VERMILLION — Facing a major challenge next Tuesday, U.S. Representative Dusty Johnson likened the election to a colonoscopy.
“You have to do them every few years, whether you like it or not,” Johnson (RS.D.) joked to Press & Dakotan before speaking to Girls State this week.
On a serious note, Johnson answered a question from Girls State about negative flyers hitting mailboxes days before the June 7 primary election. The pamphlet notably accuses him of not representing conservative republican values.
“I didn’t mean to talk politics, but you ask,” Johnson told the Girl Stater. “All of this negative stuff is coming from outside of South Dakota by a New Jersey-based organization ‘Drain The DC Swamp’.”
Johnson estimated that $1 million was being spent against him, mostly by out-of-state political action committees (PACs), as a targeted candidate.
The congressman added that he remains focused on his job and his constituents.
“Tuesday will come, and South Dakotans will vote for who Republicans want to be their candidate for the House of Representatives,” he said. “I plan to work hard, play fair, tell my story and continue to serve South Dakota.”
Beyond her own race, Johnson noted a growing trend of attacking ads and derogatory comments on social media about officials and candidates.
“Negative campaigns work, by far the most effective, and that’s a real shame. Campaigns should be these beautiful opportunities we have for a natural conversation about where we want to go,” he said.
“We should be looking to the future, and that should be high. It should be stimulating with lots of ideas. However, many of us really check and pay attention only during the last week before the election.
When asked what he would change about the system, Johnson said it would be better representation of South Dakota youth at the polls.
“South Dakota had high voter turnout in the last election, but youth turnout in the state was the lowest in the country,” he said, noting that young adults in New Jersey had two times more turnout than their counterparts in South Dakota.
During the Girls State appearance Wednesday night, Johnson was asked about his approach to dealing with the mass shootings, including the May 24 deaths of 19 students and two teachers at a Texas elementary school.
Hours before Johnson spoke, a shooter killed four people at a medical center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, before killing himself.
Johnson called for balancing the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens with protecting the general public from shooting incidents.
“Where do we draw the line and does it make sense?” He asked.
The Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms, which Johnson interprets as including citizens. He expressed concern about the type of legislation and limitations that might arise at the federal level.
The congressman sees the need to address the underlying root causes that lead to the mass shootings. He supports an effort to free up $1 trillion in unspent COVID funds and send them to states to establish a perpetual trust fund focused solely on behavioral health. Each state could use the funds tailored to their mental health needs, he said.
The congressman also answered the question from the media present. He noted that the Texas school shooter showed disturbing signs long before he committed his act.
“With gun violence, a number of studies show that we can predict, not with certainty, but we know the people who are likely to commit these crimes,” he said. “We are doing a very poor job of getting them the intervention they need.”
Mental health, including children, needs more attention and resources, Johnson said. Yankton remains fortunate to have Lewis and Clark Behavioral Health Services and other mental health professionals, he added.
“Lewis and Clark is the gold standard for South Dakota, but the overwhelming majority of areas in our state are woefully underserved,” he said. “We cannot continue to do things with the same resources. We need a substantial state and nationwide commitment to mental health. We need a realistic proposal to achieve this.
During Wednesday’s appearance before the Girls Staters, Johnson spoke about creating the loudest voice possible as South Dakota’s only congresswoman. He believes in American exceptionalism.
“I know this is a complicated time in our global history, but I know that when Americans are united, nothing can hold this country back,” he said. “Have we understood correctly? No, we denied you (women) the right to vote for 100 years. But each year, we have tried to better embody the values of this Constitution. I think if Americans keep trying, then I better keep trying too.
Johnson praised the efforts, energy and enthusiasm of Girls Staters.
“Regardless of your opinions, America needs smart, dedicated people across the political spectrum,” he said.
During his speech, Johnson described a Tanzanian marathon runner who injured himself in the second mile but finished the 26.2-mile race behind everyone else. A reporter asked the runner why he continued this grueling race, and the marathon runner replied that his country did not send him to start a race but rather to finish one.
Similarly, the American Legion and the American Legion Auxiliary sponsor the Boys’ State and the Girls’ State, respectively, to provide a good start in training young leaders, but that’s only the beginning, a Johnson said.
“You could start a race, but we need you to finish a race,” he told Girls Staters. “We need bold, positive problem solvers, and I hope you’re one of them.”
During his visit to Girls State, he answered questions on a variety of topics.
• On the infant formula shortage, Johnson said he presented a very detailed list of questions, including the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) delay in responding to the situation. He supports the removal of regulatory barriers so that European infant formula can reach US store shelves.
In addition, he supports a special waiver to the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, allowing beneficiaries to have more baby formula choices beyond the currently available formula.
• How does he reconcile his political and personal life? He noted that his wife and three sons remained at Mitchell while he served in Washington. Back home, he spends time with his family.
“Even when I’m in South Dakota, I’m not with my family half the time. It can be very difficult. The big rule of thumb for me is, when you’re home, be present and not spend all night with this thing,” he said, raising his smartphone. “I spend time with my kids and we do a lot of different things. When I’m home, I’m really present.
• Johnson was asked about qualified immunity in relation to law enforcement officers and their actions. “If they don’t follow the law, policy or practice, we have to hold them accountable,” he replied.
• Recent developments around the world show a looming problem with food supplies and trade, Johnson said.
“Food will surely be a big issue, not for Americans, but we will get more experience with inflation (in the United States),” he said. “It will be felt even more in the food arena and grocery stores.”
South Dakota farmers and ranchers have done a good job of feeding the world, Johnson said, with 60% of South Dakota’s soybeans exported worldwide. However, markets for cattle and other livestock suffered setbacks, he said.
Johnson called on the federal government to adopt more agriculture-friendly policies.
“We know there is no one in the history of the world who has increased their efficiency as much as the American farmer over the past 50 years,” he said.
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