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Pierre, South Dakota — The coronavirus crisis hasn’t been kind to the reputations of many governors.
New York’s Andrew Cuomo held effective news conferences that at first burnished his image, but he’s now ducking responsibility for sending virus patients back into nursing homes where the disease promptly spread. Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer is now seen as a scold who on the one hand has kept pot dispensaries open but, on the other, last week told residents who’ve gone three months without hair care to just “Google how to do a haircut.”
Among the governors whose reputation has clearly been enhanced is South Dakota’s Kristi Noem. The 48-year-old Republican, who still ranches her family’s land, didn’t issue a shelter-in-place lockdown order for her state. “The people themselves are primarily responsible for their safety,” she said in a public statement in April. She added that the state and national constitutions “prevent us from taking draconian measures much like the Chinese government has done.”
But that didn’t mean South Dakota didn’t take clear steps to control the virus. Noem issued an executive order in March urging the elderly and those with preexisting conditions to stay home and encouraging employees to practice social distancing and to telework if possible.
“We do follow Center for Disease Control guidance,” Noem told Greg Kelly of Newsmax TV. “But we also made decisions that were best for South Dakota. South Dakota is not New York City.” Indeed, per square mile, New York has more than 26,000 residents per square mile, while South Dakota has only 12.
One place where social distancing wasn’t easily possible was the Smithfield Foods pork-processing plant in Sioux Falls. It was declared part of essential infrastructure by President Trump because it alone accounted for between 4 and 5 percent of pork production in America. As Bret Schundler wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “Even states with lockdowns have exempted food production as essential, and with good reason. If governors shut down food plants, disease today would be followed by hunger tomorrow.”
But the plant’s workers did become part of a large coronavirus cluster in April, with more than 300 workers falling ill and two eventually dying. That prompted MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow to pounce on South Dakota for not issuing a stay-at-home order. At one point, Maddow addressed the camera mockingly, as if speaking directly to the governor, stating, “You are aware that it’s infectious, right? That it’s a communicable disease?”
But Noem kept calm. South Dakota had had 5,438 COVID-19 cases in all so far (1,038 are active) and a total of 65 deaths. “I always tried to be dispassionate and follow the science, facts, and data,” she told me in an interview last month. “One-liners on social media or TV don’t contribute to any solutions.”
Most recently, Noem has acted to reduce tensions over the killing of George Floyd and the resulting protests. The local protests in South Dakota have been peaceful, and the governor says they were “legitimate and raised important concerns.” But in other places people were perpetrating violence in an effort “to shortcut public debates through fear,” she warned. “They want people scared.” She made clear that such behavior wouldn’t be tolerated in South Dakota.
Noem’s steady approach is attracting more national attention. Of course, her critics are still there. Stu Whitney, the media columnist of the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader, dismisses her policy on the virus as “mired in many of the strategies of President Trump” but concedes it has also made her “a darling of right-wing media icons.”
Many Republicans see a future in national politics for her. J. J. Cafaro, a shopping-center developer from Ohio who is a large political donor, is a big fan and says her down-to-earth approach make her a natural. “I’m rarely so impressed with an elected official,” he told me last year. “Newt Gingrich was one, Kristi is another.” Noem has “remarkable future potential,” Corey Lewandowski, who was Donald Trump’s campaign manager for much of 2016, told me. “People will be noticing her.”
For her part, Noem responds to such speculation by noting that she is focused on being a good governor and has turned down opportunities with the Trump administration “on more than one occasion.”
But even if Kristi Noem stays in South Dakota, I predict you’ll continue to hear from her as one of the governors who exercised clear leadership during the coronavirus crisis.