MANHATTAN — South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem shared a personal and political account of how South Dakota served as a laboratory for conservative government and hit back at detractors frustrated with the Republican’s refusal to sign a bill limiting participation in women’s and girls’ sports to people declared female at birth.
The South Dakota Legislature’s transgender sports bill was scuttled under Noem’s demands for an exemption of college athletics, the refusal of GOP legislators to narrow the ban to K-12 students and the persistent hostility to any type of ban among Democrats, dozens of corporations and the NCAA.
Noem, who spoke Saturday night at the Kansas Republican Party’s convention as a potential candidate for president in 2024, gained national prominence for her hands-off approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. She endured withering criticism as the virus claimed more than 500,000 Americans, but held firm to a belief she didn’t have the authority or desire to let her decisions infringe on rights of South Dakota residents.
In terms of South Dakota’s transgender sports bill, the governor initially endorsed the idea but later shifted course and demanded changes to narrow the measure’s impact. She wavered when confronted with the reality of potentially costly litigation and severe economic repercussions from companies opposed to the prohibitions.
“I know that some in the media have been lying to you and telling you that in South Dakota I vetoed a bill that would have protected girls’ sports,” Noem said. “That is absolutely not true. That is a lie.”
In March, Noem riled social conservatives in South Dakota by declining to sign the bill. She issued a partial veto striking sections to limit the ban to elementary, middle and high school students.
She defended at that time use of the state’s “style and form” veto typically reserved for technical fixes based on her belief “vague and overly broad language could have significant unintended consequences,” including the NCAA’s withdrawal of tournaments from states enacting comparable barriers to participation.
The South Dakota House rejected her proposed adjustments, effectively killing the bill. The governor responded by signing two executive orders viewed by critics as political face-saving gestures. The first asked high school sports associations to require girls who wanted to participate in girls’ sports leagues in public K-12 schools to present a birth certificate or affidavit demonstrating they were born female. The second recommended public universities adopt a similar ban.
Noem urged lawmakers to convene a special session to address the transgender sports controversy, but prospects of a redo in the next couple months were downplayed by legislators in South Dakota.
Kelly’s veto in Kansas
The Kansas Legislature also passed a bill targeting transgender students by limiting their involvement in girls’ and women’s teams based on gender at birth. The argument in Kansas, South Dakota and nearly 20 others states on behalf of the reform was that people born male had competitive advantages in athletics over people born female. Opponents of the legislation argued most transgender athletes didn’t possess physical advantages.
Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, vetoed Senate Bill 55. She said in a veto statement the legislation sent a “devastating message that Kansas is not welcoming to all children and their families, including those who are transgender, who are already at a higher risk of bullying, discrimination and suicide.”
“As Kansans, we should be focused on how to include all students in extracurricular activities rather than how to exclude those who may be different than us. Kansas is an inclusive state and our laws should reflect our values,” Kelly said.
On the eve of the two-day Kansas GOP convention in Manhattan, the Kansas Democratic Party said it was folly for Republican gubernatorial candidates Derek Schmidt and Jeff Colyer to denounce Kelly for rejecting “divisive and job-killing” sports legislation without noting Noem’s refusal to sign a similar bill.
Schmidt, who is the state’s attorney general, had warned the Kansas Legislature in February that a transgender sports ban would “likely be challenged” on constitutional grounds.
An Idaho law creating a sports ban applicable to transgender women and girls has been stalled by a federal judge, but that state’s legislation has served as the model in more than a dozen other states.
“It’s an embarrassing display of extremism and hypocrisy that Kansas Republicans are launching misleading partisan attacks against Governor Kelly while ignoring similar actions from their keynote speaker,” said Vicki Hiatt, chairwoman of the state’s Democratic Party.
“No matter what they say, it’s not surprising Jeff Colyer and Derek Schmidt would both support a disastrous bill that hurts our kids and kills jobs given their major roles in pushing Sam Brownback’s failed agenda that devastated our public schools and crashed our economy,” Hiatt said.
The Legislature returns May 3 to Topeka and GOP leaders of the House and Senate have vowed to work on overrides of the transgender bill and seven other bills vetoed by Kelly.
Noem on COVID-19
In the convention speech, Noem offered a lengthy critique of Kelly’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The South Dakota governor said her peer in Kansas imposed mandates on masks and social distancing and designated essential businesses that forced others to temporarily close.
Noem challenged Kelly’s decision to limit the density of mass gatherings at churches and religious gatherings, an order mistakenly described by Noem as a bid to hijack the right of Kansans to exercise religious freedom. She denounced the Kelly administration’s handling of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and accused Kelly of distorting information on coronavirus cases.
“Your governor is a mess, isn’t she?” Noem said. “The public, the people in your communities have paid the price. That’s what your governor did. That’s why she’s going to lose her job.”
Noem, who quit college to take over the family farm and ranch after her father was killed in a grain elevator accident, said that as governor she didn’t close businesses, never ordered a mask mandate and placed faith in the ability of South Dakota residents to make the best decisions for their family’s health.
She said it was disturbing how quickly sheep-like Americans surrendered their freedom of assembly and freedom of speech at the behest of power-hungry politicians.
South Dakota had a COVID-19 fatality rate of 221 per 100,000 residents, while Kansas compiled a rate of 172 per 100,000 based on statistics reported by The New York Times on 569,000 U.S. residents who passed away as of Friday.
“They used fear to control people and to drive an agenda that they wanted to see passed,” Noem said. “I was shocked at how quickly it happened. It’s sad it took a year like 2020 to wake us all up and realize how quickly we can lose this country.”
Noem said she was a loving admirer of former President Donald Trump — President Joe Biden is in the process of destroying the country, she declared — because the former Republican president never failed to live up to his word.
“He was the first politician that I had ever met that actually did what he said he was going to do,” she said.
Noem, who was vaccinated for COVID-19 in early April and urged the state’s residents to do likewise, said South Dakota recorded its first case of COVID-19 on March 10, 2020. That was the same day Trump said, as he did a reported 40 times before the November election, that the coronavirus would vanish. Trump said: “We’re prepared, and we’re doing a great job with it. And it will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.”