Governor Kristi Noem Strikes Out

“I’m just worried about our perception, said State Senator Reynold Nesiba, a Sioux Falls Democrat, “because I think, generally, South Dakotans are a welcoming people.” 

Nesiba was speaking to reporters about South Dakota House Bill 1217, a measure intended to limit transgender participation in sports. The measure would be uncontroversial in saner times, or at least those during which most people were still aware of the basic physical differences between the sexes. But we no longer live in sane times. 

In 2017 alone, for example, thousands of men ran the 400-meter dash faster than any of the world’s three fastest women, while 275 high school boys in 2018 ran the 400 meter better than the lifetime best of Olympic Team USA member and world-record-holding sprinter Allyson Felix. In other words and contra Senator Nesiba, it is possible to be too welcoming. 

The shadow of Amazon’s proposed Sioux Falls fulfillment center looms in the background of Nesiba’s comments. “I’m frankly a little worried about Amazon,” he said, presumably due to the company’s advocacy of LGBTQ ideology which, no doubt, suggests the possibility of Amazon pulling the plug on a Sioux Falls operation. Nesiba shouldn’t have worried, however, because, for the second time, Republican Governor Kristi Noem has signaled against a bill intended to protect the sexes. 

On March 19, Noem issued a “style and form” veto on H.B. 1217 accompanied by a press release. “Unfortunately, as I have studied this legislation and conferred with legal experts over the past several days, I have become concerned that this bill’s vague and overly broad language could have significant unintended consequences,” she said. What follows appears to be nearly a thousand words of Noem weaseling out of taking a hard stance on this significant social issue. But it’s actually much worse than that. 

“The recommended changes will substantially change the content of the bill,” said South Dakota Senator Maggie Sutton, the lead Republican sponsor in the Senate. “The legality was removed, which leaves the bill with a very weak authority. Removing the collegiate is simply saying that biology matters in high school, but not in college.” Kristen Waggoner, General Counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, echoed Sutton in a statement for the Christian nonprofit. 

“Today, Gov. Noem proposed changes to House Bill 1217 that would eliminate protections for female college athletes outright and gut the ability for all women and girls to have recourse against unfair policies in women’s sports,” Waggoner wrote. “Her misguided attempt to play politics and placate national corporate interests like Amazon is not what we would have expected from this governor.” 

Journalist Bob Mercer notes just how hard Sutton and her allies fought to get this bill to the Senate, “where it won approval 20-15 after supporters used a procedural maneuver known as a smoke-out to force it out of a Senate committee where it had been stopped, and then got it on the Senate debate calendar with no votes to spare.” That kind of tenacity for going against the grain is rare, and rarer still are party heads half as brave as local lawmakers. Indeed, Waggoner probably shouldn’t have expected better from Noem. 

In late January last year, Noem voiced “concerns” about H.B. 1057, which would have outlawed sex-change treatments for children under 16. Under the law, physicians administering surgeries, cross-sex hormones, or puberty blockers to minors would be prosecuted. The governor reacted then as she did now, deploying platitudes and bromides about limited and responsible government to conceal her retreat from yet another battle in the culture war the GOP has long been happy to lose. 

“When you take public policy and try to fill parenting gaps with more government, you have to be very careful about the precedent you’re setting,” Noem told reporters. By early February, H.B. 1057 effectively was dead in the water. NBC News reported that Mike Card, a political science professor at the University of South Dakota, observed that state Democrats effectively had skewered the “open for business” mantra used by Noem in her State of the State address by raising concerns of corporate boycotts in response to the bill. 

While Noem equivocated when it came to medical treatments, she was far more aggressive in tackling the sports bill. 

Republican Representative Rhonda Milstead told Mercer that Noem’s move might have violated the South Dakota Constitution. “It is overreaching by trying to legislate law as the executive branch,” she said. In other words, Noem appears to have taken an extraordinary step to dilute and thus effectively kill H.B. 1217. And though she insists that she is taking these steps in good faith, critics are also accusing Noem of shutting them out and inviting the consultation of corporate interests.  

“For more than a week, Noem’s office has frozen out advocates of H.B. 1217 and instead taken advice from the bill’s most vocal critics, which include the South Dakota Chamber of Commerce and the South Dakota Board of Regents,” said Terry Schilling, president of American Principles Project. “Apart from stripping protections for female athletes in collegiate sports,” Schilling added, “it would eliminate all reasonable enforcement mechanisms, neutering the legislation so much as to render it meaningless.” Noem, he concluded, “continues to claim dubiously that she still supports the bill, hoping South Dakotans will ignore the fact she was responsible for killing it.”  

He’s right, of course, and the “why” really does seem to be as simple as bowing to the demands of special interests—namely, Amazon and its Chamber of Commerce allies along with the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Noem’s chief of staff, journalist Mollie Hemmingway noted, sits on the board of the Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce. Personnel is policy in the world of politics, something Noem undoubtedly knows but appears to think her constituents are too dumb to figure out, which is in line with the impression she left during a waffling appearance on “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” 

“This bill would only allow the NCAA to bully South Dakota,” she told Carlson. “And it would actually prevent women from being able to participate in collegiate sports. So what I have done is I have asked the legislature…to change the bill.” In other words, Noem implied that the NCAA would overpower the state government in response to H.B. 1217—which, if true, raises the question of why we have government at all. When pressed, Noem claimed this was all some grand strategy, that she is creating a “coalition” to thwart the mighty NCAA while denying that she is caving out of fear of the student athlete organization. 

Noem finally came full circle at the end of the interview. 

“If we put the collegiate athletics on there,” she said, “then we will get punitively challenged by the NCAA and then we’ll have to continue to fight them, and a court district that is not friendly to winning.” Put another way, and in spite of her denials of the same, Noem caved to the NCAA. Moreover, Noem’s “coalition-building” efforts appear to be centered on defending Title IX. “The undersigned agree that Title IX needs to be protected, and we commit to working together to keep fairness in women’s sports,” reads the website Noem has directed people to visit, which looks more like a data harvesting project to solicit donations than anything else.     

What is happening in South Dakota is just one piece of a much bigger problem. To the east, a related story unfolds in Wisconsin.  

Brett Blomme, a Milwaukee County Children’s Court judge, was arrested on March 16 and subsequently charged with seven counts of possessing child pornography. Before being elected judge, Blomme served as the president and CEO of Cream City Foundation, which organized Drag Queen Story Hour events in Milwaukee wherein children are exposed to men dressed as hypersexualized women. At an event in Houston, a participating “queen” was actually a registered sex offender convicted of abusing an 8-year-old. 

These are the fruits of what conservative commentator David French once called “the blessings of liberty.” They are also the consequence of feckless leaders, people like Noem, who appeal to voters by talking about principles but who, as it turns out, have none that aren’t for sale.

About Pedro Gonzalez

Pedro Gonzalez is associate editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture and an Adjunct Fellow of the Center for American Greatness. He publishes the weekly Contra newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @emeriticus.

Photo: (Photo by Kris Connor/ Getty Images)

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