District 17 Sen. Eldon Nygaard found time to make a quick phone call after the Plain Talk's press deadline last week as he was entering the chambers in the state capitol in Pierre to hear Gov. Dennis Daugaard's first speech before members of both legislative bodies.
Nygaard, who had served District 17 as a Democratic member of the South Dakota House since 2006, was in the news in early November after being one of few Democrats in the state to win elective office.
He made even bigger headlines two weeks later when he suddenly announced that he was switching parties to make the massive majority enjoyed by Republicans in the South Dakota Senate grow just a bit larger.
His transfer now leaves only five Democrats in the state Senate.
Nygaard has limited his discussions about his party switch primarily to one-to-one talks with constituents. The state Republican Party quickly announced his decision on Nov. 18 to join their ranks; attempts to reach him by phone afterwards were unsuccessful.
He returned the Plain Talk's phone call on Jan. 11, the opening day of the legislative session, just moments before the governor arrived to give his State of the State speech.
Nygaard admitted he was still adjusting to the atmosphere in the Senate, where there is just as much work to do, but fewer members than in the House.
I used to be on two committees (while in the House), and here on the Senate side, Im on three, he said. Theres the same amount of work and half the people to do it.
As to the differences between the two situations, having switched (parties), I have tried to make it clear that my decision came after the election in which the people of South Dakota clearly showed that they wanted to get things done, and I share those feelings.
Nygaards tone has changed little since Nov. 18, when he issued this statement in a press release announcing his decision to join the Republican Party:
In my new role as a member of the Republican State Senate Caucus, I will continue to reach across the aisle to find solutions that work for my district and the people of South Dakota.
This election brought a lot of changes across South Dakota and the nation. Voters sent a message to all elected officials they want action and they want change. I firmly believe that I can represent my districts needs in Pierre more effectively as a member of the Republican Party. My past four years in the House have been marked by a bi-partisan approach to working for my district and the people of South Dakota.
On Jan. 11, while waiting for Gov. Daugaard's arrival, he noted, I really felt that when you're elected, you represent everyone in your district, no matter what party affiliation they have, he said. I've never discriminated against anyone because of their political affiliation during my time representing District 17, and I saw that in the next two years, the majority party is going to carry the brunt of the load here in Pierre.
I think thats what representative government is all about, Nygaard said. Time is critical in South Dakota in solving our state's budgetary needs. We just opened the session today and there are already 17 bills before the Senate Commerce and Energy Committee.
Nygaard is vice chairman of that committee. He's also a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the Senate Taxation Committee.
This is going to be an active session that will have impacts on all facets of society across the state, he said.
After the state Republican Party's Nov. 18 announcement that Nygaard had switched parties, the state Democratic Party issued a press release of its own, indicating that the party switch came after the Vermillion legislator had a tiff with fellow state Democrats.
The Democratic Party's statement indicated that Nygaard was was frustrated with his minority party colleagues in the state Senate, and also stated that the Vermillion lawmaker has let down District 17 voters who supported him.
The release states that Nygaard lost a leadership election in the Democratic caucus last Saturday (Nov. 13), and now the Democrats have lost him to the Republican Party. Still, party leaders say they wish him well and that they'll continue to work with him for the best interests of his district.
State Democratic Party Executive Director Erin McCarrick said in the release, If Eldon wants to put personal gain above what we are fighting for as Democrats and above his district, then the Republican Party should work out just fine. When you dont get your way, the answer is not to take your toys to a different sand box and give up.
Eldon has let down those who voted for him and those who worked for him, including the College Democrats who spent numerous hours volunteering. That is not the message to send to our youth. I dont think well have a problem challenging him and winning in 2012, she said.
That press release, Nygaard said, contains misstatements.
I never once said I was leaving the party because I was not elected chairman, he said. I don't know what precipitated that misstatement. I personally have not responded much to this I've been concentrating on working for the people and I have no problem working with the Republican Party.
Elizabeth Smith, political science professor at the University of South Dakota, could only speculate last November after the initial news report that Nygaard had switched parties.
I think that every office holder, in particular one who is a member of a minority party, asks, 'How can I make a difference?' I think everyone's answer to that is a little bit different, she said.
Speaking in generalities, Smith said some office holders decide to abandon their political party because it has drastically changed. If the party moves way to your right or way to your left, you might look for a party that is more in line with your values.
There is also a strategic consideration for members of the minority party, and you see this with at least some frequency, Smith said. A member of the minority party will say, 'wait a minute; I'm not going to have a seat at the table, I'm not going to get anything done, and so I'm going to move to the majority party.' That's another reason that people change parties.
An office holder having problems with the political party in which they are a member is a third reason that may prompt him or her to switch parties, she said.
Often when an incumbent has a disagreement within their party, they will look around to see if there is a more compatible place in some other party, or perhaps as an independent, Smith said.
Office holders who switch parties often face immediate challenges. Voters who have a lot of party loyalty, of course, have reason to wonder, she said, and I think those loyal voters often become upset and become angry when their elected official switches parties.
And of course, for the person who switches, there's always the question of trust in the new party. To what extent are members of the new party going to believe that you are a real member of the party, because, after all, you were on the opposition side?
Smith has observed, in the decade or so that she has lived in South Dakota, that party switching among the state's politicians is not uncommon.
Scott Heidepriem is a great example, she said. He was a party switcher who decided to run for governor as a Democrat, as relatively new party member. I watch as young South Dakotans try to figure out their party affiliation, and the truth in South Dakota is that if you are politically ambitious, you would be wise to choose the Republican Party.
It may or it may not perfectly match your ideology, but if you're ambitious, that's where you go, Smith said. The likelihood of ever having a state office (in South Dakota) if you are a Democrat is just not so great.
The South Dakota Democratic Party, she believes, is going to have to do some serious searching to find its heart and soul. We are surrounded by states where Democrats actually can do well, so it's not something about the upper Midwest that causes South Dakota to be so Republican. It may very well have something to do with a dysfunctional Democratic Party that has some rebuilding to undertake over the next few years.
It's a party that is not functioning particularly well right now, Smith said, and probably needs some reforming.
Nygaard knows there will come a time in the near future, perhaps at a cracker barrel legislative meeting in Vermillion, where he will be confronted by local, unhappy Democrats.
When I was flying helicopters in Vietnam, I got shot at a lot, he said. I was shot down four times. And so I don't think a cracker barrel meeting is going to be a big deal for me.
And I was asked tough questions by constituents when I was a Democrat, he said. I think when all is said and done, it's all about how you represent your constituents, and I'm still determined to do the best job possible.