been humbled to serve as one of the freshmen liaisons to our House leadership team. During that time, I have worked hard to listen to all of you and represent our voices at the leadership table. While none of us believe we have achieved everything we set out to do over the last two years, together as a class we played a large role in changing the conversation in Washington. That is something we can all be proud of.
As we prepare for conference leadership elections next Wednesday, I have decided that I will not run for the sophomore class leadership position. The strength of our class lies largely within our diversified backgrounds and life experiences. As such, I have no doubt our class will be well represented by whoever we choose to fill that position.
It is an honor to serve with each of you. I look forward to working with you as we continue offering solutions to the serious challenges facing our nation.

Politics, viral videos and corn dogs

Jeff Barth would be proud.

The Democratic candidate for Congress gained a lot of attention — but not that many votes — with a compelling, bizarre and memorable campaign video that “went viral” this spring.

Now, the Democrat who defeated him in a landslide in the June primary, Matt Varilek, is using a video intended to attack him, made by the South Dakota Republican Party, as a weapon. Varilek aims to mock his opponent, Rep. Kristi Noem, for trying to use this against him. It too has “gone viral,” which despite its ominous sound is a very good thing indeed for videos.

The GOP video, which runs more than 2 minutes, paints Varilek as a guy who studied overseas, speaks at UN gatherings and — horrors! — drinks beer and eats corn dogs! Those last two caught people’s ear, and the video was posted by several liberal websites, who also pointed out that it seemed as if Noem and her backers were condemning Varilek for seeking a quality education.

As he noted in a stop at our office, he did attend school in Scotland and England, but in part on a Rotary scholarship. Varilek said it’s almost comical that he is being painted as an outsider when he was just a South Dakota guy trying to get a good education.

The video, which both Varilek and Noem are urging people to watch, is getting media attention in South Dakota and across the nation. The AP did a story on it Monday.

Not to be topped, Noem’s campaign just released a new Halloween-themed video that seeks to mock Varilek while also painting him as a tax-and-spend liberal.

“Matt Varilek’s entire campaign has been a trick on South Dakota families and a treat for Washington liberals like Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama,” said Tom Erickson, Noem’s campaign manager. “On the campaign trail, Matt Varilek repeats false attacks and wild exaggerations instead of talking about how he supports the Obama-Pelosi agenda that would tax small businesses and middle class families as well as rob Medicare to pay for ObamaCare.”

It’s all pretty silly, but it has caught some people’s ears and eyes. I still think the best, and funniest, one of the bunch is Barth’s, and despite it he finished a poor second in the Democratic Party June primary.

Maybe if he had added a corn dog or two …