Only two years ago, former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.) was engaged in a tight election race against Republican challenger Kristi Noem. Her campaign trail included a stop at the University of South Dakota, where Herseth Sandlin met with students and faculty to raise support for her bid for re-election.
In the end, Herseth Sandlin was defeated by Noem and removed from a position she had held for eight years, a process she described as a challenge to overcome.
“Professionally and personally, it was a painful experience,” she said. “In part because I felt I had a solid record for South Dakota. I felt I got caught in a tide that was very partisan that swept out those of us who were trying to moderate legislation and work across the aisle.”
Herseth Sandlin was back on the USD campus Oct. 29 as a participant in the Congress to Campus program, which promotes student awareness of the role of Congress. She was accompanied by her husband, former Rep. Max Sandlin (D-Texas), and former Rep. Dan Miller. Sandlin was a representative for Texas, while Miller represented Florida
during their careers on Capitol Hill.
Sandlin was defeated in his 2004 bid for re-election, ending an eight-year term in the House. He said an election loss presents similar emotions to all politicians, particularly incumbents. Sandlin said an exchange between former Vice President Walter Mondale and the late George McGovern represents how difficult an election loss can be for a politician.
“After Mondale lost (the 1984 Presidential race), he asked McGovern, ‘How long does it take to get over a loss like this?’ And McGovern said ‘I’ll let you know when it happens,’ ” Sandlin said. “You just never quite get over a loss.”
For Herseth Sandlin, life after the defeat has been a significant adjustment. She still had to return to Congress for the remainder of the term. In a lame duck session that limited her influence to a degree, Herseth Sandlin said she was part of a House that passed a substantial amount of legislation.
“We did accomplish some things in the lame duck that were important to South Dakota,” Herseth Sandlin said. “We modernized the school lunch program, we were able to avoid a fiscal cliff, though not of the magnitude the Congress faces this December, but we did find some compromise in
After she finished out the final months of her term, Herseth Sandlin searched for the next step in her career. As it turned out, her next position was closely related to her old job.
“I was very fortunate to have had some opportunities where I had some choices to stay involved in public policy I had been working on,” Herseth Sandlin said. “During that time after the election, I had some constituents in South Dakota as well as our region who reached out to see if I would continue to be involved in their issues, particularly in agriculture, nutrition and renewable energy.”
Herseth Sandlin served as a partner at Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Matz PC in Washington, D.C. She said her time with the law firm was fulfilling and allowed her to continue to represent the state even though she was outside of Congress.
“I found a great fit with the firm where I could bring new clients (in) that were based in South Dakota and our region and continue to work on their issues,” Herseth Sandlin said. “While I couldn’t lobby my former colleagues for a year, I think I offered strategic advice. I was also able to facilitate meetings with the agencies that were implementing legislation that was important to economic development in South Dakota.”
She said she feels her experience after serving the state has been fulfilling, as she still remains a relevant figure for the state’s interest.
“It’s a natural progression,” Herseth Sandlin said. “I’m now with a private company in South Dakota and we do work in agriculture and energy development so I’ve been very fortunate to find some good fits post-Congress that have allowed me to focus my passions for South Dakota and those areas.”
For a political activist like herself, Herseth Sandlin admitted she still misses the role of public servant.
“It’s still hard. I miss serving,” Herseth Sandlin said. “I miss being surrounded by a group of talented people who are focused on the same goal, which is to make a difference for South Dakotans and be focused on what matters most.”
While she hasn’t ruled out a continued future in politics, Herseth Sandlin said her life situation is at a drastically different stage than when she first ran for office.
“When I chose to run back when I was in my early 30’s, I was still single, I wasn’t a mom and I had just started a big law firm, billing hours,” she said. “I was in a different personal and professional place.”
Given her current situation, the former representative said a decision to run for office would have to be personal, not political.
“While I would never close the door on any opportunity to serve an elective office again, it’s all about timing,” Herseth Sandlin said. “And it’s not just about political timing; it’s about that personal and professional timing. With a little boy that is almost four and starting a new job just two months ago, it’s a little hard to say what the future has to hold for me.”