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Anti-mask candidates ran for council, mayor in 2 South Dakota cities that have imposed mask mandates — and lost

Voters in Brookings and Yankton, S.D., this week went to the polls in municipal elections, in large part, to support incumbents who passed citywide mandates during the pandemic's height last fall. One mayor said the vote wasn't a referendum on masks, but he gauged wide, if quiet support for a mandate.

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Political signs dot a lawn on April 2, 2021 in Yankton, South Dakota advertising three candidates who expressed frustration with the citywide mask ordinance passed in December. (Submitted photo)
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PIERRE, S.D. — Last fall, they packed a city council meeting in Brookings, S.D., mask-less, adorned in red T-shirts sending a threatening message to officials posed to require masks indoors across the city, and their robust opposition shot around the nation in a video emblematic of the response to COVID-19 in South Dakota.

On Tuesday, April 13, some of those mask-opponents ran for city office.

And lost.

"I felt in my gut, even those loud voices did not represent the majority of our community," said Nick Wendell, a commission member, who voted for the city's facial-covering mandate and received 54% of ballots cast, the most of any candidate.

Tuesday was supposed to be a similar reckoning for an incumbent in Yankton, South Dakota -- one of the other, albeit few towns in the Rushmore state to pass a mask mandate.

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Yard signs saying "vote 3 for liberty" dotted yards days before the election, with one candidate — a former mayor Curt Bernard — calling in a candidate interview for voters to cast ballots for him and two others to turn the city commission into a "pro-America, 1776, with more liberty kind of commission."

But instead, the town's current mayor, Nathan Johnson, as well as incumbent Bridget Benson, and candidate, Mike Villanueva, who spread the word of trusting doctors — even "epidemiologists" — prevailed easily .

"I don't know that the everyday voter saw this as a referendum for how the city handled the pandemic," said Johnson, who won over 67% of ballots cast. But, he added, "Based on the feedback we got when we passed the mask mandate, a large majority of the community agreed with that decision."

"A lot of people understood why we did what we did."

Up in Brookings, home to the state's largest university but also a manufacturing sector with Daktronics and 3M plants, Wendell, commissioner Patty Bacon, and mayoral candidate Oepke "Ope" Niemeyer beat challengers unified under a "Brighter Brookings" coalition spawned from an anti-mask coalition who showed up in droves of red T-shirts to last fall's meeting.

At the September meeting, chiropractor Isaiah Crevier stood up to say, "I think freedom is more important than money" adding at his own practice, "we will not be wearing a mask."

On Tuesday, Crevier came in fourth place, garnering 31% of ballots. It was the same for mayoral candidate Jeff Miller, who told the Brookings Register he was "never a big fan of" a mask ordinance. He earned 33% of the vote.

Campaigns are never about one topic, but Wendell notes the mask mandate "was the very first question" at a Chamber of Commerce-backed forum.

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When he decided to run eight weeks ago, Wendell says he vowed not "to spend the next two months debating if masks worked." But he said his campaign war chest — usually $2,500 — grew three-fold, largely from unsolicited donations.

"It seemed like people in the community were sending a message," he said.

While South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem spurned mandates, Brookings, Yankton, Sioux Falls, Mitchell, and Huron all passed versions of a mask requirement locally, at the urging of health professionals. None carried penalties for violations. Only Brookings' mandate is still in place, where countywide COVID-19 mortality rates rank 6th-lowest in the state.

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