EXCLUSIVE: Gov. Kristi Noem Reflects on Faith, Family, and Difficult Choices in Times of Crisis
“It was a pretty lonely job for a period of time. … I was getting criticism from other Republicans, from my supporters, from people that had known me my whole life that were calling and saying, ‘Kristi, get in line with these other governors. This is going to be political destruction for you.’”
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem is the only governor to never lock down any businesses during the COVID pandemic. In her new book, “Not My First Rodeo: Lessons from the Heartland,” she reflects on her life, her faith, and how she arrived at some of the most difficult decisions of her career.
Why did she choose to not lock down any businesses in her state? And where does she actually stand on transgender athletes in women’s sports?
In this up-close-and-personal interview with Gov. Noem, we discuss her hopes, her regrets, and what she sees as the path forward for America.
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Jan Jekielek: Today, I sit down with the governor of South Dakota, Kristi Noem, the only governor to never lock down businesses during the COVID pandemic.
Gov. Kristi Noem: At the end of the day, I wanted to make sure that I could look back years from now and be proud of the fact that I did my job and only my job. If leaders do overstep their authority, especially in a time of crisis, that’s when we break this country. And I didn’t want to be that person.
Mr. Jekielek: We discuss her life, COVID policy, transgender athletes in women’s sports and the overturning of Roe versus Wade. Her new book is titled Not My First Rodeo: Lessons from the Heartland. This is American Thought leaders and I’m Jan Jekielek.
Mr. Jekielek: Governor Kristi Noem, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Gov. Noem: It’s so wonderful to be here. Thank you for inviting me.
Mr. Jekielek: It might be surprising to people that you would say that working on a farm, growing up on a farm and everything that goes with that is actually something that has helped you in politics, and I might add the Snow Queen competition.
Gov. Noem: Oh my goodness. Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: But the farm is the thing that a lot of people simply might not understand. So why don’t you give me an outline here?
Gov. Noem: It’s good for people to know that I grew up with a dad who was a cowboy, and very matter of fact. We never talked about politics at all. Nobody in my family is involved in government or the political arena. We lived our politics. I tell the story quite often about when South Dakota passed a seatbelt requirement, I remember never having a discussion about it. I just remember seeing my dad cut the seatbelts out of his pickup. I asked him about it, because he wore his seatbelt. It wasn’t that he didn’t like seat belts. He was mad the government was going to tell him he had to. Those kinds of things make an impression on you when you’re young. He always consistently said, “We don’t complain about things. We fix them.” He passed away in an accident and we got hit with the death tax, which was a very unfair tax at the time.
It was because we almost lost our family business from that tax that I started to show up at meetings, got passionate about tax reform, and got involved. It was based on the fact that my dad said, “We don’t complain about things. We fix them.” So there’s a lot of lessons on a ranch; teamwork, watching animals and learning from them. Trying to figure them out teaches you a lot about the behaviors of people, that words have consequences and an impact. We also learned what challenges are, and how to figure them out. Living the kind of lifestyle that we lived very much turned us into problem solvers. You tackle a problem, you figure it out, and it builds your confidence to take on the next one that comes your way.
Mr. Jekielek: So what about this Snow Queen competition? I can kind of imagine what that is. You describe it in the book.
Gov. Noem: It’s really strange and one of those things I don’t talk about very much. I had to put it in my book, because people were going to bring it up and ask me why it wasn’t in there. In South Dakota, for decades and decades we have always had the Snow Queen competition. Back when I was in high school, every senior girl at the local level competed. It gave you a chance to learn how to do an interview, which helped you later on with college or jobs. You gave speeches. You learned how to introduce yourself. Also, if you won, you got scholarships to school. Most young women were looking for an opportunity to get a higher education. You got the use of a car for a year. Having a free car for a year isn’t a bad thing at all.
So most everybody competed. I happened to end up winning the local contest and went to the state level, which had 52 girls in it at the time. When I won, it was a shock. In fact, the headlines the next day said, “Farm girl wins the Snow Queen competition,” because it was just a very different thing for me to be doing. I spent the next year traveling the country talking about South Dakota, being a representative and ambassador for the state, and learning how to give speeches and interviews. It was probably very good preparation for the job that I do today. From the time I was young, I knew a lot about South Dakota.
Mr. Jekielek: But at that time, you weren’t thinking about Congress or governor.
Gov. Noem: No, I was thinking a free car looked pretty good. And it was a Grand Am with a sunroof, so that’s not a bad thing.
Mr. Jekielek: Something that really comes through in this book is how important your husband is in your decision-making. You’re obviously a very type-A woman.
Gov. Noem: I am.
Mr. Jekielek: You’re on top of things, and you know what you want. But it seems like your husband’s role is actually pretty important in this and you’re not just playing it alone. Again, this might be a surprise to some.
Gov. Noem: I think so too. It’s interesting. Our faith is incredibly important to us and scripture specifically talks about husband and wife, and that relationship. Even though I’m a very quick decision maker, I typically know what I want to do. I have plans and go after them wholeheartedly. I knew that being married meant having a husband who was a teammate and a partner for me and a source of wisdom. So most of the time he is the balance for me. He is the one that slows me down, and puts a lot of thought and prayer into every decision that we make. I also know that when he married me, he thought I was going to be a rancher the rest of my life. So the fact that we are where we are today is pretty incredible, but he is more willing to really look at the long-reaching effects of the decisions that I make.
He asks, “If you run for this office, what does that mean for our family? What does that mean for how our holidays will look? What does that mean for taking care of these children when you’re gone for four days in a row?” Those are good things to ask, because my tendency is to just to say, “Yes!” If somebody asks me to do something, I’ll say, “Yes, absolutely.” And if they give me three options, according to him, I always pick the hardest one. He said, “There’s something about you that when people give you three different choices, you pick the hardest one to do.” I tend to say to him, “Well, it’s always the right one.” And he says, “It may be, but it’s always the hardest one.” That means there’s going to be a ripple effect of consequences for him and the kids.
Mr. Jekielek: There’s an interesting principle here. In our society today, many of us definitely try to take the path of least resistance. You’re almost taught that’s the way one should be. What do you think?
Gov. Noem: That is a big result of the influence of my parents. My dad demanded excellence. We got into a fight one time when I was already married. It was an argument over how we fed the cows, which sounds kind of funny. But you do that chore twice a day. You give the cattle some mineral, mixed with the feed. I had just finished doing chores in the morning, and had a half a bag of mineral left. I wanted to leave it by the rest of the feed, because when I came back, literally in two hours, I would need it again. My dad, though, required that it be carried back, put in the shed, covered up, and put away properly. In just two hours, I had to go back to that shed, get it, and take it back out to the feed.
To me, that seemed inefficient and ridiculous, when I was going to be dealing with this in just two hours time. But that’s the difference. The responsible thing is when you use something, put it away, even if you need it shortly later. That is how I was raised. No matter what, even if it’s harder, even if it takes you more time to do things right, you do it right all the time. You do it correctly. You do things with excellence and be proud of the work that you do. That may be the reason for me always choosing the hardest thing all the time. If it is the right thing to do, it’s worth doing right.
Mr. Jekielek: It seems like whenever these tough decisions come along—and you’ve made an effort to put this into the book, so obviously it’s very important to you—you’re making the decision with your husband, you’re consulting with people, but you’re also consulting with…
Gov. Noem: God. We’re also consulting with God and sometimes arguing with him. Yes. There are times that I feel like I very much know what God wants me to do. My biggest desire is to be obedient. I want to live a life of significance. I want to live a life that is relevant and makes a difference. But I still feel like I’m not meeting my full purpose, which is a very difficult thing to be married to. My husband thinks I’m already very busy.
He sees me working 20 hours a day and says, “How could you possibly do more? Can’t you just come home and make a meal, and spend some time watching TV?” So that is the challenge. God is an important part of our life. That is often how Bryon and I end up coming together on a decision. We may take longer to both arrive at the same decision, but we both have a heart to do what God would have for our family. At the end of the day, that’s how we usually end up making those important decisions.
Mr. Jekielek: There’s a lot of people in America who don’t have that relationship to God, or maybe even worry about people who do have that relationship, frankly.
Gov. Noem: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: How do you square that? How do you talk to folks that are thinking this way? You’re acting as a representative for everybody. Maybe I’ll ask you later if you want to be a representative for even more people than just South Dakota.
Gov. Noem: It is key that people not judge each other for where they’re at. That’s where we end up with problems. I see a lot of Christians today that say they have a strong faith that don’t act like it. They don’t love people. They hold other people to a higher standard than they do themselves. That really is what this country is struggling with. I certainly have a strong faith. It gives me my value system. I make my decisions from there and I am pretty plain and honest about what those are.
Then I ask people to support me for office. I hope they will understand who I am and that I’ll serve them. If they appreciate what I’ve done, then maybe they’ll support me again. But if people aren’t Christians and they don’t have the same faith that I do, the most important thing that I can do is still love them and want to work for them. We lose sight of that quite often in this country. We get judgemental of people and assume that they aren’t as important as we are. That’s just not even scriptural. That’s not American.
Mr. Jekielek: Yes. In the book you include this moment where you say it’s an embarrassment. You’re wishing failure on President Obama and then you stop yourself.
Gov. Noem: Yes. When I first got to Congress, I had been there two years and it came time to listen to President Obama’s State of the Union speech. As a representative, that’s always a circus. You have to get there a couple of hours early, get through security, and then you sit on the House floor waiting for it to start. It’s a lot of pomp and circumstance, a lot of jumping to your feet and clapping. I just didn’t want to go. I had a bad attitude. I wasn’t happy with some of the decisions the President was making. My chief of staff said, “You have to go. If you aren’t there, it won’t look good. It looks like you don’t respect the President.” I agreed, and so I went. But I remember standing at the back of the House floor, listening to President Obama’s talk and being angry.
I was listening to him thinking, “He’s lying. He’s not telling the truth.” Then I started to pray, “You know what, God, I hope he screws up. I hope he misspeaks. Hopefully, the American people aren’t understanding what he’s saying and will be confused by his speech.” I was in a really bad spot, as far as where my heart was. I remember within just a minute or two immediately feeling convinced that I was doing the exact opposite of what God had called me to do. It’s pretty clear in the Bible that you’re supposed to pray for your leaders, not against them. Here I was having the honor of standing on the United States House of Representatives floor, watching the President of the United States give a speech and I was praying against him. And I felt horrible.
So that fixed my attitude that night. I started to pray for him. We think so much that all is lost in this country. All it takes is God to change a couple of hearts. Imagine if you did have a leader in the country or even in your state that had a hard heart, and was bitter and angry and cold, God can change that overnight. If their heart is changed, think of how their decisions would change, and think of how their leadership would change. We forget about the miracle that so many of us believe in. It could actually still happen today, and a life could be changed.
Mr. Jekielek: So let’s talk about leadership. You have made some really tough leadership decisions over the last few years. You talk about the big floods in South Dakota. Let’s move ahead to COVID. Your state has the distinction of never having mandated business closures, one state out of 50.
Gov. Noem: Right.
Mr. Jekielek: How did that happen?
Gov. Noem: Yes, it’s interesting. It was a pretty lonely job for a period of time. I was making the decision in my state to not shut anything down, and to not even define what an essential business was. I didn’t believe that governors or governments had the ability to tell anyone that their business wasn’t essential. I was getting criticism not just from Democrats. I was getting criticism from other Republicans, from my supporters, and from people that had known me my whole life. They were calling and saying, “Kristi, get in line with these other governors. This is going to be political destruction for you. You need to do what they’re all doing.”
So it was pretty lonely. But I had spent a ton of time not only with health officials, but also with constitutional attorneys. I knew what my job was and knew what my job was not, and what authority I had. At the end of the day, I wanted to make sure that I could look back years from now and be proud of the fact that I did my job and only my job. I believe that if leaders overstep their authority, especially in a time of crisis, that’s when we break this country. I didn’t want to be that person.
Mr. Jekielek: You did institute a state of emergency. That’s actually an interesting question because, obviously, it exists for situations that are emergencies. It is a kind of overreach, but it’s the one that everyone agrees to, correct?
Gov. Noem: Yes. The state of emergency actually allows you to coordinate with other governments, both local and federal. When you make that declaration, it gives you the ability to fast track through regulations, and cut time frames. You can respond more quickly. You can partner with the federal government and get resources in ways that you just can’t without that state of emergency.
So we did have that for a period of time. Then we were the first state to end it and not let it be in place anymore. We recognized that life had to return back to normal. Knowing what we knew about the virus, we stopped worrying about that expedited approval process. We still made sure that we followed through on taking care of people. In so many different states we saw people penalize others for not falling in line, and have enforcement mechanisms that were not possible. We certainly made recommendations, but in every emergency declaration or executive order that we made the language said, “shall, if possible; should, if possible”, which meant that I believed strongly they should do this, if it was possible for them to do so. Leaving in that flexibility was incredibly important to me.
Mr. Jekielek: Obviously, people’s right to make decisions about their lives is very important to you. We can see how the farm life contributed to you thinking this way. Now you’re in a position where, because none of these businesses were locked down or closed, the state is doing pretty well.
Gov. Noem: Yes. The state is doing fantastic. That’s a direct result of the people. It’s amazing the things that they did to come together to really tell the story of South Dakota, and to invite people to come and visit us. A lot of the people who came to visit us in 2020 were so inspired by what they saw of our state protecting freedom, that they went back home, packed up their families and moved. We have tens of thousands of new people that have moved to South Dakota, and there are hundreds of new businesses. Our economy is the strongest economy in the nation. Our kids are leading the nation in educational outcomes. Our incomes are going up faster than anywhere else. We are really doing extremely well, and have less than a thousand people in the entire state that are on unemployment. It’s a testimony to doing what conservative people believe in, and what we have always said that we believed in. We actually did it, and it worked.
Mr. Jekielek: Some of the criticism you got earlier on was simply that you’re not following the science.
Gov. Noem: That’s true, but the science that they were talking about was science that was not even true. I started talking to the health experts they were referencing. I also went further and looked at other studies, and talked to people in other countries. I looked at states in other areas of this country that were dealing with people on the ground that were sick before it ever got to South Dakota. That perspective helped a lot. One thing that I saw leaders do too often was focus on what they were hearing in the national news, and not really shutting that off and looking at what was happening in their own states, and what was happening in their towns. Because that was the perspective you needed to keep on taking care of people. You needed to talk to those doctors that were in those hospitals on what was working and what wasn’t, and using the research that we had for the viruses.
What they told me before it ever got to South Dakota was that I would have over 300,000 fatalities from the virus if I didn’t do certain things. The more you researched it, you could tell that what they were recommending wasn’t going to be the correct response to how we really get through this in a long term.
Sustainability was a big conversation. President Trump recommended that everybody stay home for two weeks. Virtually everybody in the country stayed home for two weeks. In South Dakota, I recommended that people listen to the President and stay home if they could. But after that, you ask, “How long can we do this?” That was a big factor for me, too. What is the mechanism that we can tell people would be a good thing to do that they could do for six months, or they could do for a year. Because actually, doing something for a short period of time would only delay the amount of sickness and the bubble and the curve that we were all looking at coming. So that perspective of having a balanced approach was really important.
Mr. Jekielek: You put a lot of value in exercising only your constitutional authority and nothing more. That’s what you referenced. Why?
Gov. Noem: That’s my job. I have learned an appreciation for that. I’ve seen enough policy get overturned in court because it went beyond the authority given to either the legislative branch or to the executive branch. I’ve watched this throughout the years. I screw up every day. And that’s the thing that I think is important in this country. I’m not perfect, but I do want to be teachable. I’ve had different positions over the years in elected office that I’ve been very clear on. Then I learn more about the issue and I think, “You know what, there is another side to this story. If I’m going to learn more or have a different perspective, that’s a good thing to explain to people.” So, for me, that’s the one thing that is consistent. It has protected this country for hundreds of years, and is literally the framework that our founders gave us.
You can’t go wrong as long as you start with a good foundation. It will keep you strong even during the shakiest times. So many, many times throughout the last several years as governor, that was my guiding light—to come back to our state constitution, our U.S. Constitution, and to really understand what my role was as governor. It’s a very different role than serving in Congress. It was a very different job. So that’s what I needed to remember while I did that job for eight years. Now I’m in a different role and this is the authority that I have. I need to make sure that I follow those guidelines and that job description.
Mr. Jekielek: You say in the book that while in Congress you were shocked when Congressman Dave Brat won this big surprise election.
Gov. Noem: Right.
Mr. Jekielek: You were getting phone calls immediately.
Gov. Noem: That day, we were in session in Washington, DC. Eric Cantor was the majority leader in the House, so he was in DC working all day. I was at an event with him when he left town to go back to his district in Virginia for his celebration party. Everybody was very clear that he would be back the next day, and we would be congratulating him on his victory from a primary challenge that he had from somebody that nobody had ever heard of before.
So you can imagine our shock when—none of us as members of Congress were on the ground seeing what was going on in that district—all of a sudden we turn on the news after the voting that night and started to see on the headlines on every network, “Eric Cantor loses his primary.”
It was a shock to the entire country and a bellwether of what could be coming. It made every elected official serving in Congress say, “I wonder if this means something for my race, too?” While watching the news, what immediately happened next was so strange. All of a sudden my phone started to buzz. I just kept getting text after text after text. It was members of Congress texting me and saying, “Kristi, Eric lost his race. Did you see that?” I would text back and say, “Yes, I did see that. I’m shocked.” They would say, “Well, I’m running for majority leader. Since Eric lost, we have to elect a new majority leader and I’m wondering if you could help me get the votes?”
I got many of those texts. I bet there were seven or eight different people texting me that night asking me, “Kristi, I want to run for majority leader. Will you help me?” The next morning, I got to the floor and was explaining to some of my colleagues how it made me feel. What I realized was that every one of those texts came from a man. Every man immediately thought, “I would be the best majority leader ever.” There is a confidence that men tend to have that says “I’m fantastic and I can do anything.” What bothered me a little bit is that I didn’t have a single woman text me. And we had some very intelligent, smart, brilliant women who were great leaders, but not one of them reached out to text me.
This might be an indication about how men and women approach opportunities. Men immediately think, “I can do this job. I would be great.” Women might tend to think, “Boy, I don’t know if I can do this job. There might be somebody better. I’m busy. I’ve got a lot of things on my plate. I’m not sure I have the gifts and the talents.” It reminded me that oftentimes women need to be asked to step up. The way we’re designed is to not necessarily think we’re the one who has to lead. But I do think it’s important that women are a part of the conversation, just because our perspective is different. There is a woman’s perspective on every issue, and it might be a perspective that helps make better policy. That’s why it’s important to hear what they think, and what they know.
Mr. Jekielek: I’ve heard many stories of new, idealistic Congressional members going to DC and after some time their perspective changes. In many cases, the system changes them in unpleasant ways. How do you prevent that from happening?
Gov. Noem: That happens at any job. Don’t you think that people are hired by a business, they hit the bureaucracy, the grinding wheel of people that have been there for 20 years, and it slows them down? It stops them. I even found it in state government. I have a big idea, and I turn it over to staff and then it gets down to the bureaucracy of a state agency. They think, “Well, she’s only here for four years. If we slow her down enough, maybe we don’t really have to reform this entire agency.”
I do see that in Washington, DC. There it is even more compounded, because we take people completely out of their element, put them with a whole new set of individuals, and surround them with a process they’re not familiar with. It completely upturns and upends what they were expecting it to be.
So the bureaucracy of state government has been surprising to me. Federal government is a hundred times worse and it is designed to slow things down. The regulations that we’ve put in place over the last hundred years make it worse as well. Going to Congress is a lot like going to college. That’s what I tell people. You pack up your suitcase every week. You go to Washington, DC. Your friends are there, but your family is not. For me, I found it incredibly lonely. You run into people that are constantly telling you what they think should happen, and what they think you should be doing. Many times, it is a very different message from what you hear from people back home.
Mr. Jekielek: You got a lot of criticism a while back when you declined to sign this law about preventing transgender women for participating in women’s sports. Subsequently, you worked on this issue. I want to give you an opportunity to speak on what was going on, what your thoughts are on this, and how it works for you.
Gov. Noem: Sure. I had worked on this issue for many years. In fact, back when I was in Congress, the federal government came in and told the state of South Dakota and our sport of rodeo that they could no longer have boys events and girls events. We had to eliminate all that and never reference boys or girls in the sport of rodeo in our state. Serving in Congress at the time, I was furious. Of course, I’m passionate about rodeo as well.
I remember trying to get them to change their position and not getting any help from my colleagues. I didn’t even get any help from my delegation. Nobody wanted to touch this issue, because it was so politically charged. They knew that it would be a fight and that it would look like there would be bias against transgender individuals. But I pushed and eventually got the federal government to back off.
To this day, in South Dakota, we are still allowed to have boys events and girls events in the sport of rodeo. So I was really surprised at the criticism that I received when the first bill came forward on girls sports in South Dakota. I’ve always supported only girls playing in girls sports. However, the legislature gave me a bill that was very flawed. The bill they put on my desk would have been in court immediately because of the way it was drafted.
It did not define a lot of wording in the bill, like with performance-enhancing drugs. It put liability issues on schools that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars. If one student on a athletic team used an asthma inhaler or got a cortisone shot, the entire school could be sued for hundreds of millions of dollars, just because those definitions were not there. What I did was to go back and revise that bill and send it back to the legislature and ask them to accept the changes. They refused to.
Therefore, the bill died. And that very same day, I signed executive orders in the state of South Dakota saying that only girls could play in girls sports at the K12 level and the collegiate level. The reason being it was important to me to protect those sports. I knew that if I had signed a flawed bill, it would immediately be challenged in court, and while it was in court, I wouldn’t be able to enforce anything. It could be tied up for several years and they would normalize boys playing in girls sports in our state. By the time we got done with the legal challenges, it would be very difficult to change people’s hearts and minds again. So instead, when the legislature did not accept my changes, I issued executive orders to protect our sports until I could run a bill this year.
This year, we passed the strongest bill in the nation, and that can withstand any court challenge. And I signed it into law. It was the very first law that I signed into place during our legislative session this year. So my leadership has been very clear on this issue. I’ve always been attacked by liberals. What was interesting to me, for the first time I was attacked by my friends.
I realized how competitive even conservatives can be, if they think that they’ve got an area they can attack you on for a future race. But those executive orders, nobody has reported on them. I signed those executive orders the very day the bill died the first time in South Dakota, and not a single reporter covered it. The fact is I was taking action to protect girls sports. I do appreciate you letting me clarify that. That’s why I wrote about it in my book. People need to know the truth and understand that even our friends on the Right don’t necessarily always tell the truth about what really happened.
Mr. Jekielek: Decision making is complicated.
Gov. Noem: Again, as my husband would say, I chose the hard path. He said, “You could have easily signed a flawed bill and it could have ended up in court. Maybe you would have been able to get another bill passed before that one was overturned.” I said, “But I couldn’t take the risk of setting precedent in court.” I didn’t want to take that kind of risk on a court decision that we would now have to deal with, and one that really did jeopardize protecting girls sports. So it was the hard path to take, but it was the right one.
Mr. Jekielek: There was a huge precedent that was recently struck down. Please tell me what you make of Dobbs being struck down.
Gov. Noem: It’s fantastic that the Supreme Court went back and fixed a wrong decision from decades ago. What this really did was to move the decision making down to the state level where it should be. So now decisions about abortion, and if it’s legal or not, will be made at the state level, where elected officials can hear from the people closer to home. That’s the proper way, and defined as such by our Constitution.
I’m grateful that in South Dakota, we had a trigger law in place that said if Roe is ever overturned, abortion will be illegal in the state of South Dakota, except to save the life of a mother. That stands today. I also believe that now we need to really focus on supporting these mothers in crisis, these mothers that have unplanned pregnancies, and that weren’t prepared. How can we get them healthcare, and get them financial assistance? How we can connect them to nonprofits or churches that would support them? How can we connect them to adoptive families that want to raise their children, if that is the route these mothers choose? That is something we can all do better in this country. We need to let these mothers know that there are options that aren’t necessarily going to create a crisis and upend their lives.
Mr. Jekielek: The concern that I keep hearing from people is that this is 50 years of precedent, and now there are whole structures created around it. Women may lose their lives because of this decision. The people I speak with have genuine concerns. How do you respond to them?
Gov. Noem: If you look at every state and how they’re making these decisions, that’s the best place to get a response that fits the situation for these individuals. These will now be public discussions. Every state will approach it differently. I would say that most of the states will have the same approach as South Dakota. If it is to save the life of the mother, then abortion would be allowed. That is a life, and every life has value. A doctor would act in conjunction with adhering to the law, and with the mother and her perspective as well.
People act as though this decision was tragic, where really this gives us a much more responsive decision, more quickly. It happens at the state level, rather than dealing with a court that shouldn’t be legislating anyways. The court makes decisions based on the constitutionality of what these statutes are. Legislating needs to happen at the state level.
Mr. Jekielek: And you’re not worried, because in your state, you’ll have people who believe strongly in the right to abortion? You’re not concerned you wouldn’t be able to represent them with that view?
Gov. Noem: No. My job is to follow the law as well. There are people in our state who support abortion and disagree with me on this topic. We have had ballot measures before in South Dakota where people have chosen to leave abortion legal and still make it available. So our education process to the public will have to be aggressive. We have to make sure they know the truth, because what we have right now is a public that’s not necessarily on board with overturning Roe. We need to let them know why this is a better process going forward.
Mr. Jekielek: You’re recently suing the federal government about not allowing you to have fireworks at Mount Rushmore. The question is, why is this so important? This is a big deal for you.
Gov. Noem: Yes. People ask me that a lot, “Kristi, why are you making such a big deal over fireworks?” It is because the President is denying us this fireworks celebration, and breaking federal law when he does it. He’s not following the law. There is a federal statute called the Administrative Procedures Act that says once you check all the boxes and meet the requirements for environmental studies, water quality issues, fire issues, wildfire cooperation and even consultation with tribes—if you do check those boxes, then the permit should be granted.
We have done that and still they have denied us the permit to conduct the fireworks show at Mount Rushmore. So at this point, it’s just political and being punitive. My duty is to defend my state. South Dakota’s number one industry is agriculture. Our second largest industry is tourism. A big part of that is Mount Rushmore and being proud of those four leaders on that mountain. Our country’s freedom and the liberty it stands for is an important part of people visiting us.
Our one chance every year to really showcase the monument is when we have this fireworks show on July 3, the night before July 4. The next morning, when people wake up on Independence Day everywhere around the world, they’re playing videos of Mount Rushmore and the fireworks going off. So it’s a great chance for us to market our state and to benefit our tourism industry, but also it’s a great chance to celebrate America. Unfortunately, with this administration, I end up suing them quite often. When President Trump was in the White House, I was on offense every day. He helped me solve problems. Ever since Joe Biden came in, I’ve been on defense. My only tool is to challenge how he’s doing his job in federal court.
Mr. Jekielek: The subtitle of your book is Lessons from the Heartland. What would you say is the most important lesson from the heartland for the east coast and west coast?
Gov. Noem: Just that what is special about America still exists. South Dakota, in the middle of our country, is inspiring. It’s a way of life that people are hungry for right now. Immediately, we saw trends change during the pandemic. People used to want to vacation in tropical beach destinations. That changed completely to where now the number one place that people search for, and want to spend time in, is the small towns of rural America.
It’s amazing to me. It reminds them of what this country is and our beginnings and the American West. It’s hopeful and optimistic. We wake up every day in South Dakota grateful and happy. It’s because of our way of life, and taking care of each other. If you read this book, I hope you get a glimpse of that. It’s a little bit of the story of South Dakota and the life I hope this country can return to. We believe in rule of law, upholding our law enforcement officers, respecting them, taking care of our neighbors, and cooperating together. Our economy is thriving, families are successful, parents are being parents and kids are doing great. So it is inspirational for the kind of community, state and country that people want to live in today.
Mr. Jekielek: Do you have any interest in seeking a higher office?
Gov. Noem: Not necessarily. I’m running for reelection as governor of South Dakota this year. I’m really hoping people will trust me to do that job for another four years. I know there’s a lot of interest in the presidential race in 2024. I’m not convinced it has to be me. We have good people who want to run, but we need strong leaders. I’m only interested in those who really know how to defend this country. It never hurts to have a cowboy, if we can find one, or a cowgirl. But I did bring you a cowboy hat as a gift. I want to present it to you from South Dakota as a token of our appreciation. Everybody makes better decisions when they’re wearing a cowboy hat.
Mr. Jekielek: This is wonderful.
Gov. Noem: Yes. Look at you. You’re perfect. Now I just need to get you a horse. I love it. Thank you.
Mr. Jekielek: Governor Kristi Noem, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show.
Gov. Noem: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
Mr. Jekielek: Thank you all for joining Governor Kristi Noem and I on this episode of American Thought Leaders. Her book, again, is Not My First Rodeo: Lessons from the Heartland. I’m your host, Jan Jekielek.
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