The good news for local Democrats meeting in Pierre on Monday night to hear from their new state Party chairwoman is they were too many to fit into a telephone booth … and a few were too young to have ever been in a phone booth.
Ann Tornberg, elected last month as chairwoman of the South Dakota Democratic Party, told the group of 17 that in this new year, when there are only 20 Democrats among the 105 legislators meeting in the Capitol in Pierre, it will take grassroots organizing by everyone to bring the party back to relevance.
It’s been worse, and the same things that worked for the party back then can again, said Tornberg, who is 59 and from Beresford.
Over 60 years ago, George McGovern began his political career by revitalizing Democrats in South Dakota at an all-time low: no state offices held and only two of 110 legislative seats, Tornberg pointed out. He used recipe cards to keep track of every possible Party supporter, she said.
Now, only half of the state’s 66 counties have regular meetings of Democrats, and besides the super majority of Republicans in the legislature, no statewide offices are held by Democrats, she said. “We have a lot of work to do.”
Of the 17 who met at the Long Branch saloon downtown on Pierre Street on Monday evening to hold the regular meeting of the Hughes and Stanley counties’ Democrats and to hear Tornberg, two were men and four were college women working as interns in the Legislature.
Those four college students are important, Tornberg told them, not least because of the large age gap between them and the other local Democrats at the meeting, who appeared well over 50.
“All of us want to get more 20-somethings involved in our Party,” she said.
Tornberg ran for the state Senate from District 16 near Sioux Falls, losing to Republican incumbent Dan Lederman, despite touting herself as pro-life, pro-family, pro-agriculture and pro-education.
She got nearly 45 percent of the vote and forced Lederman to spend $75,000, Tornberg said. And she can relate to many Democrats in the state in knowing the bad feeling of losing an election, she said.
Tornberg said things were better a decade ago when she was active at the state level on education issues, when there was bipartisan cooperation on many issues.
It’s important not “to focus on the negative,” or issues that divide, rather than unify, Democrats, she said.
Part of it simply is participation, she said.
Many Democrats, just like Tornberg 40 years ago, don’t know who their legislators are or even their district boundaries and local party leaders, she said.
She practices what she preaches, Tornberg said; she wrote 318 personal notes to every local government official in her district near Sioux Falls, including every township officer, thanking them for their hard work in public service.
“Some of them told me ‘Nobody has ever told me thank you,’” she said.
Brian Doherty, a retired school superintendent, told the gathering Monday he thinks “we can nail Republicans” for their plan to raise fuel and wheel taxes to fund the roads and bridges bills proposed by the majority.
Republicans always accuse Democrats of raising taxes, he said. But in this case, Republicans will be raising a “regressive” tax on gasoline that hurts the poor more than the rich, Doherty said, while leaving many sales tax exemptions in place for business people.
Tornberg said later she didn’t quite see it the same way Doherty does and she found good things to say about Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s State of the State address Tuesday.
One of her personal concerns, not surprisingly given her career in teaching, is to improve the way the state’s Per Student Allocation is calculated and distributed to school districts as one way to fix the growing problem of too-few teachers.
Now, 1,000 teachers are expected to retire in the next two years without even close to that many teaching candidates in universities poised to fill those jobs, she said. “Last year we had only four math (major) graduates,” she said.
“We graduated four math graduates last year in the state,” Tornberg said. “I mean, this is a crisis.”
It’s a longstanding problem of low salaries that has gotten worse, Tornberg said.
“There are more teacher openings right now than I have ever seen at this time in the school year,” Doherty said. “It’s amazing.”
Tornberg agreed. “My first teaching contract was in 1975 and we were last in the nation then,” she said of salary comparisons state to state.
Now, even after cost-of-living adjustments are made, “there is a $7,500 per year gap” between South Dakota and North Dakota teacher salaries, Tornberg said. “And North Dakota is 49th on the list, right next to us.”
According to the U.S. Department of Education, which uses National Education Association estimates, the average teacher salary in South Dakota was $39,580 in the 2012-2013 school year, while North Dakota’s was $47,344.
Wyoming was at $57,920 and Minnesota at 56,268; Nebraska was at 48,931 and Iowa at 51,528.
The national average that year was $56,383.
So why, asked one party faithful, “don’t we hear more from teachers?”
“People are fatigued,” Tornberg said, and it’s difficult to raise one’s head as a Democrat in such a Republican state.
Despite the reputation of the teacher’s union as dovetailing with the Democratic Party, only about 55 percent of South Dakota teachers are registered Democrats, Tornberg said, rather than the 85 percent often seen in other states.
Much of her time is spent fund-raising, she said. There is $60,000 in the kitty and 163 people who have pledged monthly donations to the state Party, including one of her former students.
“He said the new minimum wage is $8.50 an hour and he works at Subway and is giving $8.50 a month,” she said.
She urged those at the meeting to join the Founders Club to help fund the Party.
Tornberg said her husband is a dairy farmer, so as a retired teacher she can volunteer for the Party as well as donate $200 per month to the Founders Club. She pays her own expenses while she works the legislative session and travels the state, she said, to give an extra boost to party coffers.
Tornberg is active in her Lutheran church and is treasurer of the congregation, meaning she’s used to asking people to “prayerfully consider what you can do” she told the local Dems, adding with a smile: “As Democrats, really you should pray. If you’re a Democrat in Hughes and Stanley counties, you SHOULD pray.”