Remembering Jim Burg, a rural Democrat from the days when Democrats weren’t rare creatures in South Dakota government — The South Dakota Standard (2024)

Jim Burg was one of the last of a vanishing breed — a rural Democrat in South Dakota.

They once roamed the prairies in vast numbers — well, for South Dakota, anyway. They helped elect George McGovern to two terms in the House of Representatives and three terms in the Senate. They voted for candidates like Dick Kneip, Jim Abourezk, Frank Denholm, Tom Daschle, Tim Johnson and, most recently, Stephanie Herseth Sandlin.

But now their numbers are dwindling. Finding a lot of Democrats in small towns, farms and ranches is like hunting for dinosaur bones — they are out there, but most are buried. The number of Democrats in South Dakota continues to dwindle, and most are in Sioux Falls or other cities, or on Native American reservations.

That wasn’t the case when Jim Burg (seen above in a picture from his Facebook page) rose to prominence. Burg died in his sleep Tuesday night at 82, and his friends and admirers — and there are many of both — mourned his loss and remembered his life on Wednesday.

State Rep. Tony Venhuizen, a Sioux Falls Republican who has worked for Govs. Mike Rounds, Dennis Daugaard — his father-in-law — and Kristi Noem, posted a fitting tribute to Burg on Wednesday afternoon. Venhuizen, a dedicated South Dakota political historian, had included Burg in his “Over 25 Club,” named for men and women who served the state and its people for at least a quarter of a century.

Burg entered politics almost half a century ago, winning a seat in the state House of Representatives in 1974 when he was just 33 years old. Those were heady days for Democrats, with McGovern and Abourezk in the U.S. Senate and Kneip starting his third term as governor. Daschle would be elected to Congress in 1978.

Burg served a decade in the state House, followed by one term in the state Senate. He took a shot at Congress in 1986, seeking the Democratic nomination to replace Daschle, who was running against Jim Abdnor for the U.S. Senate.

Burg was the best-known candidate and was a favorite to win the June primary, but he lost to state Sen. Tim Johnson, who went on to 28-year career in Congress.

Burg once told me that he was defeated by a sunny day. He said most farmers supported him, but they were behind on their field work. On Tuesday, June 3, the weather was bright and warm, so farmers put in long days on their tractors and not enough made it to the polls to vote for him, he said.

Burg, himself a farmer from Wessington Springs, bounced back from that defeat to win a seat on the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission in 1986. He would serve three six-year terms before losing to Republican Dusty Johnson in 2004.

I met Burg that year when he lost another race for higher office. He was a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor, but he finished third behind Jim Beddow, who breezed to victory with 55.45% of the vote, and Carrol V. Allen. Beddow, who died June 25, 2023, at 81, lost to Bill Janklow, who made his return to the governor’s office for a second eight-year run. So many prominent Democrats have slipped away in the last few years, and there are not a lot of well-known people taking their place.

During his gubernatorial campaign, Burg proposed reducing the number of counties in the state from 66 to 12. He said that would save a lot of money on administrative costs and still serve the people well.

Burg pointed out that they were designed with the county seat in a central location, allowing people in the late 19th century to visit the courthouse on horseback without an overnight stay. That wasn’t exactly needed a century later, he noted.

I thought that was a wonderful idea, and wrote about it for a story in the Argus Leader. But Burg, always honest, told me he didn’t stand much of a chance. He said the state party was backing Beddow, and he doubted he could win the nomination, although he thought he stood a better chance against Janklow than Beddow did.

Burg was right about the outcome of the primary, and he had the General Election results down, too. Janklow defeated Gov. Walter Dale Miller in the primary and eased past Beddow in November.

Burg settled in for an 18-year run on the PUC, and remained involved and active in the South Dakota Democratic Party.

The SDDP posted a tribute to Burg as well. Democratic National Committeewoman Deb Knecht spoke of his activism and dedication. He was a Democratic committeeman for Jerauld County until his death.

“Jim served with pride at the legislature and the PUC,” Knecht said. “He was with us at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004. He never missed a McGovern Day fundraiser.”

The SDDP said the loss of James Burg “is felt deeply by his colleagues and friends within the party. His contributions to the state and community are a testament to his character and commitment to public service. He will be remembered as a passionate activist, a dedicated public servant, and a dear friend to many.”

SDDP Chair Shane Merrill of Parker, who grew up on a farm and still farms in addition to holding several other jobs, has vowed to try to attract more rural voters.

“We must reach out to rural voters, disinterested voters, independents and moderates just like George McGovern did,” he told me last year. “I think we needed a rural voice, a farm voice, a moderate voice as chair.”

Venhuizen noted another Democrat who served three terms on the state PUC and also ran for governor, Ken Stofferahn, died March 18 at the age of 89. Stofferahn, who started his public career as a Republican before switching parties, also ran for Congress and the U.S. Senate.

Like Burg, he was a farmer with a love for politics and public service. Both men deserve to be remembered fondly for their devotion to their state. You don’t see a lot of Democrats like them anymore, and that’s a shame.

Tom Lawrence has written for several newspapers and websites in South Dakota and other states and contributed to The New York Times, NPR, The London Telegraph, The Daily Beast and other media outlets. Reprint with permission.

Remembering Jim Burg, a rural Democrat from the days when Democrats weren’t rare creatures in South Dakota government — The South Dakota Standard (2024)


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