Some might think South Dakota Sen. Lee Schoenbeck grew up at the Capitol. And in some respects, that’s true.
He started as an intern in the late 1970s and remembers the awe he felt taking his first steps into the rotunda and thinking, “Someday, it’d be neat to come here and serve.” Schoenbeck soaked in the processes, policies and politics and in 1994 fulfilled his dream of becoming an elected official—the first Republican elected from District 5, about 100 miles north of Sioux Falls near the border with Minnesota.
Since then, he’s served in and out of the Legislature and was first elected to the Senate’s top position, president pro tem, in 2005. He’s back in that position today and, he says, feels the same sense of awe when he steps into the Capitol that he did as an intern.
The NCSL Leaders’ Center caught up with Schoenbeck to ask how the Legislature has changed during his time in office.
You’ve had several stints in the South Dakota Legislature going back to the late ’70s. What is it about legislative life that keeps you coming back?
I like trying to solve problems, and when I first served, I thought it was about strident advocacy for things you were passionate about. It’s about how do you fix the roads, patch the potholes, make the trains run on time. I think I have a certain knack for getting people together to solve problems. But I’m not going to run again after this time. We don’t lose as many people to term limits as we lose to spouse limits.
How has serving in the Legislature changed in the last 30 years?
Well, we didn’t used to have cellphone service. It was a bag phone in your pickup plugged into your cigarette lighter, and it was line-of-sight technology. I remember there was a big issue and I needed to get it solved over the weekend, get some legislation drafted and introduced so we could actually suspend the rules and pass it through on a Monday. Every 10 to 15 miles you hit a town and from 2 miles outside of town, through town, and until 2 miles the other side of town, you’d have cell service. Then you’d lose it again and you’d say to the person, “Look, I’ll call you when I get to the next town.”
Most legislators were there to see that the ship of state was upright and moving forward. The wackadoodle crazies that were screaming and trying to tip you over were such a small minority. They weren’t as intent on wrecking the ship as some folks are today.
In the ’90s, your constituents called you and you would have the spindle on your desk with the pink slips that would be stacked up, and you called back. We used to send letters. Communication has changed. The other thing that’s changed is the intensity people have when talking about politics now. That didn’t exist. Most legislators were there to see that the ship of state was upright and moving forward. The wackadoodle crazies that were screaming and trying to tip you over were such a small minority. They weren’t as intent on wrecking the ship as some folks are today.
Do you think the changes in communication have been an improvement for democracy, a detriment or maybe a little of both?
Some parts of communication are evil, but a whole bunch aren’t. Your constituents know more. You get more information, better feedback than you ever got before. Your constituents are more engaged. You just have to be able to weed out the noise. That’s more work for legislators than it used to be.
You’ve had a couple stints as the leader of the chamber. How has that changed in the last 20 years?
In South Dakota, we have caucus leaders, majority leaders and minority leaders. Then we have the president pro tem of the Senate, who’s elected by the whole body and is like the chief administrative officer. That’s the title I had back in 2005 and 2006. Now I’m back in the Senate and I’m in the same position 20 years apart. You still have to deal with more of the noise, and you have to protect your members from more of that noise than you ever had to before.
But the fundamental part of the Legislature—and it’s true in the office, it’s true in your church, it’s true in your family—politics is the art of dealing with people. The Legislature continues to be an intensely personal-relationship world. If people trust you, if you make relationships, you will do more and accomplish more.
But they won’t trust you unless they believe you, you have to show you’re informed and you’re credible. You get one chance to tell a lie, not two. It’s all about character and that hasn’t changed in 20 years. The bigger thing now is protecting your members from all those other forces that never existed 20 years ago.
What skills from your legal career have been helpful to you in your legislative career or in your role as a leader?
I’m a civil trial lawyer. The communication skills are important for me to get up on the floor. You can win or lose a jury in just a couple of minutes. You can’t waste words. It would be highly unusual for me to give a five-minute speech on the most complicated topics on the floor of the Senate. It wouldn’t happen.
You’re an outdoorsman and an avid pheasant hunter. What draws you to that?
My wife and I have a home in the Black Hills, too, so hiking is a huge outlet. I’m an intense golfer. My youngest son and I are in the South Dakota Golf Hall of Fame, not because of skill but because one summer we played all 129 golf courses in this state.
But in the fall, I live to be out in a slough. Those of us who are real hunters, it’s best when the snow hits the ground—the deeper the better—and the wind comes up and you’re out in a cattail slough, and the snow is 2 feet deep and the birds are buried in. I’m working my British labs through that heavy cover. You’re not dressed up like the Michelin man. We don’t even wear a coat. You wear a shell over the top of thin layers at zero wind chill, 20 below. Most of the time you just go to some farmer’s house, say, “Hey, I saw some birds going to that slough out there. Would you mind?” It’s snowing out, it’s half a blizzard. They’re looking at you like you’re the craziest person in South Dakota. They say, “Yeah, hell yes, go out there,” just because they can’t believe anybody’s dumb enough to do it. But me and my buddies, we love it. It’s exertional but it’s great fun.
What books are on your nightstand?
I do book reviews on Facebook. I have a huge library. I have all the books by the Founding Fathers that you’ve heard of. I also read Scott Turow and John Grisham—I’ve got all of their books. But Founding Father stuff is my favorite.
I’ve got a huge collection of South Dakota history books. There’s a book about Red Cloud’s War. If you wanted to have a real understanding of the West and the Native American development in the West, you’d read that.
Any advice for new legislators who won their elections last month?
The new senators that’ll be coming in, I’ve told them all, “When you take the oath of office, make sure your families come, too.”
I would also say that on issues, keep your powder dry. That was what the majority leader told me when I showed up in the Senate in 1995. Good advice because you hear one side right away. They make sense and then you commit and the next thing you know, that’s the dumbest idea ever. So keep your powder dry. Relationships matter. Go out and get to know on a personal level the people you’re going to serve with because every one of them has a story and most of them are great stories. If you understand them and they get to understand you, you’re going to solve more problems.
Be disciplined. It doesn’t matter if you can sleep in when you’re at the Capitol. That’s time you wasted that you could have got something done. It’s also true that while you can stay up late at night, that’s generally not good. Don’t forget where you came from. I’m a mechanic’s kid, and I know that I need to get back and talk to regular blue-collar folks.
Elections are like balloons filled with helium, and the election brings you back down to the ground. So you’re talking to people and people are telling you how great you are and filling it up with more helium. Every two years, here in South Dakota, you get brought back down. So you can understand where you’re supposed to be at.
Stacy Householder directs the NCSL Leaders’ Center. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.