“I believe that if leaders overstep their authority, especially in a time of crisis,” says South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, “that’s when we break this country.”
Noem is the only governor never to close down businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. In her newly published autobiography, “Not My First Rodeo: Lessons From the Heartland,” the Republican governor reflects on her life, her faith, and how she arrived at some of the most difficult decisions of her career.
In a recent episode of "American Thought Leaders," host Jan Jekielek interviewed Noem, discussing her hopes and regrets, and what she sees as the path forward for America.
Jan Jekielek: It might surprise people that you say growing up on a farm has helped you in politics.
Gov. Kristi Noem: I grew up with a dad who was a cowboy and very matter-of-fact. Before he passed away in an accident, he used to say, “We don’t complain about things; we fix them.” So there’s a lot of lessons on a ranch. We learned how to handle challenges. You tackle a problem, you figure it out, and it builds your confidence to take on the next problem.
Mr. Jekielek: Something that really comes through in “Not My First Rodeo” is how important your husband is in your decision-making.
Ms. Noem: Our faith is incredibly important to us, and Scripture specifically talks about husband and wife and that relationship. I typically know what I want to do. I have plans and go after them wholeheartedly. I also know that being married means having a husband who is a partner and a source of wisdom. Most of the time, he’s the balance for me. He’s the one who slows me down and puts a lot of thought and prayer into every decision we make.
Mr. Jekielek: You’re making these decisions with your husband, you’re consulting with people, but you’re also consulting, as you make clear in the book, with ...
Ms. Noem: God. God is an important part of our life. That's how Bryon and I end up coming together on a decision. 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 important decisions.
Mr. Jekielek: A lot of Americans don’t have that relationship with God and maybe even worry about people who do. How do you talk to folks thinking this way?
Ms. Noem: When I ask people to support me for office, I hope they’ll understand who I am and that I’ll serve them. But if they aren’t Christians and don’t have the same faith, the most important thing I can do is love them and work for them.
Mr. Jekielek: Your state has the distinction of never having mandated business closures during COVID—one state out of 50. How did that happen?
Ms. Noem: It was pretty lonely when I was making the decision not to shut anything down and not to define what an essential business was. I don’t believe government should tell anyone their business isn’t essential. I was getting criticism not just from Democrats, but also from Republicans and from my supporters who were 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.”
But I’d spent a ton of time with health officials and constitutional attorneys. I knew what my job was and what authority I had. At the end of the day, I wanted to make sure I could look back years from now and be proud 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.
Mr. Jekielek: And now, because none of these businesses were locked down or closed, the state is doing pretty well.
Ms. Noem: South Dakota is doing fantastic. That’s a direct result of the people. It’s amazing the things they did to come together. And a lot of people who visited us in 2020 were so inspired by our state protecting freedom that they went back home, packed up their families, and moved. We have tens of thousands of new people in South Dakota and hundreds of new businesses.
Our economy is the strongest in the nation. Our kids are leading the nation in educational outcomes. Our incomes are going up faster than anywhere else. We have less than a thousand people in the entire state on unemployment. It’s a testimony to doing what conservative people believe in, and it worked.
Mr. Jekielek: You put a lot of value in exercising only your constitutional authority and nothing more. Why?
Ms. Noem: That’s my job. I’ve seen policy get overturned in court because it went beyond the authority of the legislative or executive branch.
So many times throughout the last several years as governor, that was my guiding light—to come back to our state constitution and our U.S. Constitution, and to understand my role as governor.
Mr. Jekielek: You received a lot of criticism when you declined to sign a law about preventing transgender women from participating in women’s sports.
Ms. Noem: I had worked on this issue for years. In fact, back when I was in Congress, the federal government told the state of South Dakota that we could no longer have boys and girls events in rodeo. I was furious.
Nobody wanted to touch this issue, because it was so politically charged. But I pushed and eventually got the federal government to back off.
I was really surprised by the criticism I received when the first bill came forward on girls sports in South Dakota. I’ve always supported only girls playing in girls sports, but the state Legislature gave me a bill so flawed that it would have been in court immediately.
What I did was to revise that bill and ask the Legislature to accept the changes. They refused, and the bill died.
That very same day, I signed executive orders saying that only girls could play in girls sports at the K–12 and collegiate levels. It was important to me to protect those sports.
This year, we passed the strongest bill in the nation, one that can withstand any court challenge. So my leadership has been clear on this issue.
Mr. Jekielek: Please tell me what you make of Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization being struck down.
Ms. Noem: It’s fantastic that the Supreme Court fixed a wrong decision from decades ago. This moved the decision-making to the state level where it should be, where elected officials can hear from the people closer to home. That’s the proper way defined by our Constitution.
In South Dakota, we had a trigger law in place that said if Roe v. Wade were ever overturned, abortion will be illegal in the state, except to save the life of a mother. That stands today. Now, we need to focus on supporting mothers in crisis—these mothers who have unplanned pregnancies. How can we get them health care and financial assistance? How can we connect them to nonprofits or churches that would support them?
There are people in our state who support abortion and disagree with me on this topic. So, our education process with 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: The subtitle of your book is "Lessons From the Heartland." What's the most important lesson from the heartland?
Ms. 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. It reminds them of what this country is and our beginnings and the American West. It’s hopeful and optimistic. If you read this book, I hope you get a glimpse of that.
Mr. Jekielek: Do you have any interest in seeking a higher office?
Ms. Noem: Not necessarily. I’m running for reelection as governor of South Dakota this year. I’m hoping people will trust me to do that job for another four years. I know there’s interest in the presidential race, but I’m not convinced it’s for me. But we do need strong leaders who can defend this country, and it never hurts to have a cowboy, if we can find one, or a cowgirl as a leader.
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.
Ms. Noem: Look at you. You’re perfect. Now, I just need to get you a horse.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.