South Dakota Democrats select new party leadership

Democrats tabbed Aberdeen native Jennifer Slaight-Hansen, and farmer Shane Merrill to lead the state party for the next four years.
Published: Feb. 25, 2023 at 11:23 PM CST
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OACOMA, S.D. - Newer, younger faces will be leading the South Dakota Democrat Party for at least the next four years.

Saturday, about 100 members of the state party’s State Central Committee (SCC) gathered in person and online to vote on leadership positions, from Chair to Treasurer.

Jennifer Slaight-Hansen, 49, leaned into her extensive experience in and around the state party, and politics as a whole, to sway voting members.

The Aberdeen native served on the city council there for 10 years. A former staffer for Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, Slaight-Hansen has also served as the vice chair of the party for the last year.

“My goal is to find common ground, common ground amongst all of us,” Slaight-Hansen said during her pitch to central committee members. “Something that will move us forward.”

Both Slaight-Hansen and John Cunningham, her challenger for the job, offered bright visions for the future of the party, and strong criticism of the party’s current gloomy circumstances.

That criticism focused largely on the party’s past fundraising efforts, and a declining number of voters registering as Democrats in the state.

Independent voters in the state have nearly out-registered Democrats, and Republicans are almost double that of their counterparts.

Cunningham, who unsuccessfully mounted a bid for State Treasurer in November, used much of his time to criticize the party’s past performance in elections.

“We have spent millions of dollars and what have we accomplished? We have accomplished sinking into the toilet.”

Slaight-Hansen was able to trounce Cunningham with 93% of the delegates’ votes.

She was followed by Shane Merrill, 30, a farmer from Parker. Merrill defeated Sioux Falls native Craig Brown for the vice chair position.

Merrill, who’s hometown boasts just over 1000 people, told the room that the party needed to bring focus back to rural areas of South Dakota, where Democrats have lost significant amounts of support over the last two decades.

“Not all farmers are Trump Republicans,” Merrill clarified, to applause. “There are many in rural areas, like Turner County, who have maybe fallen off, or feel like the party has left them.”

But both of the party’s incoming top officers believe that they have the support of more South Dakotans than what is shown on paper. They say they want to try to get voters to connect the dots between Democrats and a number of popular ballot initiatives that have recently passed in South Dakota, like Medicaid expansion.

“We want to make sure our friends and neighbors know that we are like them,” Slaight-Hansen explained in an interview after her victory. “We are fiscally conservative, we are people who have the same kind of values that they do.”

In addition to the chair and vice chair races, Larry Olsen was re-elected party treasurer. Toni Diamond defeated Lorri May for the party secretary position.

The new term for the incoming officers begins on May 1st.