Lalley: Rick Knobe's latest entry into the public arena
The former mayor and talk show host is one of the organizers of Change Agents of South Dakota, a political action committee focused on the 2024 election.
SIOUX FALLS — I met Rick Knobe when he was a radio talk show host.
The first time.
Before he was mayor of Sioux Falls.
That’s a long time ago and, to be fair, I was very young. But I do remember going to the KCHF-AM studios and seeing a guy wearing headphones and talking into a microphone.
And I have an everlasting memory of my mother standing in our kitchen at Fourth and Menlo, at one end of a long, twisted telephone cord that stretched into the back room. She was on hold waiting to give her input on some issue she and her friends were worked up about.
We went into the other room to listen to my mom on the radio.
On the other end of the line was Rick Knobe.
Fast forward many years and I was fortunate to guest-host Knobe’s Viewpoint University show on KSOO-AM. Then I was blessed to succeed him in the time slot when he retired in 2017.
And several times recently we've had coffee or lunch downtown to talk about the issues of the day.
So yeah, it’s been quite a run.
The thing about Rick is that he’s always been trying to change something.
He’s never quite satisfied with how things are and has plenty of ideas about how things could be done differently.
Not in the big, radical ways. Not in the “everybody else is stupid” kind of ways.
It put him in the mayor’s office in 1974 during a period of great change in what would become the Best Little City in America.
Now he wants to change things again.
Rick and about 40 friends and interested acquaintances have formed a political action committee called Change Agents of South Dakota. Their aim is to influence legislative campaigns in the Sioux Falls area by bringing attention to the voting records of sitting lawmakers who they say are curtailing participatory democracy.
The organizers come from a wide political and social spectrum, Knobe told me recently.
They are linked in their concern over the tone and tenor of government in the state, that they see sliding away from problem solving and factual debate to bombast and empty rhetoric.
“This is strictly a group of people that are interested in decent, civil discussion, fact-based decision making and just good governance all the way around,” he said.
Which is not to say the Change Agents of South Dakota is a barstool debate club. They plan to get directly involved in campaigns by disseminating information and specific votes on specific bills in the legislature.
Their issues include restrictions on the state’s citizen initiative and referendum process, barriers to a family’s access to medical treatment for children with gender dysphoria and, yes, comprehensive health care for women, including reasonable access to abortion.
“Has this legislator tried to make it more difficult to vote? Have they tried to take away initiative and referendum? Have they voted or sponsored bills that deny comprehensive medical care? Have they tried to take away the ability of cities and counties and school districts to do their job? That’s what we are going to be looking for.”
It’s one thing to say you want to bring change, of course.
Legislative races are door-to-door affairs. They are won with shoe-leather, hand-shaking and question answering.
They tend not to include big media advertising like you’d see in statewide, or even city-wide races. That’s not an efficient use of money.
Rather, it’s a world of voter identification and likely patterns.
It can be a back-alley knife fight of postcards and social media campaigns, often financed by someone other than the candidate themselves.
Political action committees or special-interest groups can – and do – say things that a candidate never would.
These are all tools that the Change Agents of South Dakota have available to them to engage in races, which they plan to do in the 2024 cycle.
Knobe stresses that a candidate’s political party does not matter. It’s their positions and voting record that do, whether that’s a primary or in the general election.
That said, only 11 of the current 105 state lawmakers are Democrats. Six of those Democrats — two in the Senate and four in the House — represent the Sioux Falls metro.
“We are concerned that there are legislators in this area who apparently don’t like the initiative and referendum, that are somehow convinced that there is something wrong with our voting systems and they want to make it more difficult for individuals to vote. I don't care what party they are in, that’s a problem alone,” Knobe said. “There are people who are making decisions about medical care for families and these people have no medical experience whatsoever and they are mandating certain types of medical treatment are against the law. I personally have a problem with that and I think the group would share that feeling.”
Whether that translates to electoral victory is at best an open question.
It will take some money, which Knobe is confident they can do.
It will take cooperation with like-minded organizations, which he says they are working on.
And it will mean entering the arena with the confidence that the public will side with you, which is the great mystery of politics.
“We are living in a time of great transition in this country,” he said. “There are all kinds of things that are at the least unsettling and at worst life-changing. We’ve have got to find a way to deal with that reality and yet keep things a fact-based, civil discussion. It’s all got to be at the local level. That’s where all politics starts.”