Randy Seiler of Fort Pierre has been a federal prosecutor and a county prosecutor and now is running to be the state’s top prosecutor, facing three Republicans in trying to become a rare case: a Democratic South Dakota attorney general.
Attorney General Marty Jackley is running for governor in his 10th year as the state’s top law officer and is, like nearly all of them since 1889, a Republican.
Seiler, 71, just retired as of Dec. 31 as U.S. attorney for South Dakota and is working for a few more weeks as interim deputy state’s attorney for Hughes County.
He started out nearly 40 years as a county prosecutor while in private practice in Mobridge.
A Democrat, Seiler succeeded Brendan Johnson as the state’s top federal prosecutor in March 2015 after 20 years as a top prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office.
On Jan. 8, he registered his campaign for attorney general with the secretary of state’s office.
Three Republicans did that in early 2017: Jackley’s chief deputy, Charles McGuigan; Lawrence County State’s Attorney John Fitzgerald and Jason Ravnsborg, deputy state’s attorney in Union County. Those are only the most recent of the long odds Seiler faces.
In only six of the state’s 130 years has the attorney general been a Democrat.
Only three Democrats have held the office and each only had it for two years.
The most recent was 43 years ago: Kermit Sande, who served 1973-1975..
Sande, 75, is listed as a real estate broker in Virginia. Contacted on Thursday by the Capital Journal, Sande, who was born in Huron, said he had no interest in commenting on this year’s race for attorney general or on his career, saying he didn’t keep up with South Dakota goings-on..
The other Democratic AGs were Clair Roddewig, 1937-1939, and Parnell Donahue, 1959-1961 and have passed on.
Interestingly, state Circuit Judge Mark Barnett, before whom Seiler is arguing criminal cases now while he’s deputy state’s attorney in Pierre, is the longest-serving attorney general in the state’s history, for his tenure from 1991-2003.
No Democrat has gotten close to the office for a long time.
According to Republican political blogger Pat Powers at www.dakotawarcollege, Democrat Ron Volesky is the only Dem to run for AG since 1998 — in 2002 getting 43 percent of the vote and in 2006 and 2010, getting 33 percent of the vote.
Politicos say the Democrats’ share of the state’s voters has fallen to 30 percent in recent years.
Seiler doesn’t seem concerned about the apparent uphill fight he might have as a Democrat seeking election in November to the attorney general’s office.
“I’m not a politician,” he said Thursday.
As other statewide offices, the nominees for the ballot for attorney general are chosen by the party conventions this summer.
So far, no other Democrat has announced a campaign.
Seiler himself went overtly public only Thursday in answering the Capital Journal’s question about his plans, although his registering of his campaign two months ago is a public document available online at the secretary of state’s website.
As a career federal prosecutor, Seiler worked for U.S. attorneys from both parties, including for Jackley, who was U.S. attorney from 2006-2009.
“Marty is a friend of mine. We worked together in the U.S. attorney’s office,” Seiler said, praising Jackley’s work as attorney general and as a federal prosecutor.
“But there clearly will be some different philosophies, some different approaches, to how we address the issues, like the methamphetamine problem.”
Seiler took on Jackley’s recent proposals in the legislature to make drug-dealer sentences stiffer, partly to give more law enforcement more leverage to persuade defendants to cooperate and blow the whistle on drug suppliers and others, in exchange for escaping more onerous prison sentences.
“I don’t think more mandatory minimum sentences, putting more people in prison, is the right approach,” Seiler told the Capital Journal. “We’re not going to arrest our way out of this problem. We need to take a more eco-system approach, where we look at law enforcement and treatment and prevention.”
He said that will require more programs, more initiatives “that emphasize treatment and fund treatment in such a way that it’s meaningful in South Dakota. The attorney general needs to be a leader in this process, needs to bring in all the interested parties.”
“But at the same time, make no mistake about it, we will continue to vigorously pursue and arrest and prosecute drug dealers.”
Seiler hasn’t had to file any information yet on how much money he’s raised for his campaign.
The three Republicans did have to file end-of-the-year reports, indicating they each have raised a few thousands of dollars.
So far his fundaising hasn’t gotten organized much, Seiler said. But he’s received spur-of-the-moment donations from people who approach him and say they want to help, Seiler said.
“I have been encouraged by the outpouring of support I have received as (news of his campaign) has leaked out.”
He said party leaders have encouraged him to run.
His only experience in running for elected office has been three terms on the Mobridge school board in the 1980s, he said.
Seiler served on the Fort Pierre city council, but didn’t have to run because he was the only one who filed petitions, he said.
“I’m not a politician. I don’t have all the answers,” he said.
Aside from his service in the Air Force, including a tour of duty in Vietnam, his native state has been where he’s pretty much always lived, Seiler said.
Early in his career, he worked as a county prosecutor while he had a private practice in Mobridge.
“When I was a federal prosecutor, I have seen the best and worst of humanity, and would see first hand the pain and suffering of victims,” Seiler said. “I realized the critical role courts can play in restoring faith and hope and delivering justice.”
So as he contemplated retiring as U.S attorney, he said he considered what kind of law practice he wanted to move into.
“It was at that point I decided that the kind of lawyer I wanted to be was attorney general,” Seiler said. “And the clients I wanted to serve were the people of South Dakota.”