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South Dakota's new legislative map could be quiet victory for Democrats

While Republicans will almost certainly continue to hold one-party dominance in the Rushmore State's Statehouse, the new map will open up potential swing districts in Sioux Falls and Rapid City.

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The South Dakota House of Representatives gave narrow, bipartisan approval to a new legislative map on the third day of negotiations on Wednesday, November 10, 2021. Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service

PIERRE, S.D. — In telling silence, during the final House of Representatives debate on South Dakota's new Sparrow legislative map, the thin row of Democrats along the north wall stayed silent.

Not because they were unhappy with the new map, but because this was a family feud. And sometimes it's best to just stay out of the way.

Conservative and moderates in the South Dakota Legislature had sparred over the course of three days of negotiations on redistricting this past week, often in public, often in the House.

Prior to the second night's medical emergency, when an ill Majority Leader Kent Peterson, R-Salem, was ushered out of the caucus room on a stretcher , corridors had filled with shouts between Republican senators, lawmakers leaned against pillars taking intense, hushed phone calls, and legislators carried business to Pierre's restaurants, sometimes using a fist clenched to make a point.

Usually the bickering (and bargaining) in Pierre happens behind the closed doors of the GOP caucus. But this week, it spilled into the open.

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Even before the House State Affairs gaveled in Wednesday morning, Nov. 10, tensions rippled around the fourth floor of the Capitol as lawmakers attempted one last swing at changes to a map.

It caused some to wonder if Senate Pro Tempore Lee Schoenbeck would preemptively gavel out and adjourn, essentially ghosting the House. After all, he had done that to close Monday night's del iberations on the Senate side, and at the end of Veto Day in March .

"I don't think that'll happen," Rep. Drew Dennert , R-Aberdeen, said in response to a reporter's question of whether a House amendment to shift Native-heavy voting precincts to a western district would cause Schoenbeck to gavel out.

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South Dakota Rep. Drew Dennert, a Republican from Aberdeen, speaks with reporters on Wednesday, November 10, 2021 outside a closed-door caucus meeting about an amendment he supports to the Sparrow map. Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service

Dennert repeated himself, a little less assuredly.

"At least, I don't think that'll happen."

On Wednesday morning, Sen. Brock Greenfield , R-Clark, spoke more candidly with reporters, "We used to be able to make deals with the House." He suggested compromise had been tougher over the last five years.

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Ultimately, the House voted for Sparrow , with more Republicans in opposition (31) than in support (30) . But it was the seven Democrats who carried the map across the finish line.

Minutes after the debate, underneath a poster of JFK, House Minority Leader Jamie Smith , D-Sioux Falls, talked about the process that saw Democrats playing the role of the proverbial middle sibling maintaining neutrality on a long car ride.

"We've worked hard to maintain our relationships with everybody," said Smith, a former wrestling coach.

The animosity between the House and Senate Republicans is somewhat par for the course in Pierre, where a decades-old Republican supermajority operates often as its own de facto legislature within a legislature and Democrats are mostly symbolic opposition. Disagreement is as natural between fiscal and social conservatives, between leadership and rank and file members, as the divide between East and West River.

But a split on a transgender bill at the end of the 2021 session foreshadowed a chippy mood during summer study sessions, from marijuana to housing to redistricting.

This latest round went to the moderates — those who run the Senate and maintain closest ties to Sioux Falls' economy — even amid cries of unfairness from the House.

"Before this committee even met, the leader of the Senate had a map and it was posted," said Rep. Bethany Soye , R-Sioux Falls. "We are a sovereign body, and we need to stand up for each other."

The intra-chamber saber-rattling tested the patience of Rep. Nancy York , R-Watertown. "I wish that these two bodies could work together," York said. "I got all wild and crazy about the hemp," she said plainly. "I lost. Sun came up the next morning."

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While Republicans aired parting shots, a dulcet victory may have belonged to Democrats. While they lamented the widening of District 27, encompassing Pine Ridge, to include Wall and other, majority-white Pennington County towns, Democrats may also grow their fledgling ranks.

"The voters are going to have choices when they go to the ballot box," said Rep. Ryan Cwach , D-Yankton, who sat on the redistricting committee.

There'll be a new district in Sioux Falls, running from McKennan Park to working-class neighborhoods on the east side. Majority-Indigenous precincts in North Rapid will join with District 32 to create a potential swing district.

But the next decade will almost certainly see GOP clout continue in Pierre. Sparrow pits a handful of races into GOP primaries against each other — in rural Minnehaha County, Aberdeen, and possibly in the southeast corner — but Republicans continue to gain on Democrats in party registration .

Maybe that's why, even amidst the rancor, Sen. Jim Bolin , R-Canton, who is set to see District 16 lose the suburban voter in Dakota Dunes, could still hang onto a whimsical mood, moseying around a corner on the last morning, quoting the Grateful Dead , "it's been a long, strange trip."

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South Dakota Rep. Drew Dennert, a Republican from Aberdeen, speaks with reporters on Wednesday, November 10, 2021 outside a closed-door caucus meeting about an amendment he supports to the Sparrow map. Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service

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