Serial ballot backer Weiland set to run abortion, grocery tax campaigns in South Dakota
For Rick Weiland, a longtime understudy of former Senator Tom Daschle, says he's focused on ballot measures that bring victories on "kitchen-table issues."
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The two highest-profile progressive causes in South Dakota during the 2024 election will not take the form of candidates.
Instead, they will entail two popular referendum campaigns: one to greatly expand legal abortions within the state and another to take away the state sales tax on grocery items.
Rick Weiland — a longtime Tom Daschle understudy, former Democratic candidate for Senate and now a serial ballot measure backer — is set to run both of these campaigns alongside his son, Adam, through their ballot committee Dakotans for Health.
Despite his deep roots in South Dakota Democratic politics, Weiland is entirely separate from the party apparatus, a decision he says he made to “focus on kitchen-table issues.”
Several of the state’s top Democrats declined interviews on the reason for a lack of public interaction between the party itself and a man who has helped back a handful of progressive victories in the state.
“While I am aware of the tensions you're talking about, what kind of drives me nuts is, apparently, you can't get anyone to go on the record and just say, ‘Well, Rick, (upset me), and here's why,’” said Cory Heidelberger, a self-described “completely biased” friend of Weiland who runs the liberal bog Dakota Free Press. “It smells of this sort of self-destructive habit Democrats seem to have of holding grudges from a long time ago. Instead of just going, we’ve got to get stuff done, and we've got people willing to help. Let's get stuff done.”
Carrying the torch for the ‘every county’ South Dakota strategy
A Madison native, Weiland places himself in a lineage of South Dakota Democratic Party heavyweights like George McGovern and former Senator Tom Daschle, who he spent around two decades working for in South Dakota and Washington, D.C.
The shared theme, in the words of Weiland, is a commitment to the state’s grassroots: an all-county, all-municipality strategy to drive change in South Dakota.
However, with dwindling partisan support for Democrats around the state, the form of progressive victories has changed over his career, leading him to become a “convert” to the initiative process.
“It's really hard to recruit someone to run in a district where they started off with a 3,000-vote disadvantage, right?” Weiland said of one of his roles prior to going all-in on ballot measures, in which he helped recruit Democratic candidates for the state legislature. “So little by little, we were seeing successes at the ballot box using the citizen initiative process to drive change, and there's been a string of victories.”
Heidelberger says the change in strategy makes sense considering Weiland’s influences.
“The idea that we're going to mobilize people at the grassroots all over South Dakota to have a say in their government, that's very easy to fit within the democratic tradition. Capital and lowercase democratic,” Heidelberger said. “So it makes sense that Rick, after running as a candidate a couple of times, developed this passion for pursuing this avenue.”
Beginning with the successful increase of the state’s minimum wage in 2014, Weiland helped either directly or tangentially with several ballot campaigns, including the anti-corruption Initiated Measure 22 and the payday lending cap Initiated Measure 21 in 2016, as well as recent campaigns for medical cannabis legalization, against a referred amendment to increase the required threshold for ballot initiatives with spending measures and within the early stages of Medicaid expansion.
He points to the 2014 minimum wage campaign — a joint effort with organized labor and the state’s Democratic Party — as a prime example of what can happen when different institutions push in the same direction.
“I have suggested to the party on numerous occasions that [referendums] are something they should get more serious about,” he said. “Since the success in 2014, the party hasn't done anything on that front."
The perception of a rift between Weiland and the Democratic Party may circle around the idea that Weiland is perhaps not the most effective ballot referendum runner: the abortion ballot measure does not yet have the institutional backing of Planned Parenthood, and, before Weiland’s Medicaid expansion ballot committee was dissolved last July, it competed for airtime and dollars with the ultimately successful Amendment D Medicaid expansion campaign.
In Weiland’s defense, he and those around him chalk up these perceived issues to his self-starting impulse.
“Having been in the space, you can sit around a table and talk until you're blue in the face and all of a sudden it's too late to even file let alone collect signatures to get it done,” Weiland said. “And I was really determined because of the Dobbs decision, and because of what happened in Kansas, that we would hit the streets the first day we could by law. And we've invited everybody to join us.”
Still, among those in the Democratic party proper, the work of Weiland and countless other ballot organizers has not gone unnoticed.
During her speech at the Democratic nominating convention earlier this year, the party’s new president, Jennifer Slaight-Hansen, argued that the 55% of voters who supported Medicaid expansion, and even the 45% who supported recreational cannabis, are evidence of a constituency for South Dakota’s liberal party larger than its recent statewide candidate performances might indicate.
Slaight-Hansen did not respond to a request for an interview on whether the party could be doing more to associate itself with these campaigns or if she plans to work more closely with Weiland.
Weiland says Slaight-Hansen is a close friend, and that they’ve had several conversations before and after her election as party chair.
According to state GOP Chair John Wiik, the state’s dominant party has noticed the morphing of progressive politics in South Dakota into a ballot campaign focus and plans to begin meeting it in 2024.
“The Republican Party has been a very effective electoral tool in South Dakota for a very long time. And Democrats can't beat us in a one-on-one, fair fight,” he said. “So they resort to out-of-state money and ballot measures to try to advance their agenda. And we're going to meet them head-on this time and stop them.”
Weiland set to manage hot-button referendum campaigns on abortion, food tax
While Weiland certainly has had practice in these statewide issue campaigns, 2024 is set to be a different beast, with Dakotans for Health managing the two highest-profile ballot campaigns so far filed with the secretary of state’s office.
On Nov. 5, 2022, the first day possible to collect signatures for the following election, Weiland and supporters launched the first of these campaigns: an abortion constitutional amendment that would legalize abortion entirely in the first trimester, undoing South Dakota’s stringent restrictions on abortion, which is only legal to save the life of the mother.
According to the proposed amendment’s text, state regulation “reasonably related to the physical health of the pregnant woman” is allowed beginning in the second trimester; in the third trimester, the state can regulate abortion “except when… necessary to preserve the life or health of the pregnant woman.”
Though the abortion ballot amendment, assuming it reaches its signature goal by next May, will be the first time South Dakotans vote directly on abortion since the overturn of Roe v. Wade last summer, residents in 2006 and 2008 voted twice to reject abortion bans, with about 55% against in both cases.
Tiffany Campbell, who worked on those past campaigns and is involved in collecting signatures for the 2024 ballot amendment, praised the apparatus that the Weiland family has already helped build for a successful campaign, involving hundreds of volunteers and weekly office hours in Rapid City, Sioux Falls and Vermillion.
“I have learned a tremendous amount from Rick and Adam,” she said. “They are proud of what they're doing. They know exactly what they're doing. And their success rates prove that.”
The opposition to the ballot amendment has quickly materialized, too. Rep. Jon Hansen, a state lawmaker from Dell Rapids, is chairing the Life Defense Fund ballot committee, and has called the amendment “extreme.”
In a tweet laying out his specific opposition, Hansen pointed out that, unlike the term “physical health” used in the second trimester, there is no such modifier for “health” in the third-trimester language. He says he’s worried that the broad definition could allow late-term abortions even if the mother’s physical health is not in doubt.
Weiland calls this and other critiques, “a bunch of baloney,” and says the language is consistent with the standard in Roe v. Wade.
The other ballot measure concerns the repeal of the state tax on groceries, a longtime priority of Democrats in the state that took on new life during the 2022 election and 2023 legislative session, when the policy received vocal support from South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem.
The grocery tax campaign has not swung into full signature-collecting gear quite yet, as Weiland says the campaign had to work to make sure the attorney general’s interpretative note accurately portrayed the ballot initiative.
“Our language only focuses on the state share of 4.2%. It has nothing to do with municipalities, and it never did,” Weiland said, pointing out the language that will appear on the ballot specifically reads “municipalities may continue to impose such taxes.”
While a fiscal note from the Legislative Research Council said that municipalities would be left alone, the original attorney general’s note indicated municipalities would be affected. A more recent note from the attorney general says this only affects the state, though the note adds “judicial clarification of the amendment will be necessary.”
Weiland hopes to have Noem sign the grocery tax cut petition; Heidelberger half-joked that Dakotans for Health might be better off getting out of the way and letting Noem run the campaign herself.
Whether he has the support of the Democratic Party or not, Weiland’s efforts should form the crux of progressive organizing in the state over the next 18 months. Heidelberger encouraged institutional Democrats to ride the coattails.
“[Democrats] have nothing to lose by embracing ballot measures and campaigning on them passionately. Doing all the synergy they can during signature collection to meet voters, get people registered and activate circulators doing something practical,” Heidelberger said. “All to make sure there are initiatives out there that embody good Democratic principles, like respecting abortion rights and repealing the food tax to help people feed their kids.”
Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or email@example.com.