Meth crisis, legal experience drive race for attorney general in South Dakota

Published: Oct. 25, 2018 at 11:40 PM CDT
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Tonight we continue our series of reports looking at the candidates for South Dakota's top political jobs.

Our focus this evening is on the race for attorney general which pits Republican Jason Ravnsborg against Democrat Randy Seiler.

These candidates both say their top priority if elected would be solving the state's Meth and opioid crisis.

But in recent weeks another issue has emerged as well and that one deals with what experience is necessary to become the state's top law enforcement official.

Campaigning in South Dakota for a statewide job means logging a lot of miles along the trail.

"I've traveled over 120,000 miles since February of 2017." Jason Ravnsborg is the Republican candidate for attorney general.

If his name sounds familiar.....four years ago he was in a primary battle for U-S senate with four other Republican candidates.

He graduated from U-S-D Law School in 2001.

Since 2004 he's been part of a Yankton law firm and has recently worked as a volunteer state's attorney in Union County.

He says voters he's talked to are worried about Meth and opioids. "They want to get them away from the addiction. Sadly Meth takes a year to get off of."

Ravnsborg says it's the big issue he's worried about as well.

He says his solution would be the construction of a new prison in western South Dakota specifically designed for Meth and opioid they can serve time for their crimes and recover from their addiction through specialized programs. "We have to make sure they get the treatment that they need to get off of this addiction of Meth. We have way too much Meth in our state."

Ravsnborg's proposed prison would also have a specialized mental health unit to address that growing issue as well. "I want to help as many people for the lowest amount of dollars that we can."

"You know I've spent my entire career, Brian, working across party lines, not playing politics with the law." Randy Seiler is the Democratic candidate for attorney general and if his name sounds familiar, it should as well.

He spent 22 years in the South Dakota U-S Attorney's office; the last two as the U-S attorney.

Seiler says the idea of building a new prison specifically for Meth is fiscally irresponsible and wouldn't solve the problem at hand. "If we do that that has to be built with general fund dollars and it has to be staffed with general fund dollars and I think that money can better be spent using public and private partnerships."

Public-private partnerships like the ongoing discussion in Sioux Falls about the development of a community triage system for those battling drug abuse and working through mental health issues.

Seiler has been a lawyer for 38 years.

Ravsnborg for 17 years.

But in recent weeks an issue has been bubbling up in this race that has to do with experience; not necessarily in terms of years but in terms of what has happened in those years. Seiler says, "Experience does matter when you're going to be the attorney general. You can't learn to practice law when you're the South Dakota attorney general. You have to bring that experience to the position."

It's an idea that has dogged Jason Ravnsborg since the Republican state convention in June when he won the nomination for attorney general. He beat two other candidates. One of them a sitting state's attorney. That idea is that while Ravnsborg is an attorney and knows the law he has not spent much time in a courtroom bringing criminals to justice as a prosecutor Seiler says, "He has not been involved in prosecuting a jury trial as a prosecutor. He is a volunteer prosecutor in Union County with zero criminal trial experience."

Ravnsborg says, "I've been in the courtroom quite a bit. I fact I've been in a courtroom within the last week. I'm still a very active attorney. Ongoing cases in South Dakota and Iowa both." I brought this issue up with Ravnsborg and he told me why he believes Seiler is attacking him on this point. "When you don't have any ideas you try and attack your opponent."

I asked Randy Seiler how many criminal cases he had overseen as a prosecutor and he told me 75 in the U-S Attorneys office alone and hundreds of others as a consultant.

I asked Jason Ravnsborg how many proceedings he had overseen as lead prosecutor. He told us, "I guess that's the one thing I've laughed at is like I've never kept track and I don't know why you would keep track. And we've sat down and said you know why does it matter? Can I do the job? And the job is a lot about leadership and management."

There are published reports backing Seiler's assertion that Ravnsborg has never prosecuted a criminal case in his time as an attorney.

i contacted Union County State's Attorney Jerry Miller who Ravnsborg works for as a volunteer prosecutor to get some clarity on this issue. He tells me Ravnsborrg has been assigned to drug, assault and attempted murder cases and that each of his cases has been resolved through guilty pleas as part of plea agreements. While those criminal cases have not been tried before a jury, Miller says Ravnsborg has tried civil cases to a jury.