Last Friday afternoon, on the last day of this year’s legislative session, sounds of applause from the Senate chamber filtered down into the Capitol Rotunda.
Just off the grand foyer, inside the Supreme Court’s briefing room, Associate Justice Steven Zinter was visiting with five young Europeans, who are visiting the U.S. for a little under a month. They’re here on Marshall Memorial Fellowships, which are awarded by the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF).
The GMF was founded in 1972 as a gift from Germany to recognize Marshall Plan assistance. And the fellowships are meant to help familiarize the next generation of European leaders with the United States.
The five had started their morning in the Capitol, with a quick tour down a hall where portraits of past governors hang. They were led by Pam Roberts, who currently serves on the South Dakota Board of Regents. She briefed them on the previous governors whose administrations she served in various senior roles – Janklow, Mickelson, Miller and Rounds.
Then it was on to meet the current governor.
There Gov. Dennis Daugaard and Hicham el Mzairh, a Belgian who emigrated to that country from Morocco, both proved they’d done at least a little homework for the occasion. After introductions, Daugaard told the group he’d found their biographies “very impressive,” saying he knew that Mzairh “drove a bus at one point...as did I!” Mzairh’s response indicated he already knew that Daugaard drove a bus as he was working his way through law school in Chicago.
Asked later about how they prepped for encounters with people like Daugaard, Mzairh said, “There’s actually a Wikipedia page in Dutch about him.” Thomas Pols, a Dutch physician who now works on humanitarian and development challenges, described how the itinerary they were provided gave them a reasonable understanding of who they’d be meeting, “and then you Google your way through, as with most things in life these days.”
After visiting with Daugaard, they met with Hunter Roberts, a policy advisor to the governor, and then Lieutenant Governor Matt Michels.
After less than 24 hours in South Dakota, the Marshall fellows were understandably cautious in drawing any conclusions about the place. Laura Batalla, who’s the Secretary General of the European Parliament Turkey Forum, pointed out they’d spent those first several hours almost exclusively inside the Capitol.
But at first blush, given “the way that polarization in America as a story is being told in Europe,” Pols said that, at least initially, he’s seeing things a little bit differently from that narrative. He said he would not have necessarily expected a lot of interaction among political opposites – he figured maybe “Republicans would stick with their Republican friends and Democrats would stick with their Democratic friends.”
But based on the “diverse group” they’d met at their local host’s house the previous evening, Pols didn’t think that was always the case, though things might look different when it came to policy discussions as opposed to social interactions. The group is being hosted locally by Dan Schenk – as German Marshall Fund fellows have been for several years.
Mzairh also said that so far they’d met a lot of “open-hearted Americans who are friendly” which was not exactly like the picture that’s sometimes painted about rural American attitudes towards foreigners. He saw a parallel to the people of Morocco, where he was born and spent the first couple decades of his life, who “will share everything with you, even if they have nothing, they say hello and are kind, and they have the same expectation of the future as an average American.”
Benjamin Lancar, who’s French, said he noticed a difference between perceptions of French people now, compared to 2006, when he was in Texas for one semester. The French were “not so popular” at that time, he said, due to France’s opposition to the Iraq war: “Remember Freedom Fries and all that stuff? I remember people saying that the French were cowards.”
Lancar has travelled many times to the U.S. since then, he said, and now, 12 years later, “I have to say how people are nice to the French ... especially this place.” He noted that France has played an important role in the history of the U.S. and remarked on the fact that the French flag is displayed in the Rotunda.
According to the self-guided Capitol tour book, the French flag is displayed in a niche as representing one of four governments that have claimed ownership of South Dakota at some point. The others are the flags of Spain, the Dakota Territory, and the U.S.
Lancar’s curiosity was piqued when he was told of the recent Stanley County snafu in the notification of property owners about their new real estate assessments. That’s because he serves as an auditor on the Cour des Comptes, the supreme body for auditing use of public funds in France. “I am very interested in what you’re saying, because in France right now we’re trying to make a reform of these [property] values, because they have an impact on tax revenue for the local authorities – so it’s an important issue.”
Lancar explained that in France there are two different taxes – one for the property owner and one for the person who lives in the place, which could, of course, be the same person.
Even if taxes on property owners might count as a point in common between South Dakota and European countries, gun ownership probably doesn’t.
Greek tech entrepreneur Dimitris Tsingos said there was a news item the previous day that cited the fact that in South Dakota there had not been any mass shootings in schools. He said, “In Europe, we tend to believe there is a direct correlation between the number and availability and guns and events like [in Parkland, Florida].” Based on South Dakota as a data point, he said, that correlation might not be direct.
But Tsingos said, “I’m not taking any position. Coming from Europe, I feel very uncomfortable with the fact that guns are sold so openly, and it feels very strange to me. However, I acknowledge there is a culture here, and if people have grown up with guns being part of their lives, perhaps they are better educated and they know how to use them. Perhaps in an urban environment, it’s more tricky.”
Another South Dakota stop for the fellows this weekend included Rapid City. The three weeks and a few days they spend in the U.S. include visits on the coasts as well as “flyover country.” It’s a phrase that Lancar used, but wondered about, when the group met with the lieutenant governor – “I don’t know if it’s pejorative.” Michels didn’t take it that way.