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MCDP History

Significant moments in Minnehaha County Democratic Party history

The Minnehaha County Democratic Party and its supporters have been crucial to South Dakota Democratic influences and victories over the years in our state. FDR, LBJ, Clinton, Dukakis, and Obama all carried the county when they ran for president. Since 1970 alone, more than ten Democratic gubernatorial and lieutenant governor Democratic nominees have come from Minnehaha County. 


In 1992, the Minnehaha County Democratic state Senate candidates’ political successes were instrumental in helping the Democrats to take control of the state Senate with a 20 to 15 majority – the first time the Democrats controlled a chamber of the South Dakota state legislature, while the opposing party controlled the governor’s mansion. 

In 2018, with one exception – Yankton County – the gains by the Democratic Party in the state legislature were all made in legislative districts found in Minnehaha County: District 9, District 13, and District 14. District 15, which is completely found in Minnehaha County, is one of the most heavily populated Democratic legislative districts in the state; and District 15 has constantly elected Democrats over the years. And Minnehaha precincts throughout all of the eight legislative districts found in Minnehaha County continue to trend towards Democratic blue with many Democratic legislative candidates winning a majority, or at least a plurality of the Minnehaha County vote, in many of the respective districts.

After post-census legislative redistricting in 2021, District 15 became strictly purple. District 10's new lines made it the only district in Minnehaha County with a Democratic voter registration majority. The trio of Democrats elected to serve District 10 in Pierre in 2022 cushioned legislative losses in other areas of the state to maintain the number of Democrats in the state legislature. Of all South Dakota's border states that election, only Minnesota made Democratic state legislative gains. 

Minnehaha County and the county party have played major roles in presidential politics, too. Most of the Populist Party joined the Democratic Party in 1896, but remnants of the Populist Party held a national political convention in Minnehaha County in 1900 in Sioux Falls. This convention was actually held under a large tent at 9th Street and Summit Avenue. Both elements of the Populist Party overtime were then instrumental in developing the modern Democratic Party infrastructure in South Dakota that we know today and helped to produce the electoral successes of Democratic candidates like Senator George McGovern, Senator James Abourezk, Congressman Frank Denholm, Governor Dick Kneip, Senator Tom Daschle, Senator Tim Johnson, and Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin.  


In 1960, the National Plowing Contest was in held in Minnehaha County on a farm outside of Brandon with then Vice-President Richard Nixon and Democratic presidential nominee Senator John F. Kennedy in attendance. At this event, both Nixon and Kennedy addressed a large crowd and a national press corps and laid out their agricultural policies for their hopeful administrations.  


The 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, South Dakota’s own George McGovern, brought his campaign to an end in Minnehaha County on election day, where he ran his election day war room operations out of the Sioux Falls downtown Holiday Inn hotel and addressed a crowd on election night at the Sioux Falls Coliseum annex.  


In November of 1991, at a political fundraiser held by Minnehaha County Democrats and the state party in a horse barn in rural Minnehaha County, the future 42nd president of the United States, Bill Clinton, often credited in comments and writings that his successful presidential campaign found its first place beginnings at that Minnehaha County event. Clinton, who had announced his candidacy a few months before the event, often cited that event for establishing him as a front runner due to a better development of his message and press coverage as a result of that night’s event, where he appeared along side other Democratic presidential hopefuls.


Long before political parties were defined as blue or red, or states were called purple or swing states, in 1972, 1976, 1988, 1992, and 1996, South Dakota was a probable purple, or swing state, for George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, and Bill Clinton. Democratic votes from Minnehaha County were instrumental in making South Dakota a competitive state in those presidential elections; Dukakis and Clinton carried Minnehaha County in their respective candidacies. In 1996, President Clinton’s last personal campaign stop at midnight on election eve was held in Minnehaha County at the Sioux Falls Arena. 

Although there have been many good Democrats who have fought the fight over the years with many of them winning and continually winning, two personalities stand out as political success stories from Minnehaha County. They should be noted not only for history’s sake, but to inspire future generations to fight for the Democratic Party and its philosophy: the late Minnehaha County Commissioner Michael O’Connor, and retired Minnehaha County Treasurer Pam Nelson.


Michael O’Connor’s political career expanded over four decades, having first served in the state house and senate in the 1970s and '80s. O’Connor was part of a group of successful Democrats who came from Minnehaha County who were responsible for making a significant and positive impact to state government under the Kneip administration. O’Connor once pointed out to a political audience that, before the Democrats took control of the state legislature in the early 1970s, legislative committees never recorded their votes, thus giving committee chairs back then total control or sovereignty. That all changed when Democratic legislators like O’Connor were elected and created a greater transparency for all South Dakotans when they voted in the legislature to require recordation of all committee votes.


O’Connor was also the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in 1982 and served many years on the Minnehaha County Commission before retiring from politics in the early 2000s. O’Connor, who was a printer by profession, was an extremely popular Democratic candidate and leader from Minnehaha County, who possessed two key qualities: likability and a commitment to transparency, and thus, electability and two qualities which all Democratic candidates should strive for today.


Pam Nelson’s political career stretched over five decades: first elected to the Sioux Falls School Board in the late 1970s, and then to the state house and state senate in the 1980s and 90s. In 1996, she was elected to the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission and served as the Minnehaha County Treasurer from 2004 to 2020. Nelson’s commitment to the truth and fighting for taxpayers over the years helped her to create a positive political brand of dependability and completion, which were the keys to her political successes.


Nelson was not only a successful candidate for the Democratic Party at the county and state levels but was also a key role model over the years for many young women interested in Minnehaha and South Dakota Democratic politics. In 1991, Nelson became the first woman to run for mayor of Sioux Falls.


What makes O’Connor and Nelson’s successes even more poignant is the fact that they maintained their electability in both good and bad times over the years, and their few defeats did not stop them but instead made them successful phoenix candidates in the future. They are demonstrative inspirations to all Democrats living in this state, and especially in Minnehaha County.


If a Democratic Party wants to win in South Dakota, they must win in Minnehaha County. Get involved with the Minnehaha County Democratic Party to help elect Democratic candidates for the sake of good and sound public service.

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