Between the Lines

Between the Lines by David Lias The tug of war has finally ended.

University of South Dakota President James Abbott has been pulled by some students and staff at USD, hoping to convince him to stay at the institution.

There are other people in South Dakota, however, who have been persistent in trying to sway him to take on a much greater leadership role in the state.

They want Abbott to be our next governor. That no doubt is a major topic of discussion at this week's South Dakota Board of Regents meeting.

The regents were scheduled to meet in executive session Thursday. By the time you're reading this, Abbott will have told the regents his intentions � that he plans to become a candidate and seek the Democratic nomination for governor.

It's tempting to try to persuade Abbott to follow his political ambitions without necessarily jeopardizing his standing as the university's president.

After all, Democrats running for political office in South Dakota historically haven't had a highly successful track record in recent years, especially for positions in the Legislature and the state's executive branch.

Surprisingly, Abbott's run for governor wouldn't necessarily have to end his tenure as USD president. State law permits it.

Under the title "Right of instructors and employees to run for office," the statute reads:

"No instructor, teacher or other employee of any jurisdiction of the board of regents shall lose his job or status on the job for becoming a candidate for any public office if it does not entail neglect of duty."

One could only imagine the number of possible scenarios that Abbott and the regents could be discussing as this column is being written.

USD faithful may be hoping that Abbott and the regents strike a compromise that will allow him to keep his leadership role at the university while pursuing the gubernatorial nomination.

Mix a bit of realism into this scenario, however, and it seems very unlikely that Abbott will be able to keep his job as president.

We say this for two reasons:

1) Running for governor in a state as diverse and large as South Dakota is a full time job. It's hard to imagine Abbott keeping a grueling campaign schedule and managing the affairs of the university at the same time.

2) We like Abbott's chances. Let's face it, after the primary election in early June 2002, a lot of potential political candidates will pack their bags and head for home, their campaigns stopped in their tracks when the final voter tally shows them coming up short in their quests for the gubernatorial nomination.

Abbott, who has successfully campaigned for and served in the Legislature, has first-hand knowledge of how tough it is to run a statewide race.

Before being named USD president, he campaigned for the Democratic U.S. House nomination, and later, was Jim Beddow's running mate when the Mitchell Democrat ran against Bill Janklow in 1994.

Neither bid for office was successful, but no doubt they served as valuable learning experiences.

And, we've personally witnessed something about the man that would quickly send the other announced and potential gubernatorial candidates packing.

Abbott, his wife Colette, and the couple's three daughters took their places at the back of a room in the Coyote Student Center in February 1997.

They were surrounded by a throng of print and video reporters, armed with cameras and flashes and blinding lights.

The room was packed � standing room only � with students, university officials, Vermillion citizens and regents.

The regents had called a press conference to make a special announcement concerning the university's future.

The electricity in the room was so thick you could cut it with a knife. Citizens were genuinely thrilled with the news they were about to hear.

USD was to receive a new, dynamic leader.

It became clear, as Abbott began to address the crowd, that the electricity wasn't being generated by the highly-charged audience.

The spark came from Abbott.

That will be hard to beat.

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