Matt Michels got a hero's welcome when he and Lt. Gov. Dennis Daugaard appeared at the Technical Education Center last Thursday afternoon.
Earlier in the day, Daugaard, who is the Republican nominee for governor on the November ballot, announced that Michels would be his running mate. Following stops in Sioux Falls and Rapid City to promote the selection, the duo made its way to Michels' hometown of Yankton to thank family and friends for their support. A standing-room only crowd in the Yankton Community Meeting Room greeted them with enthusiastic applause.
Daugaard told the local crowd that he had gotten to know Michels during the time they spent together in the state Legislature. Michels, an attorney who serves as general counsel for Avera Health, represented District 18 as a member of the South Dakota House of Representatives for eight years, from 1999 to 2006. Four of those years were spent as Speaker of the House.
"I learned that (Michels) was a man of intelligence, of great emotional maturity," Daugaard said. "Most importantly, he has the values that I have. He knows that family is important, community is important. At the end of the day … it's not how much is in your bank account or what your house looks like or what your clothes are, it's the people you?ve helped along the way and the relationships you've made along the way that matter most in life. All those things together are important. Those things led me to believe that if I am fortunate enough to be elected governor of South Dakota and something happens to me … I would want a man like Matt Michels to be leading South Dakota."
Michels, who is a graduate of Vermillion High School and the University of South Dakota, said the turn of events have been "overwhelming."
He added, "Dennis has the vision and the values and the ethics and the energy to lead us to build a stronger South Dakota. He is dedicated not only to South Dakota, but especially to South Dakotans in need and moving our state forward."
Not everyone was enthusiastic about last Thursday's announcement of Michels as the lieutenant governor candidate.
Erin McCarrick, executive director of the South Dakota Democratic Party, stated in a press release that the selection "suggests business as usual from two political insiders" and "appears to be the follow-through on a deal Daugaard reportedly made with Michels in order to keep the former legislator from Yankton from running against Daugaard for the Republican nomination for governor."
McCarrick also criticized Michels' support of the 2006 abortion ban. Speaking with reporters after the event in Yankton, Michels dismissed the claim that he and Daugaard had struck a deal. He called his decision not to run for governor one of the most difficult he had ever made.
"Dennis and I talked because he is a gentleman," Michels said. "He told me he was going to run, and he was going after some of the same supporters I had. Frankly, I had a great number of supporters from my legislative days. He was very respectful and did not come to Yankton County. I said, '(My wife and I) haven't made up our mind because of family issues, decisions and concerns.' Frankly, I just didn't have the fire in my belly (to run), and it was pretty shocking to me when I went through that."
Michels said the question of him being Daugaard's running mate wasn't officially raised until this past weekend. Daugaard was vacationing in Yankton and asked Michels to meet at Magilly's Lakeside Eatery.
"We sat down, had some ice tea, and he asked if I'd be interested," Michels recalled. "I said, 'Absolutely.'"
Daugaard told reporters that choosing Michels could have been a quick, easy choice, but he went through a thorough process instead.
"I tried to be fair to myself and other people who were interested," he said. "There were some people who approached me during the campaign and said, 'I'd like to be considered for lieutenant governor.' There were other people who I met along the way and had known over the years that I knew I should also consider."
Eventually, Daugaard consulted people he trusted for advice – and all of them included Michels on their short list of candidates.
"That was the only person for whom that was true," Daugaard said. "I tried to create a list of qualities, pro and con, for each candidate. In the end, it wasn't very hard. In the end, Matt rose to the top pretty quickly. He's a quality guy, a man I trust and respect, and he would be a great governor if something happened to me." Political considerations about what Michels would add to the ticket were not part of the process, he added.
"I think people who make choices based on election aims are cheating the people of South Dakota," Daugaard said. "I think, in the end, you've got to be honest about what the job is really about, and that is, if something happens to the governor, they can be there."
The feelings between the two men are mutual.
"He's going to be a great governor," Michels said. "I don't say words I don't mean."