Once again, here's my best guess at the odds for our District 8 State House candidates:
So how do I figure Gerry Lange's odds are equal to Jerry Johnson's? As regular readers know, any assessment I make of Gerry Lange's political possibilities is profoundly skewed by my affection for him as a neighbor and friend. I see in him the kind of man I want to be when I'm 80: physically and mentally vigorous, idealistic, forthright. He reads voraciously, sells lots of Kiwanis pancake tickets, and gardens with a skidsteer. Even if were still a Republican, I would still admire Gerry deeply. We should all be as engaged in family and community as Gerry.
I thus shift with difficulty to offering a clear-eyed assessment of Lange's chances of winning a return trip to Pierre. Take it for what it's worth.
I set Lange's odds equal to Johnson's in this race for several reasons. Both men have similar name recognition. Lange may even have an edge. Johnson had Lange as a professor at Dakota State College back in the 1970s, as did many area residents. Where Johnson has two terms as city commissioner under his belt, Lange has 16 years of experience in the State Legislature. He's been at the forefront of politics in this district for two decades.
But where Johnson's disadvantage is that he doesn't say much, Lange's may be that he says too much. He has a million things on his mind, and he's passionate about them all. (I know this problem; I have this problem.) From his reading and his long experience, Lange sees connections between our lack of investment in education in South Dakota, our selfish consumerism, the profligacy of Wall Street, and the irresponsibility of tax breaks during a time of war, and he wants to talk about all of those things.
I love that big philosophical view. Voters who know Gerry will say, "Yup, that's our Gerry!" But a lot of voters will say, "What the heck's he talking about?"
We have seen the ups and downs of Lange's wide-ranging knowledge and rhetoric at the two candidate fora in Madison. Lange was wonderfully forthright about various issues, calling the Regents' paydate-shifting scheme a shell game and noting without apology that South Dakota is behind other states in education and energy development. Where most Democrats try to cast their education proposals as doable without raising taxes, Lange has been willing to speak up for tax reform as a necessary part of solving the education funding problem. But if tax reform means new taxes, Lange says it also means getting rid of bad taxes like contractors excise tax, which stands in the way of developing wind power. He showed he can be practical, too, noting that a smoking ban in bars and restaurants might be good in theory but would not fly politically.
But Lange also showed he can go off on tangents. He was a little less focused in his opening and closing statements in the Madison Chamber forum. The jokes he shared from his Indian friend over by Flandreau fell flat, and pitching his book from the podium made even me squirm a bit. He strives at times for Lincolnesque oratory, but even attempts at developing an intelligent, extended theme can seem wildly out of place among other speakers offering two minutes of bullet points from their resumes. I admire such efforts to elevate the discourse, but again, a lot of local voters may just wonder, "What's he talking about?"
And then there's age. Some folks appear to think Lange is just too old for the job. Some will try softening the argument and phrase it as, "Well, Gerry's had his time in Pierre. He's done his service. It's someone else's turn now."
I don't like that argument. I've talked with Gerry. I've read his numerous e-mails, articles that he forwards about all sorts of political issues. I know he's as sharp and as capable of legislating as anyone else in the race. In some cultures, age is a sign of wisdom: the smartest man in the room is the grayest. But the anti-old-guy sentiment is out there, and it will deflate Lange's vote count.
Lange is the most experienced public servant in the District 8 race. That means he's been around long enough to make great friends and great political enemies. He has as much passion for public service as Jerry Johnson professes; the only difference is, Lange shows it. That passion manifests itself in elevated oratory and discussion of issues that sometimes seem out of place in plain old local politics.
Lange's idealism, intelligence, and experience set him apart from all the other candidates and give his supporters great reason to vote for him. Lange's ideas and age also give opponents handles for criticism. How those factors will balance out at the polls is perhaps the most interesting local question in next week's vote.
Lange has as good a shot as Johnson at winning a seat in the Legislature. Coming up, I'll tell you why Mitch Fargen has an even better shot.