As he said he would more than a year ago, riverboat captain Caleb Gilkerson announced this week that he is running for mayor of Pierre. He faces the incumbent mayor, Steve Harding, who Gilkerson has accused of bad faith in long discussions over a place to dock the Sunset paddlewheeler.
“I went to pick up petitions,” Gilkerson told the Capital Journal on Thursday, Jan. 9. “You can’t begin to collect signatures until March 1.”
Mayor Harding announced Tuesday at the close of the Pierre City Commission’s weekly meeting, that he would run for a second three-year term this summer.
It would not be far off to call Gilkerson Harding’s nemesis, in a city where local government officials just don’t have such open foes.
No other resident of Pierre has challenged, perhaps attacked, Harding, as publicly and loudly as Gilkerson has done on a few occasions the past two years, over his plans for the Sunset river boat .
Like Harding, Gilkerson grew up and has spent nearly all his life in Pierre. At 40, he is a generation younger than Harding, who is 66.
Gilkerson bought the paddlewheel boat in 2017, with plans to build a business giving cruises up and down the Missouri River. It has worked out seemingly well, with the Sunset a popular attraction from spring, deep into the fall.
But Gilkerson, who is part-owner of the paddlewheeler, as well as of a diving company, has fought hard with Pierre city leaders over his plan to build a dock on the causeway between Pierre and LaFramboise Island. In 2018, the debate boiled over at City Commission meetings that became pointed between Gilkerson and Harding.
On Dec. 4, 2018, Gilkerson appeared before the Commission and reiterated his complaint that the Commission — and Harding in particular — were “stalling” on his requests to get approval for the dock from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He accused Harding and the Commission of “chicanery,” and bad faith.
He said, obviously to Harding: “It’s very hard to work with someone who isn’t going to be honest with you from the git-go. And that’s what we have been running up against.”
This type of angry criticism just doesn’t happen hardly ever in City Commission meetings in Pierre in recent years.
Harding, who normally is cheerful and puts a positive spin on about everything, clearly was angry, although he did not raise his voice as much as Gilkerson did.
Harding said, “... I’m offended by your personal attacks, which are untrue.” And a little later, seemed to nearly lose his temper: “I’ve got way more that I can say. But we don’t have time here.”
Harding offered to meet again in a quieter setting in which details could be worked out with city staff.
Two weeks later, after such a closed door meeting, Harding and Gilkerson faced off again at the City Commission’s meeting on Dec. 18, 2018.
He brought about 40 friends, perhaps the biggest crowd seen at a City Commission meeting in memory. From comments from city leaders, Gilkerson was seen to have invited public support at the earlier closed door meeting and urged people to call Harding about the issue.
On Dec. 18, 2018, Harding and other city leaders told Gilkerson that his plans for a new dock still didn’t answer concerns about safety issues.
Gilkerson again spoke in loud, angry tones, that the city was failing to give him the support he needed to keep his new business going and he threatened to take it to other cities.
He left the Commission meeting clearly angry and within an hour posted on his Facebook page: “The incompetence and dishonesty was on full display for all to see . . . I’m compelled to run for mayor to clean house.”
On Thursday, Jan.9, 2020, Gilkerson took a more moderate tone in explaining his plans to run for mayor, saying it is not really about the Sunset paddlewheel plans.
“I wouldn’t say it’s my primary motive. Honestly, I’m running because I feel compelled to do so, not only over the struggles with the river boat but also the other issues I have watched. A lot of spending that has been going on, too much spending, in my opinion, in a community the size of Pierre. I don’t want to commit my son’s tax dollars for some politicians’ policies.”
A main problem, he said, is the projected $37 million water treatment plant that Harding has touted as one of his major initiatives since his election in the summer of 2017.
“I don’t want to see an industrial building of any kind end up in Steamboat Park. We have other options. The first thing people see when they come into PIerre on the new (planned) bridge, will be the water treatment plant.
Although a public voted hearty approval of the water plant plan construction is slated to begin this year, Gilkerson said it’s not too late to stop the siting of the plant. “The plans can be altered at this point,” he said.
But Gilkerson said the riverboat is off the table now. “When I took the tone I did with Mayor Harding (in 2018), I had already been aware we had crossed the point that we could get anything done. I would not go into furthering the agenda of the Sunset if I run for mayor, that would be a conflict of interest. And it’s a moot issue.”
He’s planning to dock his boat for the winter again just down the Missouri from the mouth of the Bad River on the Fort Pierre side. He will continue to work with the city of Fort Pierre and the Army Corps to find a better passenger boarding/docking location on that side of the Missouri, he said.
But the river boat still is part of his reason for running.
“It became clear to me in that experience . . . that I was not the only individual having that kind of response from the city of Pierre.”
He said it like this on his Facebook page this week in announcing his run: “My goals with your help will include to get spending under control while improving the basic roles of city government. Help guide a snow and ice removal plan with the help of Pierre’s great employees, while providing better roads and drinkable water that doesn’t break the bank.
“Let’s develop our beautiful waterfront with private public partnerships that generate tax revenue for the City, and keep industrial buildings away from our parks. I will support our local business and residents, and so much more.”
About 40 people had commented soon after he posted his announcement, all supporting him.
Two stood out politically. Steve Robinson, the Pierre business owner who ran against Harding in 2017 for mayor, told Gilkerson of his announcement: “That’s good news.”
And Dave Braun, semi-retired attorney and longtime civic firecracker who has boasted about years of successfully referring to a public vote taxing and spending measures passed by local governments — including the Pierre City Commission and the Hughes County Commission, for which Braun has taken a run for in the recent past — told Gilkerson online: “Caleb, you have my 100 percent support and if you swing by my place I will donate some $$. Best of luck. We need new faces like you.”
One man put his support in larger terms: “Good luck! Ain’t America great! It’s not just anywhere that a river boat Captain can run for Mayor.”