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Gov. Noem has demanding leadership style that could lead to staff tournover

(South Dakota News Watch) Lee Schoenbeck, a power broker in the South Dakota Legislature as President Pro Tempore of the Senate, had a telling response when asked about the record pace of staff turnover in Gov. Kristi Noem’s administration, including a prolonged search for a sixth chief of staff less than five years after entering office.

“I don’t communicate with them, so it doesn’t concern me,” Schoenbeck, a Watertown Republican entering his final legislative session in 2024, told News Watch. “The governor made some statements last year that she attributed to me that I thought were not accurate, so I find it more comfortable just to not talk to her.”

In most South Dakota political eras, stony silence between a Republican governor and her party’s most prominent legislator would represent a significant chasm. In Noem’s administration, highlighted by a revolving door of key personnel, a dearth of political allies and as much attention to national interests as day-to-day operations in Pierre, keeping one’s distance has become the norm.

Despite the governor’s strong approval ratings, buoyed by her “freedom”-focused approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, legislators, lobbyists and other officials interviewed by News Watch point to turbulence behind the scenes in the administration with more than three years left in her second and final term.

Noem has struggled to find a sixth chief of staff after the June departure of Florida native Mark Miller, her former general counsel and anti-abortion czar who returned to the Pacific Legal Foundation, his former employer. His exit came on the heels of a rocky 2023 legislative session following Noem’s re-election last November with 62% of the vote over Democrat Jamie Smith.

Also gone is deputy chief of staff Rachel Oglesby, a Maryland native who was seen as Miller’s likely successor before bolting in May to work for the Center for the American Worker in Washington, a division of the America First Policy Institute.

The departures of Miller and Oglesby continue a trend of out-of-state staffers coming and going from the governor’s office, detached from the institutional knowledge and relationship-building that past aides leveraged to pursue policy goals.

“It’s not a concern of mine, but it sure should be a concern to the governor,” Schoenbeck said.

“To have a lack of staffers that know South Dakota and understand the issues – that ought to concern her a lot. It’s a tough gig being Kristi Noem’s chief staff. I don’t think it’s a job that has a long shelf life. (Miller) is an easy-going guy and probably had the right personality to handle that for as long as he did.”

Miller declined an interview request from News Watch. 

Oglesby sent an emailed statement that read: “I was honored to work for Governor Noem and absolutely love the people I got to work with every day. I’m very proud of what we were able to accomplish, from universal licensing recognition to a historic investment in broadband across the state. Under Governor Noem’s continued leadership, her team will do even more good for the people of South Dakota. It was a difficult decision to leave, but I’m happy to be back home, close to family, and continuing to advance good policy at the America First Policy Institute.”

Noem’s leadership style can be ‘demanding’

Schoenbeck said that Oglesby was a “real talent” and will be missed. The fact that she left at a time when the chief of staff position was becoming available reflects the turbulent nature of working under Noem, a former state legislator and U.S. Representative whose leadership style is characterized as “demanding” by those who know her well. 

“The governor is hardworking all of the time, and (chief of staff) is a very demanding job,” said former Republican House Speaker Tim Rave, who worked closely with Noem in the Legislature before she won her U.S. House seat in 2010.  

“I can’t imagine the demand that puts on your personal schedule. I don’t know how long is not enough or too long or whatever, but (Noem) is on the go all the time and it’s demanding. That doesn’t mean it’s good or bad. It just is what it is.”

There has also been upheaval in Noem’s cabinet, with Governor’s Office of Economic Development Commissioner Steve Westra, Health Secretary Joan Adam, Education Secretary Tiffany Sanderson and Social Services Secretary Laurie Gill all leaving in the past year.

Westra, a Sioux Falls businessman and former state legislator who resigned in April, told News Watch that the ambitious nature of Noem’s agenda contributes to staff and cabinet turnover.

“The time in office for any elected official is short,” said Westra, who served on Noem’s transition team following the 2018 election. 

“When you have a busy agenda and you want to do a lot of things, you run quickly. In doing so, let’s be honest, sometimes there’s a burnout factor. Public service can be tough and it’s also very thankless.”

Others note the fact that Noem suffered several embarrassing setbacks in the last legislative session, including a failure to fulfill her campaign pledge to repeal the state grocery tax. Lawmakers from her own party also rejected efforts – spearheaded by Oglesby – to expand paid family leave for state workers along with grant funding for private businesses.

That failed proposal was based on a program in New Hampshire, home base of informal policy advisor and former Donald Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who remains part of Noem’s increasingly limited inner circle.

Noem ‘not in a rush’ to name new chief of staff

Several individuals from Noem’s cabinet and staff and the private sector have turned down the job of chief of staff since Miller’s departure, News Watch’s analysis found. That delay in filling a key role has complicated Noem’s attempts to bolster her executive stature as she eyes her next political chapter and the upcoming session in Pierre.

Multiple interview requests from News Watch to Ian Fury, the governor’s communications director, went unanswered. Noem told reporters during a July 12 press conference that she’s “not in a rush” to name a new chief of staff. 

“We’ve got a great team and I think we are functioning very, very well,” she said. “So you may have to wait a while.”

Westra didn’t give a firm yes or no when asked if he was offered the chief of staff job, pivoting back to economic development gains under Noem. He called news reports “stupid” that tied his GOED resignation to friction between the governor’s office and legislators on how to allocate $200 million in housing infrastructure funding.

“My leaving had nothing to do with that,” said Westra. “When I was part of the governor’s team at the very beginning, I committed one year to her, and I ended up putting in five. I’m very proud of that time and what we were able to accomplish.”

Rave, president of the South Dakota Board of Regents and CEO of the South Dakota Association of Healthcare Organizations, declined to call Noem’s staff turmoil a problem. 

But he noted that reliance on aides who lack South Dakota backgrounds can complicate the process of working with legislators and coordinating state agencies.

“Someone coming from out of state certainly faces hurdles that someone from in state does not – no one can argue that,” Rave told News Watch. “It’s no different from saying, ‘Tim, you know about South Dakota politics – why don’t you go to California, and I want you to understand all the nuances of the California Legislature and try to navigate that.’ So it’s hard. South Dakota is very relationship driven. You come in with some hurdles.”

It would help if she wasn’t always the victim’

Critics point to the administration’s fumbling of the carbon pipeline project controversy, putting Noem in a quandary between ethanol advancements and the rights of South Dakota landowners. 

The governor has blamed legislators for failing to pass bills addressing eminent domain during the 2023 session, rankling those who accuse her of staying on the sidelines out of political expediency rather than leading on the issue.

“It would help if she wasn’t always the victim and actually owned up to mistakes that she’s made,” said South Dakota Freedom Caucus chair and Republican Rep. Aaron Aylward from Harrisburg. He supported legislation to prohibit the use of eminent domain to access land for carbon pipelines. 

“She could have said, ‘I know these landowners are getting tread upon, and we do need to change state law,’ but she doesn’t go down that road. She blames it on the Legislature. I’m not sure who’s advising her, but no matter what the issue is, it’s always somebody else’s fault.”

Schoenbeck, a civil lawyer whose legislative experience dates to 1995, said he doesn’t think Miller and Oglesby were scapegoated for Noem’s recent legislative stumbles. He instead mentioned Noem’s national ambitions impacting the issues she prioritizes and the people she hires.

“I always assumed that they came here because they saw some national opportunity, and that star has clearly faded,” Schoenbeck said. “So they moved on to other opportunities.”

Turnover at chief of staff position unprecedented

The governor’s chief of staff is a point person on legislative strategy, office management and coordination of executive agencies such as the Bureau of Finance and Management and Department of Education. 

The turnover at this vital leadership position under Noem’s administration is unprecedented since the role became prominent in South Dakota in the 1970s, as is the fact that the job is currently vacant.

Of Noem’s most recent predecessors, Dennis Daugaard had two chiefs of staff (Dusty Johnson and Tony Venhuizen) and Mike Rounds had three (Rob Skonsberg, Neil Fulton and Tom Dravland). Noem has had five so far: Herb Jones (2019), Josh Shields (2019), Venhuizen (2020-21), Aaron Scheibe (2021) and Miller (2021-23).

The job is different under Noem than past governors because of her focus on national politics, evidenced by frequent appearances on Fox News and other conservative outlets and flights to GOP fundraisers and rallies. 

Lewandowski’s influence, including the rollout of Noem’s campaign pledge to repeal the grocery tax as the 2022 election approached, has made it more difficult at times to establish consistent messaging and chains of command within the executive staff.

“Nobody’s home” was a common refrain of those interviewed by News Watch, referencing a lack of clarity on who to speak with on legislative or procedural matters.

“It’s about a lack of ongoing relationships,” said Sen. Reynold Nesiba, a Sioux Falls Democrat. 

“So much of effective legislation in Pierre is a result of people who know each other, have discussions, meet over coffee, over a beer, even if it’s a member of the other party. You at least have somebody to work with. The problem with the governor’s office is that there’s been so much turnover that there’s no one to have that connection with.”

Governor weighs next move in political career

Noem has dismissed the possibility of a 2024 presidential run, noting that former President Donald Trump is currently dominating the Republican field. But the 51-year-old Castlewood native has been mentioned as a potential vice-presidential nominee or Cabinet appointee should Trump re-enter the White House.

Noem’s appearance in April at the National Rifle Association convention in Indianapolis has also fueled speculation that she would accept a leadership role in that organization if offered. 

At the event, she joined CEO Wayne LaPierre on stage and signed an executive order blocking state agencies from contracting with banks that discriminate against gun manufacturers.  

The last South Dakota governor to voluntarily leave office during a term of office was Democrat Dick Kneip, who resigned in July 1978 after being appointed U.S. Ambassador to Singapore by President Jimmy Carter. 

If Noem were to leave Pierre for another job or campaign, Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden would take over as top executive.

Noem also could remain in office and run for U.S. Senate in 2026. Her supporters touted a Kaplan Strategies poll of Republican voters released in June that showed her with a lead of 53% to 26% over incumbent Rounds. 

Rounds, Johnson, Attorney General Marty Jackley and Rhoden are seen as potential candidates for the governor’s office in 2026.

For Noem, any national political pursuit means minding the GOP’s increasingly influential far-right flank. The governor has changed course or taken action on issues such as transgender sports legislation or race-based curriculum based on analysis or criticism from conservative commentators, even at the expense of seasoned personnel.

Adam resigned abruptly as Secretary of Health last December after the Daily Signal, a media arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, reported that the state had signed a $136,000 contract with the Transformation Project, a Sioux Falls-based organization that works with transgender youth and their families. 

The Saturday night before Adam’s Monday resignation, Fury told Dakota News Now that Noem, who said she was previously unaware of the contract, had a “very frank conversation” with Adam.

Schoenbeck: Noem plays to the far-right audience

Noem’s focus on “culture war” concerns also was evident in a letter to the Board of Regents on May 25 that criticized low graduation rates from South Dakota’s public universities. 

Beyond addressing that issue, the letter challenged the board to “prohibit drag shows,” “remove all references to preferred pronouns” and “ensure there is no money coming into our educational system from China.”

The letter, which included a footnote to the Daily Caller, a far-right news site founded by Tucker Carlson, announced that Noem was setting up a whistleblower hotline for “students, parents, taxpayers and anyone who wants to continuable (sic) to transparency and accountability within our institutions.”

Asked by Republican Rep. Will Mortenson of Pierre at a Board of Regents meeting in June whether political activism was seeping into South Dakota universities, Rave responded by saying that “no is the short answer.” 

He elaborated when asked by News Watch if he is concerned as BOR president about “liberal ideologies” being allowed to “poison” state universities, as the governor claimed in the opening sentence of her letter.

“In a company that has 5,000 employees, do some people stray a little bit once in a while? Sure,” Rave said. “That’s why you have good policies and procedures to bring them back in line, and I think we’re in a good spot. I don’t think there’s widespread ‘woke-ism’ rampant across our regental system. I feel like we have good professors, great administrations and world class students, and as the governing board we’re here to guide it and move it forward.”

Schoenbeck called Noem’s letter to the Board of Regents “ridiculous.” 

He compared it to her veto of a 2023 bill that sought to update the Uniform Commercial Code to give cryptocurrency legal standing and allow banks to use it as collateral for loans. Noem sided with the far-right Freedom Caucus in questioning whether the move would “allow the federal government to control our currency and thus control people,” a view she shared with ultra-conservative TV anchors Carlson and Glenn Beck the same day as her veto.

“It plays to that audience,” Schoenbeck told News Watch. 

“Her veto of the Uniform Commercial Code was barely comprehensible to anyone who understands English. And that kind of stuff plays to a very narrow segment of a strange part of the dark world. But it’s not South Dakota. It’s not my state.”

Daugaard prioritized state issues over national concerns

In his 2018 farewell address after two terms as governor, Daugaard touted his doctrine of pragmatic, budget-based politics rather than a stubborn partisan approach.

“In South Dakota, we don’t let ideology get in the way of solving problems, and we don’t let politics get in the way of professionalism, respect and friendship,” Daugaard said in the speech to lawmakers. “That’s why our state works. That’s why our Legislature works, and as I end 22 years of service in this Capitol, I thank you all for that. I hope that never changes.”

He didn’t get his wish. 

Noem’s governing approach offers a stark contrast to Daugaard’s time in office, each with its own merits, depending on political perspective. 

Daugaard had no ambition for higher office, which made him much less answerable to national media outlets or activists. He saw the absence of a TV studio at the Capitol Building – something that Noem quickly addressed when she took office – as a convenient way to get out of doing national interviews.

In his second term, after being re-elected by 70.5% of the vote in one of the biggest landslides in state gubernatorial history, Daugaard teamed with Schoenbeck to muscle through a sales tax increase for education funding. He also pushed unsuccessfully for Medicaid expansion against the will of most Republican legislators and vetoed a controversial transgender bathroom bill, noting that the measure supported by conservative Christian groups didn’t address “any pressing issue concerning the school districts of South Dakota.”

Nathan Sanderson, who served on Daugaard’s executive team as policy and operations director, said that even with this focus on state matters over partisan aims, the governor started to see the importance of national engagement as his time in office progressed.

“Especially in his first term, (Daugaard) didn’t value national engagement very much,” said Sanderson, now executive director of the South Dakota Retailers Association. 

“He wouldn’t go out of his way to attend a lot of out-of-state meetings. But as he got into his second term, he was chair of the Western Governors Association, stressing workforce initiatives. And he worked with the Department of Transportation on railroad issues and the Department of Defense on base re-alignments. He came to realize that there was value in some of those connections.

“Counter that with Gov. Noem, who understood from the get-go that having those relationships with people in federal agencies or Congress or the executive branch can reap benefits if you’re looking to get things done for your state. So we’re talking about governors with different perspectives, and the personalities of their chiefs of staff reflected those differences.”

Noem’s first years as governor involved learning curves

Daugaard tabbed Johnson, longtime state GOP politico and former Public Utilities Commissioner, as chief of operations while dividing responsibilities for various state agencies among trusted executive staff. But the leadership tone was set by Daugaard himself, whose legislative experience and relationships allowed him to hit the ground running.

“Daugaard was lieutenant governor for eight years immediately prior to coming into office, meaning he presided over the Senate for eight full years,” said Sanderson. 

“He knew a lot of the sitting senators and knew them well. That’s a fundamentally different situation than (Noem), who spent eight years in the U.S. House prior to becoming governor. Her relationship with the Legislature is naturally going to be different.”

Noem and her aides have blamed the administration’s early struggles on extreme weather, noting that federal disasters were declared in 58 of 66 counties and on three reservations in 2019 due to tornadoes and flooding.  

Others highlighted Noem’s inexperience and staffing decisions to explain misfires such as the much-ridiculed “Meth. We’re on It” ad campaign, an ill-fated crusade against hemp legislation and legal setbacks the state incurred for cracking down on potential Keystone XL pipeline protests, which led the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council to temporarily ban her from the Pine Ridge Reservation.

By the time COVID-19 hit South Dakota in March 2020, Noem was on her third chief of staff after a little more than a year in office. She began to look outside South Dakota for policy and communications personnel, all of whom had to polish up on procedures and personalities, creating a cycle of renewal that didn’t always meet the urgency of events on the ground.

“Every time there’s turnover, you lose something in the transfer,” said Sanderson.

Holdovers in Noem administration provide balance

Experienced hands might be hard to find in the Noem administration, but they do exist. 

The list starts with Rhoden, a West River rancher and former South Dakota House majority leader whose legislative experience stretches back more than two decades. He remains close to the governor and often serves as intermediary to those whose connections to Noem have cooled.

“If I have any questions, I contact Larry,” said Schoenbeck.

Also in the leadership circle is Jim Terwilliger, who heads the Bureau of Finance and Management after being shifted over from his role as Revenue secretary. The budget wonk worked in Finance for Rounds and Daugaard and earned points from Noem by being a loyal soldier during the administration’s losing battle for the grocery tax cut.

Mike Houdyshell, who took over as director of Revenue, has been with the department for more than a decade and has kept things on track after Terwilliger left, while Jim Hagen keeps a steady hand as Tourism secretary, a job he has held since 2011. Others mentioned as responsive and capable in the administration are Darren Seeley, who runs the Bureau of Human Resources, general counsel Katie Hruska, and senior policy advisors Ryan Brunner and Laura Ringling.

Noem’s legislative victories are few

Shuffling of staff elsewhere, however, has hindered the administration’s pursuit of legislative wins. 

Some view that as the symptom of a larger problem: Noem’s lack of dedication to policy matters. Never was it more evident than the promised grocery tax repeal, which started as a splashy campaign reveal but lacked coalition-building to address concerns that the state’s rosy fiscal outlook was temporary – a byproduct of pandemic-related federal stimulus and sales tax receipts augmented by inflation.

The governor’s public feud with Schoenbeck, a vocal opponent of the tax cut, intensified when Noem claimed that she favored the grocery tax repeal when it failed in 2022, sparking a war of words in which she and Schoenbeck accused each other of lying. 

State lawmakers rebuffed Noem’s 2023 proposal and instead passed a temporary reduction in the overall state sales tax from 4.5% to 4.2%.

“The lack of enduring staff was a contributing factor to the governor’s bill not getting passed,” said Nesiba, an Augustana College economics professor who supported the proposal. 

“She and her staff didn’t have relationships with legislators, including those of her own party, to persuade them and impress upon them that this was a priority for the governor’s office and that we had the funds to be able to handle it. They just didn’t get it done.”

Legislators say face-to-face meetings with Noem are rare

Under Rounds and Daugaard, the push for policy began the spring following a legislative session. Problems were pinpointed and solutions explored by a group of legislators, private-sector stakeholders, executive agency representatives and governor’s staff. 

By the time the next session arrived, a consensus had been established with legislative sponsors, budgetary impacts and talking points. That process has been lacking under Noem, according to those who spoke with News Watch.

Aylward, a frequent Noem critic along with his Freedom Caucus colleagues, said his requests for a face-to-face meeting with the governor to discuss legislative issues have been denied.

“Before last session started, I wanted to set something up, even if it was a half-hour talk with the governor,” Aylward said. “I tried a couple times and there was no interest whatsoever. Maybe she was too busy, or she just didn’t want to give me the time of day. She does do legislative (conference) calls, but it would go a long way to actually sit down, shake somebody’s hand and look them in the eye, rather than just a conference call.”

Nesiba recalled Daugaard inviting appropriators to the governor’s mansion on the eve of the revenue forecast along with Legislative Research Council fiscal staff and Bureau of Finance Management representatives. They would have dinner and discuss revenue estimates so there were no surprises when they held a public hearing the next day in the appropriations room.

“No question was too dumb,” recalled Nesiba. “It made the budget-setting a better process. That has not happened at all under the Noem administration.”

When face-to-face communication does occur, results can be positive. 

Nesiba was among a group of Democratic leaders who had breakfast with Noem and her staff the day before the governor’s budget address in December 2022. They talked about expanding postpartum care for women in South Dakota under Medicaid from 60 days to 12 months using a federal provision of the American Rescue Plan Act, and she followed through on it.

“It was the last time I had a meeting like that with her and her staff,” Nesiba said.

Noem’s pandemic response boosts popularity

Noem’s supporters believe her legacy will be tied less to policy engagement and more to her handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps the most significant public health threat in South Dakota history.

After closing schools and calling for a temporary shutdown of the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, where surging cases made it the No. 1 hot spot in the country, Noem reversed course in April 2020, refusing calls for statewide shutdowns and mask mandates and unveiling a “back to normal” plan for businesses and residents.

The hands-off approach drew praise from conservative media outlets and criticism from left-leaning pundits, who cite a death toll of 3,262 South Dakotans. The state ranked 22nd nationally in most deaths per 100,000 residents, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Noem’s national profile and status within Trump’s orbit surged in the summer of 2020, leading to a speaking slot at the Republican National Convention in Washington.

Her selling of South Dakota as a land of opportunity appears to have paid dividends. That includes a $5 million “Freedom Works Here” ad campaign launched in June, starring Noem trying to recruit workers.  

South Dakota ranked fifth in percentage of population growth among all states from July 1, 2021, to July 1, 2022, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The state had 10,422 new business applications in 2022, which ranked just 37th per capita among U.S. states but represented a 35% increase from 2019.

“Businesses recognized what was happening in South Dakota compared to other states that were not as open,” said Westra. 

“The key part to any successful business is predictability, and when you don’t know what tomorrow will bring, that makes it hard to be successful. Gov. Noem’s leadership allowed them to operate freely, and that was huge.”

Right place at right time’

A Morning Consult poll released in July showed Noem with a 63% percent approval rating in South Dakota, making her the sixth most popular governor.

“Quite often, how we remember a governor is judged later on in their administration rather than earlier,” said Sanderson. “And the way that a lot of people judge the effectiveness is how you handle major events and natural disasters, not necessarily whether you get every single policy thing passed.”

Whether Noem’s laissez-faire approach to COVID-19 is as indelible as Bill Janklow’s megaphone-wielding actions after the Spencer tornado of 1998 is yet to be seen. Other highlights of her tenure include major investments in broadband expansion and water projects in South Dakota, advancements largely tied to federal funding through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

“Gov. Noem has benefited from the COVID crisis and the tens of billions of dollars that came from the Trump and Biden administrations to states across the country that made her look good,” said Nesiba. “That part of her legacy is a false legacy. It wasn’t a result of her policy decisions. It was merely a matter of being in the right place at the right time.”

— This article was produced by South Dakota News Watch, a non-profit journalism organization located online at sdnewswatch.org.