Say it ain't so, Dusty! After winning re-election by the largest margin of any statewide candidate just two weeks ago, Public Utilities Commissioner Dusty Johnson is telling the voters of South Dakota, Thanks but no thanks. KDLT reports Johnson has accepted Governor-Elect Dennis Daugaard's offer to be the next governor's chief of staff.
How do you like that: the one Republican I vote to send to Pierre, and he bails on me. Aaarrgghh! ;-)
That puts Johnson's hands on a whole lot more levers in Pierre than just energy and telecommunications policy. Hmmm... I've heard people say the PUC is a good place to serve the people but not a great springboard for further political aspirations (who's the last PUC member to run for governor or Congress?). Could this be a signal that Daugaard is putting Dusty in the blocks for a bigger run in 2014?
Better yet, could this be a signal that that adults in the Republican Party are making sure they have someone other than Rep.-Elect Noem primed and ready to run for Tim Johnson's U.S. Senate seat in 2014? (Idle speculation is a blast!)
Daugaard gets to pick Johnson's replacement on the PUC (and we get to vote on two commissioners in 2012! Whoo-hoo!). My recommendation: pick Russ Olson! If Dusty can reject the mandate of 217,346 voters (more votes than any other contested politician got on our November 8 ballot), then Russ Olson can forsake the mandate given him by a measly 6,981 District 8 voters, leave the Senate, and take his utility expertise to the PUC.
And heck, let's keep playing dominoes: move Russ out of his Senate seat, and Daugaard could move Rep.-Elect Patty Stricherz to District 8 Senate. And then... well, what the heck! Let's appoint third-place finisher Gerry Lange back to the State House! Come on, Dennis, admit it: you guys like having Gerry in Pierre. He's a great storyteller, and he keeps the income-tax meme alive so Republicans up and down the ticket have something to run against. You need a conscience out there in Pierre—turn on the music, swap the chairs, and bring Gerry back to Pierre!
Back to reality: I have to admit, Johnson seems like a heck of a choice for chief of staff. He's sharp, quick, and ready to break out the boss stick. He's like Rahm Emanuel... with a goofier farm-boy smile. This could be a fun administration.
Update 12:37 CST: Seth Tupper on SDPB this noon says he thinks jumping to chief of staff puts Johnson in a less effective springboard position, since chief of staff, says Tupper, is a relatively anonymous position that lessens Johnson's public profile. Kevin Woster suggests Johnson will be a more visible chief of staff than we are used to. Woster says Daugaard doesn't really like public speaking and may lean on his chief of staff as a more active spokesperson.
Woster also notes that he thought the appointment of Tony Venhuizen as director of policy and communication would be the marquee news item, given that Venhuizen is Daugaard's son-in-law. But what's a guy to do when his daughter just happens to fall in love with one of the smartest, most ambitious young men in the state?
Update 2010.11.23 11:38 CST: Dusty Johnson tells the Mitchell Republic that this job switch "is a very clear indication that my political aspirations are going to take a back seat." Yet he says he's taking the job because it "gives me an opportunity to make a much greater impact on how this state works." As I said, he'll have his hands on more levers. He'll be stirring more policy pots, meeting more people in the know (and with the dough!). Plus, if Johnson has been thinking about running for higher office, this move gets his quitting the PUC out of the way now so utility customers' disappointment has maximum time to fade before the next time Dusty comes a-slapping stickers on our chests.
I take Johnson at his word that he wants to serve the state. I do not dispute his reasoning that he can have a greater impact on the state as chief of staff than as PUC commissioner. I simply note that, even if Dusty's not playing Fantasy South Dakota Politics with the rest of us in the peanut gallery, Johnson's move goes in the plus column for future political prospects.
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