Jamie Smith looks to make South Dakota history, land personality-driven upset in governor's race

Nov. 1—EDITOR'S NOTE — Democrat Jamie Smith, Republican Kristi Noem and Libertarian Tracey Quint are the three candidates for South Dakota governor. Forum News Service featured the candidates from the two major parties as part of its election coverage. Election Day is Nov. 8.

ABERDEEN, S.D. — Up and down several blocks of Main Street in Aberdeen, Gypsy Day onlookers keen on grabbing a prime view had sandwiched themselves between lawn chairs and blankets, protecting themselves from the brisk, early October morning air.

If the parade goers couldn't tell by the auburn streaks in scattered trees, the trailer full of hay bales and stamped with "Democrats, we'll make Hay for you" on the side should have clued them in — the final month's sprint to Election Day was underway.

While several politicians from both sides of the aisle sat in their heated cars for a respite from the chill, Jamie Smith, the gregarious legislator running atop the Democratic ticket, was already in form, shaking hands and making lively conversation with still a half hour until the parade began.

Smith had foregone a more weather-appropriate outfit for a dark-brown blazer over a red Northern State tee and blue jeans. Furthering the school spirit, he practiced placing his thumb against his middle and ring fingers while pointing his pinky and pointer finger straight up.

"Go Wolves!" he bellowed, smiling as he showed the insignia to the handful of volunteers and candidates gathered next to the party's float.

As the parade kicked off and the truck-propelled float began creaking down the route, Smith turned the volume and energy even higher. He marched out in front, just behind the Northwestern High School band. The brass lent a musical fill to the rare empty spaces between Smith's loud "Hi, I'm Jamie Smith, I'm running for governor!" and "We can do this, people! Go vote!" among a variety of other calls to action.

Throughout the several blocks, he lurched right and left to greet onlookers calling his name, shaking hands and taking selfies.

While a sizable portion of the crowd, young and old, knew who Smith was and emphatically wished him well in the race for governor, a few whispers of "Who is that?" could also be heard, an appropriate microcosm for what has been an underdog campaign from the very beginning.

Though Smith has no problem winning over several crowds per day and amassing the energy to do it all over again the next, the fortune of his campaign may already be set, combining a relatively late start with acute disadvantages in name recognition and fundraising.

But spend some time with Smith, and part of you might begin to believe, too.

Jamie Robert Smith was born in Sioux Falls, and his roots in the state go deep.

His grandfather, who served in World War II and later worked on hot air balloons in atmospheric research, went on to become a founder of Raven Industries, though he left the company after about a decade. Smith's father was a mathematics professor at Augustana University and a teacher at Washington High School; Smith's mother volunteered both in the classroom and at church, and served as a Cub Scout leader.

While money was often tight, he had a strong support system of involved parents and a close extended family, many of them educators, too.

"The lottery of birth was really good to me," Smith said. "But, you know what? There's some kids in our state that that's not true. That's one of the reasons we have government."

On a visit to the Corn Palace on Oct. 17, Smith pointed to the far corner of the basketball court and informed the crowd he had won the state AAU wrestling tournament at that exact spot in eighth grade. Since he wasn't affiliated with an AAU team, Smith chose to represent Axtell Park, where he attended middle school.

Smith was somewhat of a Renaissance man at Washington High School, bridging often separate worlds as a dominant wrestler, a football player and a standout in musical theater and choir.

"Jamie was very bright and creative. He also was really friendly," Susan Lee, who taught Smith in a speech course during his sophomore year at Washington, recalled. "He was one of those students who was kind and outgoing with everybody."

After high school, Smith stayed in Sioux Falls, attending Augustana University on a choir scholarship, where he majored in communications. It was there where he met his wife, Kjerstin, although the two didn't start dating until after graduation. Their first date was ballroom dancing at the El Riad Shrine in downtown.

Smith's first extended career stop saw him returning to the Sioux Falls-based arcade-pizzeria Gigglebees as a manager and adviser to the chain's new franchise in Rapid City. He had played the company's famous mascot, Wilbur the Coyote, throughout much of high school.

Since then, Smith has worked in several roles in the public and private sector: he taught and coached around the Sioux Falls School District, sold "joints" for an orthopedic company and, most recently, got his real estate license, after which he began his current role with Hegg Realtors.

Although the move into selling knees, hips and then houses has allowed Smith to support his family, he continued to look for the purpose he had found as a teacher.

"There was still a part of me that wasn't as fulfilled as when I was a teacher," Smith said. "Because when you're teaching, you know you're doing something for others. You're changing people. Even if you don't know right then, eventually you'll hear about it."

The beginning of that purpose came in 2016, during a conversation with the Rev. Karen Soli.

In early 2016, Soli, a Lutheran minister and, at the time, a legislator, was conducting a search for someone to fill the newly-open seat alongside her in District 15, which was then the safest blue seat in the state.

"I had thought of it as, we don't really need more politicians in Pierre, we need people who care about the state," Soli said, adding that the awkward scheduling of the winter session excluded several prime candidates.

During that search, Soli and Smith happened to be sitting at a dining room table together, discussing the details of a small house that she was looking to sell with his help. The two went back several years, as Jamie and Kjerstin had taught Soli's daughter at Axtell Park Middle School; Soli's daughter, in turn, babysat every now and then for the Smith family.

"He didn't even know there was an open seat," Soli remembers. "And he started talking about state politics, and what should be and what has been, with a great deal of energy and interest. And I said Jamie, would you think about running for House?"

Soon after, Soli convinced Smith to visit Pierre for a day, watching the legislative happenings from the gallery. In his stump speech, Smith recalls arriving the day with the assumption he was not smart enough to be a legislator.

"As soon as they gaveled out for the day, [Soli] hustled up those stairs and she said, 'What do you think?'" Smith narrates, before unleashing the punchline. "I said, 'I might be too smart to come to Pierre.'"

So, Smith ran and won, traveling to Pierre as a legislator for the first time in 2017. Two years later, he was elected to be the minority leader, heading the handful of Democrats in the House.

And, although several legislators and acquaintances knew Smith as someone who could make friends and in a bipartisan fashion, one frequent criticism from his opponent, Gov. Kristi Noem, is that Smith's legislative record as prime sponsor is short.

In six years in Pierre, five of the 15 bills that listed Smith as prime sponsor were signed into law, though he co-sponsored dozens of successful bills.

Some say that criticism comes out of context.

"It's just an unwritten rule that the Republicans do not pass a bill that's got a Democrat as prime sponsor," Susan Wismer, a Democratic candidate for Senate who ran for governor in 2014, said. "If you have an idea, you have to go sell it to a Republican and put their name on as prime sponsor in at least one house."

Being the head of Democrats in the House, Smith's name was naturally in the gubernatorial ether as 2022 began. As the days continued to tick away and nobody had stepped up, Smith began to think he would be the best choice.

On Feb. 9, at the Ramkota Hotel in Pierre, where Smith is famous for his rendition of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" during karaoke on Wednesday nights, Smith announced that he would run for governor.

The summer had finally come to a close, a mad, underfunded dash to get Jamie Smith's name and ideas to as many South Dakotans as possible. During the long days of travel, Smith and his staff would sing showtunes. "Guys and Dolls" is a road trip — and Smith household — favorite.

At a staff dinner in Rapid City on Aug. 4, the campaign had a rare moment of reflection, as Smith prepared to go around the table and thank each of the half-dozen summer interns for their contributions before they headed back to their respective universities.

He saved his son, Johnathan, for last. A student-athlete at Washington University in St. Louis with plans for law school in a few years, Johnathan had been a self-described "body man" for his father that summer.

As Jamie began speaking, tears started streaming down the candidate's face.

"He got to me and it was emotional. Because that's my dad, this was really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for both of us" Johnathan remembers. "And so to be able to share that experience with my dad meant the world."

Throughout the campaign, those closest to Smith have seen personal and political growth in a man who is still a relative newcomer on the political stage.

"Oh my gosh have I watched him grow. He's always been outgoing, but there came a point where I stopped seeing Jamie, my husband, and started seeing Jamie the candidate," Kjerstin Smith said. "I've watched him develop and grow and become even more confident and smart."

Smith's personality is a key part of the pitch. While the campaign certainly has policy prescriptions on issues like increasing teacher pay and implementing potential referendums on cannabis and Medicaid, the realities of governing alongside an overwhelmingly conservative legislature are not lost on Smith. Because of this, Smith has focused on bringing collaboration back to Pierre.

"There's a simple breakdown in communication," Smith said. "The 'my way or the highway' attitude, and not working with the people involved in the decisions you're making, that never works."

For Smith's detractors, the lack of a clear program beyond the banal promise of working together is worrying.

"We know what the results are with Gov. Noem. We know what she's capable of with leading, communicating and strategizing," Jessica Castleberry, a Republican senator from Rapid City, said. "Whereas with Jamie Smith, it's unknown. You can promise all day what you're going to do, but he doesn't really have a track record."

Tim Rave, a longtime friend of Gov. Noem, pointed to another potential downside of putting Smith into the governor's mansion with already-set Republican majorities in each chamber.

"Typically, if you look at historical legislative dynamics, more things probably get done when you have the party that controls both chambers working with a governor of that party," Rave said.

But, during the campaign, Smith has gone out of his way to quell those fears, speaking with audiences not often courted by Democratic candidates. In early August, Smith appeared at an event put on by the ultra-conservative Citizens for Liberty.

Campaign manager Jesse Nelson came away from the event with a belief that Smith could bridge even the widest gaps as governor.

"It was a very gracious group, even though we disagreed on a lot of policies," Nelson said. "But I do think that people there were surprised by how much they agreed. Certainly everyone in the room really wants to make South Dakota a better place. We just have different ideas about how to do it."

Phil Jensen, a Republican legislator from Rapid City, opened the event with praise of Smith.

"I said, 'Thank you for being an honest Democrat,' and the place erupted in cheers," Jensen said. "I think he's been misaligned. He's not as radical as he's being portrayed."

The radical portrayal, of course, has been painted by the well-funded campaign of Smith's opponent. Noem points to

previous votes

in favor of mask mandates and against banning critical race theory in schools, among other transgressions, as proof that Smith is out of line with the average South Dakotan.

Without the money to match Noem blow-for-blow, Smith has had to play defense on the claim, rather than going fully on offense about Noem's national ambitions, which featured heavily into Smith's first television spot, or the murky close to an ethics complaint related to her daughter's real estate license.

The path to a historic upset runs through these Republican and independent voters caught between messages, since Democrats in the state are outnumbered by these groups three to one. And the historical odds are long, too: South Dakota has not had a Democratic governor in more than 40 years.

And, despite a recent poll showing Noem with a commanding lead heading into the final sprint and the war chest to hammer home her message, the Smith campaign feels that they remain in a tight race, hoping to energize voters with a poll from South Dakota State University in early October that had the campaigns within the margin of error.

For Smith, the key will be leveraging his Sioux Falls roots to markedly improve on Billie Sutton's 5,000-vote advantage in the populous Minnehaha County; though the campaign has said their focus is "leaving no stone unturned" in collecting the votes to win, it's hard to imagine Smith matching Sutton's strength in rural western counties.

And, while the evidence is anecdotal, the Rev. Karen Soli says Smith's character has won over at least some conservatives.

"He's a person of strong, good character, and I hope that people can see that. I have Republican friends who have listened to him and said, 'Yes, he's good, he's the choice,'" Soli said. "So I think that's coming through. Whether it'll be enough, your guess is as good as mine."

Jason Harward is a

Report for America

corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at