Interview: Gov. Kristi Noem Wants To Protect Liberty And Public Health In South Dakota

Interview: Gov. Kristi Noem Wants To Protect Liberty And Public Health In South Dakota

"I’m just a big believer that the best person to make decisions for them and their family is the individual," said the Republican governor from South Dakota.
The Federalist Staff
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Republican Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota was one of the first officials to reject the one-size-fits-all approach to combating the Wuhan coronavirus, deciding not to issue shelter-in-place orders on her state that has seen less than 1,000 cases. Noem also announced Monday South Dakota would be the first to begin a statewide clinical trial for the  drug hydroxychloroquine as a potential treatment for the coronavirus.

On this episode of The Federalist Radio Hour, Publisher Ben Domenech interviews Noem on why she’s rejecting the uniform approach other states have taken, how the virus’ impact has differed in South Dakota, and her thoughts as a fiscal conservative on the federal government’s economic band-aid.

Listen to the podcast here, or read the full transcript below:

Ben Domenech: I know that this is always something that happens when a governor, particularly a governor who has conservative values, ends up challenging perhaps the national narrative in any particular policy respect, though I think that the tempers are a little higher than normal given the issues involved today. This week you got slammed by a number of national media outlets, but particularly I would say the Washington Post, for the stand that you’ve had that has been applauded by, I think, a number of your citizens, and certainly a lot of folks that I think you’re familiar with, namely that a one size fits all solution is not really what you want to adopt and in your own state. Tell me a little bit about why you hold that belief and what your reaction has been to the backlash you’ve received.

Kristi Noem: Here in South Dakota, we just believe a lot in personal responsibility. We have a very diverse state, low population and looking at COVID-19 as it’s spreading across the state, we need to be effective. But in order to do that, it has to have a very targeted approach based on what part of the state we’re looking at. I’m one of the states that has not issued a shelter-in-place order. We did put in place some mitigation efforts, encouraged people to keep their group sizes under 10, to do social distancing, to practice good hygiene, all those measures.

We have a couple of counties that have higher rates than the rest of the state. There, we’ve asked the vulnerable people just to stay home for the next three weeks if they do have a health condition or if they’re elderly. But other than that, when I gave my guidance to the state of South Dakota, they overwhelmingly responded. In fact, I would say we’ve got a lot of people that are staying home and being responsible than many of the states that do have enforceable shelter-in-place measures.

So I’ve just been really proud. I’m just a big believer that the best person to make decisions for them and their family is the individual, and that this is about our freedoms and liberties while protecting public health, and it’s worked very well for our state. Overwhelmingly, our state is in a great position. In fact, we’re better off than what we had projected.

And even today, we’re going to report out some modeling numbers that are even better than they were two weeks ago. So we do have one hot spot in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, that’s in a pork processing plant. That, we are aggressively going after with testing and isolation and things like that. But other than that, the people of South Dakota are doing the job to make sure we’re beating this virus.

Ben Domenech: I have a number of questions for you, but before get into that, I had the opportunity to meet you several years ago when you were in Congress and I know that you have the unique perspective of being someone who served recently in that body and then went back home to take on the bigger job of being governor. I’m curious as to your perspective on what Washington has been doing and what they haven’t been doing up to this point.

There’s a lot of discussion back and forth between leaders in the Senate, and less so perhaps in the House, about what ought to be done next and different areas that ought to be addressed. What do you think Washington has gotten right so far when it comes to Congress and what do you think that they need to pay more attention to?

Kristi Noem: I’ve appreciated, first of all, the administration giving governors the opportunity to make decisions for their state on what kind of mitigation measures and recognizing states’ rights throughout the whole process and the role that governors do have to put in place protocols that work for their states. As far as Congress, they passed several pieces of legislation that are to send help during this time of crisis. And we certainly appreciate them focusing on the economy. The economy is absolutely devastated.

I’d say here in South Dakota, we felt the impact even though we didn’t have a shelter-in-place and I haven’t closed any businesses or mandated it, I’ve allowed my business owners to be innovative. I’ve allowed them to figure out new ways to care for their employees while taking care of customers. We still, as soon as the president recommended everybody stay home and take a 15-day pause, people in South Dakota listened. So our economy’s been dramatically impacted.

I’d say one of the things that is very unfortunate for us is that they did not include a provision to provide for revenue loss at the state level. While it was out of our control here at the states to see companies and airlines and cruise companies and even rightly so, families be helped in those Bills, the fact that states and the role that we’re playing and the fact that we’re running the front line offense against the virus, to have our revenue loss not noticed has been very difficult.

I’m hoping my delegation’s working on it. I hope the rest of them recognize that if there are dollars there that we are the ones that are charged and closest to the people that that need them, make sure that we’re maintaining our department of health and maintaining people out here that are responding to the families, helping them get jobs and get retrained into employment and labor and standing up the economy.

Ben Domenech: The revenue loss that you’re talking about is obviously going to hit areas that are impacted by tourism and the like very hard. I’m curious about what your expectations are for that. If you’re one of these western states that a lot of people traditionally would travel to spend a good bit of money, help shore up the economy and come visit in times like this, if they were allowed to do that kind of traveling or to get on an airplane, do you have any grasp yet of the level of shortfall that you’re going to be facing here in the coming months?

Kristi Noem: Yeah, it’s historical in the very worst way. Our number one industry is agriculture, which has had a really rough five or six years here, just with all the trade disagreements that have been going on, and also we flooded all of last year, the vast majority of South Dakota was an emergency disaster declaration for the entire calendar year. Our second largest industry is tourism, and our hospitality industry hit a brick wall. It went from 100% booked to almost nothing.

And so those hotels are empty, the restaurants are empty. We have the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore, a lot of people come to South Dakota to see the beautiful landscape that we have, and it has absolutely devastated. So that’s the difficult part of this is so much of this is out of our control and out of those business owners’ control. We’re responding at the state level, but a recognition of that at the federal level would certainly be helpful.

Especially for us Republican states are pretty thrifty anyways. We have it in our state constitution. We balance our state budget every year. We only have a sales tax really, and a couple of video lottery and a bank franchise tax. That’s what all we have. We don’t have an income tax, we don’t have a personal property tax, a state tax, we’re a very conservative state and a well-run government, and we got hit so hard. There’s just not a lot of options for us.

Ben Domenech: You had a reputation in Washington as being someone who was very fiscally conservative, along with your other values and it’s frustrating. I know too, a lot of fiscal conservatives, particularly fiscally conservative moms who I’ve heard from in the last couple of weeks, frustrated that Washington is spending such a huge amount of money that they view as being something that their kids are going to have to pay off and their grandkids are going to have to pay off.

How do you balance your own fiscal conservatism with the need in this particular moment, given that this shutdown that’s happened nationwide is of our own decision, is something that the government is doing for very justifiable reasons in the most part, but it’s also something that we’re doing to ourselves. How do you feel about that?

Kristi Noem: Absolutely. I have a lot of colleagues that are still in Congress that I’ve had hours of discussion with over these bills. And I understand them putting measures in place that don’t want to bail out states for bad budgeting in the past. I think that’s one of the reasons that they put in provisions not to account for revenue loss for states because they didn’t want to bail out pension funds and they didn’t want to do some of those things and I certainly understand that as well.

What I told them is the amount of money that’s going out in these bills, then make sure it’s accountable. Put in accountability measures that it is going to where we are saying it is going, that we can show our economy was devastated and that we’re actually putting it into places that will compound and pay off into the future. That we’re putting it into economic development, retraining of our workforce, which was an issue long before this virus hit, that we’re putting it into developments that will help us stand on our own two feet.

Don’t just make payments that don’t fix some of the ongoing issues that we had growing our economies to begin with. That in itself, at least we can show, is an investment that will pay off rather than just another bailout.

Ben Domenech: I know that you are facing a ton of issues that are specific to the experience of a rural western state. On the national level, the overwhelming media attention has been toward New York City because of its role as the epicenter of all of this, but particularly towards dense city populations, New Jersey, Michigan, and California, et cetera.

This, to me, is a real reminder of how differently people live in terms of just how many people they interact with on a daily basis, how close together they live in a city versus in the country. What’s something that you hope that maybe the national level of media coverage of this would appreciate about the difference between life in a rural western state versus the lives that they’re so used to living in major cities?

Kristi Noem: I would just say that while we’re pretty sparse in how we’re spread out in our sparsity fact, we do have areas that are pretty populated too. I think that this one situation in Minnehaha County difficult with this pork processing plant is that that community happens to live, many generations, in one building and apartment complexes, very crowded, much more dense and that’s why we’re seeing so much spread in that situation. I think what I would love for people to learn about this virus in South Dakota and places like New York City and in California is just the value and our way of life.

The common sense of the people that live here, that they are more than willing to take personal responsibility for themselves and their families. What I have told them is that we are doing actions at the state level and giving some authorities and letting your counties and your States, cities make decisions as well, but you for your family have every opportunity to take precautions. Stay in your home, don’t come out if you don’t want to.

I think that’s the value of South Dakotans is that they’ve completely recognize that, and they appreciate the opportunity to make the right decision. And they’re not sitting around waiting for people to tell them what to do. They’re willing to make their future and follow guidance based on experts.

Ben Domenech: The interesting thing here of course, though, is that you’re facing a challenge that is, that is very unique in the sense that while you can have policy experts or subject matter experts who advise politicians, politicians ultimately have to make the decisions, governors have to make the decisions. But it creates a problem where very few governors want to stick their head out there, lest they be subject to attacks from the media by breaking with others on various points.

We saw that even most recently with the announcements this week about the Northeastern Coalition of Governors who were going to work together on this, it’s an act of trying to give each other political cover so that no one has to make their own decision. One of the decisions that I feel like everybody’s going to have to make, who’s in your job across the country, that’s very critical, is what’s done when it comes to public schooling.

There’s clearly a huge economic impact from for working families and for people where their both parents work or it’s a single parent, of the knowledge of whether their kid is going to be able to go back to public school and for the kids themselves, whether they’re going to be held back or have their education damaged by not being able to go to school.

That’s a decision that you’re going to face as a governor. What is your feeling about that now and how will you plan to talk to the citizens of South Dakota about the risk that that entails, not necessarily as much for the children, but for those who could be around them who could have either a spike or an outbreak or something like that because a kid brings it home?

Kristi Noem: And that’s one of the things that creates more of a challenge in a state like South Dakota because we are so remote and so rural. Providing distance education can be more challenging because we don’t even have internet access to some parts of the state yet. I have already made the decision that we won’t be gathering schoolchildren in their buildings for the rest of the school year. That’s largely because we don’t anticipate that our peak of infection rates will be until the middle of June.

So we know that peak will happen after school would be over and I wanted to give our administration and our teachers the opportunity to come up with solutions to deliver those learning educational opportunities at home, where it would be more innovative and more effective for our kids. So we are working with each and every one of those school districts. I’ve been super impressed with what they’re doing to make sure those kids are getting the materials and the help that they need.

In fact, it’s been remarkable to me to see the teachers, many times they’re giving individualized lesson plans to each of the kids and going above and beyond and putting in extra hours to make sure that they’re keeping them up to speed with where they need to be. And it is a challenge and we are also recognizing that we’ve got to put some investments in to make sure that they have the curriculum, and they have the ability to have internet access where it’s necessary to keep that education on course. But we are out for the rest of the school year, doing distance learning, and by fall we’re hopeful that those kiddos can be back in their school buildings.

Ben Domenech: I wonder what your kids are telling you about their own experience, and the experience of their friends during this process.

Kristi Noem: I’ve got a senior in high school, so he was just finishing his basketball season and was looking forward to track and graduation and prom, and all that got derailed. So my kids have had… We are farmers and ranchers, and then me serving in Congress, they’re used to plans changing quite often, but it is interesting for them. I think a lot of kids are finding comfort in families and whole families for kids that that don’t have a solid situation at home. For them, it’s making them much more unsettled.

So they’re concerned about their friends, they’re concerned about their friends, that social activities was a big part of their lives and that’s the one effect that I’ve tried to balance continuously as we do have a public health threat in this virus. We also have a huge mental health challenge ahead of us, we have a huge economic problem that’s going to happen when families can’t put food on the table and a roof over their heads, and balancing that with the economy, and how we’re going to get people back up and back to a normal way of life, absolutely has to be balanced.

So I’ve told the people of South Dakota in virtually every single day and every single press conference I have that I will use the science and the facts and the data to make every single decision, that we can’t afford to get caught up in an emotional side path that takes our eye off the ball and creates fear because good decisions don’t get made that way. We have to always come back to the foundation of what do we know today and what are the facts, that it will deliver these kinds of results that we need here in South Dakota.

Ben Domenech: And you made reference to the folks who are really worried about putting food on the table and a roof over their heads. The experience, I think during this process, for those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to work from home and tele-work and work remotely and not have fear of losing a job, is very different from those working people who have to go to a place in order to do their jobs, who are stuck in situations, in lots of states across the country where they’re unable to do so.

I wonder what your thoughts are about the differences and the ways that this is impacting working class people who are only a paycheck or two away from not being able to afford to pay their rent or to or put food on the table for their family. Is that something that we ought to be paying more attention to?

Kristi Noem: I absolutely believe so. That’s the population of South Dakota. We have a very high rate of working individuals in the state of South Dakota. In fact, we have the highest rate of working moms in the nation. Our people here work very hard and they don’t make a lot of money. They work in those service jobs. They are the ones who grow our food that the rest of the nation depends on. They’re the ones who get up every day, and both mom and dad in the household work if that household has two parents in it, just to pay the bills.

So those are the people that are being extremely challenged right now. And for them it doesn’t take more than two or three weeks for them to recognize that everything they’ve worked for for years is swiftly running through their fingers. So that’s why I’ve tried to balance my approach, give businesses the opportunity to be flexible and innovative with how they run their business so that they can keep people employed, so they can keep giving them an opportunity to pay their bills, to take care of their kids and to see a brighter future when we get through this situation.

Ben Domenech: I know that this past Easter weekend there were a lot of governors and mayors, local officials who were facing challenges as it related to the religious members of their population, people who wanted to gather together. And there was some clashes, obviously between them, the department of justice put out a letter at attorney general Barr’s request, that detailed a real warning shot about localities that we’re trying to restrict that.

How do you balance the appreciation for religious liberty with the very real risks that come from the typical religious services where people are all up next to each other, singing and having the kind of contact that could lead to a spread of the virus.

Kristi Noem: Some of our churches in the state had services, some didn’t. Most of them I would say delivered online services or streamed their messages. And I did not weigh in on any of that. This is a constitutional right and one of the things that and reasons that this country was established, and I felt that the flexibility to allow people to worship needed to be honored and respected on Easter Sunday.

Ben Domenech: In terms of the issues that are facing all of us as we go forward, one of the questions that is going to come out of this is people are going to be able to evaluate the different ways that different entities responded to the risks entailed within all of the different decisions that are being made, either to clamp down really hard or to give a lot of faith in your citizens to behave better.

This is going to be something that’s going to be assessed and people are going to look back at the numbers and say, and they’re going to be critics on both sides of what was done, both the slow response in New York City, in a lot of ways, and a lot of the fear that was engendered there that has thankfully turned out not to really match what the experiences were in terms of shortages of particular things or having to use the Javits Center for hundreds and hundreds of people.

The flip side is that you are really making a bet on being right when it comes to trusting people and having a more liberty attitude towards their ability to make decisions for themselves. Was that something that ever gave you pause? Did you ever kind of stop and have to wrestle with that as something where, “You know what, it would be just safer for me, as so many other governors have done, to just clamp down, even if the numbers don’t seem to justify it before we see anything bad happen.”

Kristi Noem: I would say, all the time. Constantly. It’s every single decision I make. I think and I pray, and I know that whatever that decision is, it could make the difference for a family member that will not get infected, will get infected, a community, and that forever, for all time, people will be able to point to a decision that I’ve made and talk about how it potentially hurt their family or made a situation worse.

I also know that when I campaigned and ran for this job and asked South Dakotans to trust me, I told them who I was. I told them my foundational principles, my values, and I asked them to trust me with a position based on what kind of a person I am. And so I know that I have to be true to that and to uphold the oath that I took to uphold the constitution of the state of South Dakota. I also took the oath to uphold the constitution of the United States of America and that I take that extremely seriously.

So my integrity and credibility is is important and I think the people of South Dakota recognize that I’m not making decisions based on my own political future, that I truly am making decisions based on what the experts are telling me are good for them and for their families and that will continue to protect their freedoms and liberties for generations to come.

Ben Domenech: As we wrap up, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about this trial that you are pursuing, the first statewide clinical trial involving this drug that has been, potentially in some instances, found to be a benefit as for treatment for people, particularly those who are treated with it early on. Tell me a little bit about the step that you’re taking with that and why you decided to pursue it.

Kristi Noem: I think we’ve all heard about the drug Hydroxychloroquine and how it has seen some results across the country, across the world in helping those that are infected with COVID-19. And I have a healthcare system named Sanford Health that is a world renowned research facility that has done incredible work in other areas, treating viruses and diseases, and I asked them and they have been speaking with me about the possibility of doing a drug trial here in the state of South Dakota.

I just really felt like we should take it statewide. I have two other health systems that agreed to be partners, and so now we have started and are undergoing the first ever statewide state-backed clinical trial on this drug, on hydroxy, that I think will be extremely valuable, not just to contribute the long lasting treatment for this virus. This drug will be able to impact up to 100,000 people in our state, so it is extremely significant.

Ben Domenech: Last question. I know that you have to have been personally impacted by this, everyone that I’ve talked to has been one way or the other. You mentioned a little bit of your son’s experience in terms of being a high school senior and having that disrupt his life. How has your family dealt with it generally in terms of the disruptions of life that they’re facing? And for you, though, does it feel a little bit more like business as usual just because you have so much to focus on in terms of your work?

Kristi Noem: No, I think that’s one thing people forget is that we’re people and we’re humans too. We lost a state legislator here that was a friend of mine to this virus. We lost a mom that was about my age, that I’ve known her and her family for years, that passed away suddenly with possible complications from the virus. I have a mom who’s in the vulnerable age that has diabetes, I have a son who has severe asthma, I have two nephews that have diabetes.

So when I’m talking about vulnerable populations, I’m picturing my loved ones faces much like everybody else in the state of South Dakota is as well. And I think that’s what everybody… Would be some grace they could offer to their leaders and their States across the country is just recognize that they have families and that they probably have a friend or colleague that they know that has… They feel the responsibility and weight of their decisions.

Ben Domenech: Governor Noem, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us today. I really appreciate it.

Kristi Noem: Oh, absolutely. Anytime.

Listen to the podcast here:

Photo Governor Kristi Noem/Facebook
Photo Greta Van Susteren on Full Court Press Now
Photo Noem/Facebook

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