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Kristi Noem governs her state with rare humility and common sense

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KEYSTONE, South Dakota — The only thing tiny about the size of this town, nestled in a valley in the Black Hills Mountains, is its 3-square-mile footprint, located a couple of miles below the ascent to Mount Rushmore.

As during most days that do not include snow, it was packed last week, with people sitting outdoors, eating at restaurants or pubs, shopping at local shops, or stocking up on bottled water for the last stop before their final destinations.

Most people in Keystone were heading to one of two places — Mount Rushmore, less than 3 miles away, or the Sturgis bike rally less than an hour away, in which South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem had just participated.

Noem, in an interview with the Washington Examiner, told me she is thrilled that most of them did both. “There is something very aspirational about attending the rally,” she said. “I think the people attending are all very unified in the fact that they've recognized the importance of freedom and personal responsibility. And by coming and participating in a long-held tradition with people that really do love our country, for them, is an encouraging and unifying experience."

On Thursday of last week, as the 81st Sturgis Motorcycle Rally was coming to a close, the South Dakota Department of Transportation estimated that 423,273 motorcyclists had attended the annual event, nearly 13% more than last year, in the middle of the pandemic.

Noem said last year was quite a bit smaller than normal because of the pandemic. “I think they do very much feel like it's a mission to take back their country in a way that brings people together rather than what we see on TV a lot, which is attacking each other,” she said.

Ahead of the event, Noem attended the rally that began on Aug. 6 and ended on Aug. 15. Anthony Fauci said the country was in the middle of a public health crisis and that he was “very concerned” the outdoor event would cause a surge in COVID-19 cases. He had not made any similar comments about, for example, the Lollapalooza festival event held in Chicago a few days before the Sturgis rally, which attracted well over 385,000 people, many of them using public transportation for the concerts.

Noem said there is an assumption among folks like Fauci that everyone who attends Sturgis is an unvaccinated, uneducated dolt, an assumption she said is misguided. The crowd at Sturgis, she said, is filled with businesses owners, suburban moms, doctors, lawyers, and Ph.D.s in every size, shape, and color along with ordinary working people.

Noem also took criticism on Twitter for several days after she appeared at the event (and several days before Kabul fell) for being on her horse Iceman carrying an American flag at the rally for being “unserious, self-destructive, faux patriotic.” Most of the critics were unaware that Noem rode Iceman at Deadwood as part of a fundraiser to benefit the victims of human trafficking.

“There was an artist that painted a portrait of my horse, Iceman, and myself at the Buffalo Roundup," she said. "He allowed me to auction it off in favor of a Treasured Lives, the human trafficking nonprofit I've supported. So, they ended up wanting me to ride Iceman, my horse, down Main Street, carrying the American flag, and ride up onto the stage. And then they auctioned off the painting when I got there.”

The painting auction raised $55,000, and then the American flag was auctioned off for another $25,000, all for Treasured Lives. “Then I got on a motorcycle and went on the Legends ride, which is a big tradition in Sturgis,” she said.

For several days in South Dakota, whether it was in Sioux Falls, Wall, Deadwood, Mt. Rushmore, or Sturgis, the variety of license plates showed a wide swath of America, from every state stretching from Alaska to Maine to Louisiana and all points in between. They were spending their vacation time in a state where the waves of the prairies give way to the spectacular Black Hills Mountains.

“When we were on our ride, the bike in front of me had a CPA from California on it," she said. "The one behind me was a doctor who I think was an orthopedic surgeon. These are professional folks that love their connection to each other and they love the lifestyle of being outdoors and spending time together and the camaraderie of it."

Noem said that, for a lot of people, coming here is their detox from the rigor of everyday life and stresses.

As for the criticism coming from blue-check Twitter, she said that it likely stems from two things — her support for former President Donald Trump and her decision in office not to close even a single business for a single day due to the pandemic. “We never even defined what an essential business was," she said. "I just really believed I didn't have the authority to tell a business they weren't essential."

What many disparaged at the time as folly can perhaps be better described as an exercise in humility.

Noem, who lost her father in a tragic farming accident, pointed to him and her mother as having shaped her approach to governing. “I was raised by a dad who was a cowboy and a mom who was passionate about our family business and her family," she said. "And we were taught to not complain about things, to fix them, to do a job in a way that you could be proud of and that you could sleep at night."

“Being popular wasn't a conversation in our house," she went on. "It was about having integrity and character. So, I think the politicians, the public officials that get all tied up and turned around in politics, are the ones who want the job more than they want to do what's right. And that's what really hurt this country."

Noem said her present concerns for her constituents include rising inflation, escalating gas prices (when you live in a wide-open state, getting from point A to point B can require several gallons of gas) as well as a lack of people filling job openings, which has harmed small businesses' viability.

“For us, our No. 1 industry is agriculture. No. 2 is tourism," she said. "When our food supply chains and processing facilities were impacted by what was happening around us and other states, I invested in helping small businesses expand their own processing capabilities, to get an inspection program, so we could sell our products anywhere in the country."

"We have less than 2,500 people in the whole state that are on unemployment benefits," she added, with a note of pride. "So, our people are all working. We just have the fastest-growing economy in the country right now, at 9.9%. So, I've just got a lot of businesses that have expanded that have moved to this state, that now I need to recruit people to come here and to fill those positions."

“So, for us, we're having some growing pains. But also, I think many states are sitting back waiting for relief from the federal government, when we wake up every day, figuring out how we can get around the federal government and take care of ourselves,” she said.

On her decision to send her state’s National Guard to two border states, she said it wasn’t hard to make. “The governors of Texas and Arizona have requested help from surrounding governors to help secure the southern border when the federal government failed to do so," she said. "For me, doing the analysis on what that would really require, the best people situated and trained and experienced for that role is my National Guard. They do it every time they're deployed somewhere, whether in state or sent over to another country, and are trained for exactly that type of situation they're dealing with at the southern border. They are used to going and completing a mission and then coming back home.”

Noem said she initially activated the National Guard for 30 days to process and to step in and be a part of the operation that's being run by the Texas National Guard and law enforcement and Border Patrol. "I just recently made the decision to extend it another 30 days and swap some of those Guard members out," she said. "We had many, many more volunteers that wanted to go and serve. I gave them the opportunity to do that, and we'll continue to deal with assisting where we can.”

The 33rd governor of the 39th or 40th state admitted to the union (President Benjamin Harrison shuffled the statehood papers before signing them so that no one could tell which Dakota became a state first) said that her National Guard is in the area on the southern border that is the most violent, which speaks to their expertise. “It's the most dangerous areas where a lot of the drug trafficking, a lot of the human trafficking is going on as well,” she said.

Noem said the vast majority of the drugs in the Midwest come across the southern border. “Much of that traffic is happening through Native American reservations that are in South Dakota, and then being dispersed there, because we don't have any jurisdiction on those reservations," she said. "So, if we are able to stop those drugs at the southern border, rather than allowing them to come up into the Midwest and impact our families, communities, that certainly is helpful to our state.”

Her favorite conversation about South Dakota, however, is its natural beauty.

“People didn't really realize, I don't think, until we told our story last year in a national media campaign, how wonderful our way of life is and how tourism's our second-largest industry because it's such a beautiful state and the diversity that we have," she said. "Obviously, one of our big draws is Mount Rushmore. But beyond that, people can come and spend many, many days here, just enjoying all different kinds of experiences that they'll remember for a lifetime.”

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Original Author: Salena Zito

Original Location: Kristi Noem governs her state with rare humility and common sense

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