- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 16, 2014

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - Susan Wismer, challenger of incumbent Gov. Dennis Daugaard, is the first woman to be nominated by a major party for the state’s high office.

Wismer says that had nothing to do with her decision to run, but she knows it matters to some of the women who support her. “I’m understanding more and more how much it means to women across the state,” said Wismer, a state representative from Britton.

About 23 percent of South Dakota’s 105 legislative seats are currently occupied by women - 1 percent below the national average cited by the National Conference of State Legislatures - and about 26 percent of the candidates that made it through the June primary are women.

Also, six of the 22 members of Daugaard’s cabinet are women, as well as many of his staff.

“Gov. Daugaard looks for the best people to do the job, regardless of gender,” senior adviser Kim Malsam-Rysdon said.

But politically active women in South Dakota - and beyond - are taking steps to expand their representation. It’s important to elect women, because governments that reflect their constituencies are stronger and draw voter participation, said Cynthia Terrell, chair of the project Representation2020, a national group that promotes gender balance in governments.

And Gail Brock, president of the South Dakota Federation of Republican Women, said the state is already electing a fair number of women and many serve in politics behind the scenes.

“There is a lot of potential out there,” said Brock, whose group works to encourage women to participate in government and run for office.

Women face unique challenges when running for office, because many start political careers later in life than men and have smaller networks to draw on, Terrell said. She also said women usually need more encouragement to run then men do.

“Women don’t have a hard time winning,” according to Barb Everist, the first woman to serve as majority leader in the South Dakota Senate. “We just don’t compete in the same numbers as men.”

Many of Everist’s male colleagues encouraged her in her rise to leadership during her 20-year legislative career. She said she’s watched the number of women in the Legislature ebb and flow over the years, but she expected more women to fill the seats by now.

Wismer says it’s tough to get strong candidates for the Legislature, period, because it’s difficult for men and women to come to Pierre for two months of the year. A legislator needs to be retired, independently wealthy or have cooperative family and business partners to accommodate the schedule, Wismer said.

The gubernatorial candidate says she’d be happy to see more women in the ranks of the Legislature, because some of the strongest lawmakers she’s known were women. Her running mate for lieutenant governor, Susy Blake, is also a woman.

But she doesn’t endorse tracking and promoting one sex over the other.

“I did not grow up with a conscious awareness that women were excluded from decision-making,” Wismer said. “I’ve not had much patience for those discussions.”

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Follow Nora Hertel on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/nghertel


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