Hometown: McLaughlin, S.D.
Role: Director of legislative research, South Dakota Legislature
Years of legislative service: I’ve staffed legislatures for 24 regular sessions, including 16 sessions for the Kansas Legislature in its Legislative Research Department and eight sessions for the South Dakota Legislature in its Legislative Research Council.
Best advice he’s received: “Regardless of your roles and responsibilities, you are not as important as you may perceive yourself to be.”
Why did you choose to work at the legislature?
If the tenses of time were applied to the branches of state government, the judicial branch is responsible for the past, discerning who did what wrong and how to make them whole again. An executive branch is primarily about the present, keeping the lights on and the doors open, processing applications, paving roads, teaching children and catching the bad guys. A legislature’s jurisdiction, then, is shaping the future of public policy. It is focused on the next session, the next term or fiscal year. When a bill is passed, it can have the force of law in perpetuity. Eternity is a rather long time. That’s why legislative deliberations can have something of a quantum feel; there is less certainty and more probability. When staffing a legislature, one works in the future. I’ve always enjoyed working with ideas, balancing the theoretical with the practical.
Regardless of the specialized roles legislative staff fill, the core mission is the same: to facilitate the deliberations of the legislature, the branch of government that governs on behalf of the people. Some political philosophers observed that to have a viable, long-term government, especially for a republic, it is necessary to have persons in the middle, who I call mechanics of statecraft. These are the go-to people government leaders trust and rely upon. Legislative staff can diagnose the symptoms of the body politic and help lawmakers devise treatments. However, when doing so, nonpartisan staff must be mindful of being order takers, not order makers.
What skill or talent are you most proud of?
Skills change over time. In my first decade, I honed my analytical skills to readily explain complex public policy and policy alternatives; I also learned how to take a vague policy objective and turn it into a solid bill draft. Unfortunately, some of my best work will never see the light of day. So it goes. I broadened my fields of knowledge during the second decade, recognizing the patterns and interrelationships between the legal, political, economic and administrative dimensions to policy. In my third decade, I share my insights and experiences (especially the failures) with a new generation of incredibly talented staff.
What’s the best advice you were ever given?
I start each day with a simple prayer: What could possibly go wrong? It usually does. To combat that which goes awry, know who you are and what you want. These might be one-and-done questions to be answered, but it’s wise to reevaluate every so often. Regardless of your roles and responsibilities, you are not as important as you may perceive yourself to be, especially when working for a legislature. Through humility comes strength of purpose. Everything takes at least twice as long as you think it will. Don’t quit too soon.
Who or what inspires you?
My wife, Kristen, who is a gemologist and jewelry designer; my parents, who farmed and ranched 1,300 acres for over 40 years; my former staff colleagues in Kansas and South Dakota from whom I learned so much; and my current staff colleagues in the Legislative Research Council. The creativity, imagination and dedication of these people inspire me daily.
What’s one thing you love about your state?
While I am a son of South Dakota, I am also a grandson of Kansas. I cannot mention only one home state without dishonoring the other. From my years in the Sunflower State, it’s the change of seasons over the rolling hills and sparkling waters found in northeast Kansas. In the Coyote State, it’s the gentle whisper of the wind through the pine trees of the Black Hills.
What are you currently reading/listening to/watching?
For nonfiction, I am reading “Machiavelli’s Ethics,” by Erica Benner. Professor Benner challenges the understandings of Machiavelli, arguing that he was a moral and political philosopher who consistently favored the rule of law over that of men, that he had a coherent theory of justice and that he did not defend the “Machiavellian” maxim that the ends justify the means. By carefully reconstructing the principled foundations of his political theory, the author argues that his difficult and puzzling writing style owes far more to ancient Greek sources than is usually recognized, as does his chief aim: to teach readers how to see through deceptive political appearances and rhetoric.
For fiction, I am reading “The Quantum Magician,” by Derek Künsken. The protagonist is a Homo quantus, engineered to be an analytical savant. He must assemble a team of skilled ne’er-do-wells to sneak a squadron of interstellar warships through an enemy’s wormhole, which could either lead to war or the next step in human evolution. What could possibly go wrong?
When there’s time, I enjoy watching the online videos of Isaac Arthur. His science and futurism channel explores concepts involving space exploration and related topics, keeping his ideas within the bounds of known science or major theories but also referencing science fiction for purposes of comparison.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
For its “Staff Snapshots” series, State Legislatures News is asking legislative staff about their role in the legislature. To suggest a staffer for this series, please use the email icon above to contact Holly South.