LGBTQ candidate recruitment event draws dozens to Sioux Falls

John Hult, South Dakota Searchlight
Posted 5/23/23

SIOUX FALLS — Being an LGBTQ lawmaker in a deep red state might feel like an uphill battle, but offering a presence and voice in statehouses “makes a big difference” behind the scenes.

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LGBTQ candidate recruitment event draws dozens to Sioux Falls


SIOUX FALLS — Being an LGBTQ lawmaker in a deep red state might feel like an uphill battle, but offering a presence and voice in statehouses “makes a big difference” behind the scenes.

That was a key message at a candidate recruitment event in downtown Sioux Falls on Saturday organized by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization LGBTQ+ Victory Institute.

The group is the nonprofit arm of the Victory Fund political action committee, a 31-year-old group that throws financial support behind LGBTQ+ candidates.

The institute’s recruitment efforts have focused for about eight years on red states, according to Director Elliot Imse. Montana State Rep. Zooey Zephyr, whose advocacy on the House floor in Helena drew a censure from fellow lawmakers and national attention to a transgender health care bill, was recruited by attendees of an event similar to the one held in a meeting room below Rehfeldt’s Art and Framing on Phillips Avenue.

Zephyr later attended a Victory Institute “boot camp” for candidates, and was supported financially by the Victory Fund. Recruitment events have already taken place in several GOP-led states this year, with more to come, Imse said. The boot camps have taken place in Salt Lake City and Dallas, and others will take place this year in Orlando and Detroit.

Recruitment events, Imse said, are just a starting point.

“It’s up to the folks in the room to take that next step,” Elliott said. “This is the first step in the process.”

Overcoming fears

Local partners Equality South Dakota and The Transformation Project sponsored and helped organize the event, which was attended by around two dozen people, including Rep. Kameron Nelson, South Dakota’s only openly gay legislator.

After introductions and a rundown of campaigning basics from the Victory Institute, the Sioux Falls Democrat took part in a panel discussion on LGBTQ politics in South Dakota.

He was joined by Brookings Deputy Mayor Nick Wendell and North Dakota State Sen. Ryan Braunberger, D-Fargo.

Nelson and Wendell are two of four LGBTQ elected officials in South Dakota at all levels of government. Four is on the low end of states in that regard, according to the Victory Institute’s state-by-state map. Only Alabama, Idaho, Mississippi, Wyoming and South Carolina have fewer. North Dakota also has four.

Nationwide, Imse told the audience, just .02% of elected officials are openly LGBTQ, although “Gallup conservatively estimates that we’re 7% of the population.”

All three panelists talked about how difficult it was at first to overcome fears about fundraising and negative feedback when they moved into the political arena.

Nelson, for example, said he’d never pictured himself as a politician. At age 18, he said, he had dreams of theater, perhaps even a career on Broadway. As he grew older and saw LGBTQ+ issues take center stage in Pierre, he decided his community needed a voice.

Nelson offered a fiery speech on the House floor earlier this year denouncing House Bill 1080, which restricted medical treatments for transgender youth, calling out a colleague who had used the words of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in support of the bill.

“There’s a lot of insecurity you have to self-manage, because you may not feel like the right person,” Nelson said. “But you have to get to the point where you know you’re the right person.”

Wendell also talked about the fulfillment of offering a voice to underrepresented viewpoints. Wendell came out as gay at age 30. By then, he’d been married and had a daughter. He’d also been politically involved in college, and found what appeared to be traditional familial and career success after graduation.

Coming out and “blowing up my life,” he said, made him question how his family, friends and community might react. He even wondered if his parents would ever be proud of him again.

On a professional level, he said, he felt like he “could do a lot of good” in local politics. He did want to bring his perspectives on equality and discrimination to local government decisions on housing, policing and economic development.

On a personal level, he said, running for office turned out to be empowering.

“I can tell you that just putting your name on the ballot will make the people in your life proud of you.”

Sen. Braunberger said the experience of lawmaking has been frustrating at times as an advocate for positions that rarely draw majority attention in Republican-led legislatures.

Being that advocate, though, has become energizing, particularly in a state where the LGBTQ community feels threatened by their legislature’s work. GOP lawmakers “get hate mail all the time,” he said, but “all I get are thank-yous.”

“Hearing from the people makes all the difference, because that’s who I’m there for,” Braunberger said.

Campaigning vs. serving

In practice, Nelson said, there’s considerable daylight between campaigning and serving.

As a lawmaker, he said, he represents everyone in District 10 and is responsible for incorporating all their viewpoints and needs into his decisions.

“Listening to people and taking feedback, even if we disagree, is part of the work of finding common ground,” Nelson said.

Campaigning, on the other hand, is a matter of connecting with the people who are most likely to be energized and go to the polls.

“It’s a wild ride to balance those two sides,” Nelson said.

Wendell pointed out that at the local government level, he’s learned that focusing on common ground and returning results can solidify support as a candidate.

He’s lucky, he said, to serve in a nonpartisan position on a city council whose decisions impact residents’ daily lives. His sexuality and Democratic Party affiliation never came up during his first city council run in 2016, he said, but his 2021 campaign encountered pushback.

On election day, he said, “those voices were shut out.”

“I won by the widest margin I ever had,” Wendell said.

The state lawmakers, both Democrats in states with Republican supermajorities, told the group that being in a statehouse is more than being a token voice of objection. Behind the scenes, they said, they can make connections with lawmakers who vote against their interests. Those connections make a difference in votes that impact the lives of people in the LGBTQ community.

“We killed a lot of those anti-trans bills, but we also dulled some of them,” Braunberger said.

The officials, like Imse, said working to build coalitions with other groups like teachers and nurses can further bolster influence. It’s also notable, the state officials said, that competing GOP factions have turned the small Democratic caucus into swing voters on some legislation. Rep. Kadyn Wittman, D-Sioux Falls, was among the attendees. Wittman said that reality is important to keep in mind for anyone who might consider running with an eye to protecting LGBTQ rights. Democrats don’t have numbers in Pierre, but they do have power when votes are close.

“Our seven votes truly can be instrumental,” she said.

Before the panel took place, the audience was asked if anyone has or would consider running for office. More than half a dozen hands went up, including that of Cole Sartell, a Brookings man who ran for a legislative seat last fall.

Sydney Eager was not among those to raise a hand. She’s into art and poetry, she said – she just completed her first book of poems – not the limelight. She moved to South Dakota from Chicago 20 years ago in part because she saw it as a great place to raise children.

Recent political conversations have pushed her to a point where she feels her identity as a trans woman is under attack.

Speaking out as a volunteer, she said, feels important in order to help others know they’re welcome in a state where the political conversation feels threatening.

“This is kind of against my nature, but I feel like I have to do it,” Eager said.

About South Dakota Searchlight: We use our journalistic searchlight to illuminate critical issues facing South Dakota, dissect the decisions made by state leaders, and explain the consequences of their policies and the role of politics on South Dakotans. South Dakota Searchlight launched in 2022. We’re an affiliate of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. The staff of the Searchlight retains full editorial independence.