CUSTER, South Dakota — Gov. Kristi Noem (R-SD) told Breitbart News that her background farming and ranching informs her decision-making in politics, serving as a foundation for what she calls her “problem-solving, common-sense approach” to governing.
“This is a special place,” Noem said in an interview in Custer State Park after its annual Governor’s Buffalo Roundup. “These traditions really remind people of our history and they remind us of where we all come from. We love it—we just think it reconnects us to the outdoors and to other people.”
Noem had just finished riding in the annual roundup of about 1,400 buffalo—one of the last remaining herds in the United States, kept on the state park lands—where she and dozens of others on horseback and even more in pickup trucks gather the creatures from their natural grazing lands, round them up, and drive them to corrals once a year. The calves are branded and immunized at the corrals and some of the buffalo are auctioned off to keep the state’s herd at a consistent number around 1,400. Noem herself has even bought some buffalo from the state in past years and currently keeps hers at her own ranch. But the annual event—now that she’s the governor of South Dakota—allows her to showcase her ranching skills to fellow South Dakotans and tens of thousands of people who come from all over the world to watch the feat from the hills around the park.Matthew Perdie, Jack Knudsen
Noem has raised tens of thousands of dollars for charity from paintings from the annual roundup as well. The first print of a painting that artist David Uhl—known for motorcycle paintings—made of her riding her horse last year was auctioned off at the Legends Ride at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally for $55,000—and an American flag that the governor had flown was also auctioned off for $25,000. That total $80,000 went to benefit a charity called Treasured Lives, which is devoted to helping victims of human trafficking. The day before this year’s roundup the governor auctioned off a second print of the Uhl painting from last year for another $105,000 which went this time to the Second Century Habitant Fund, a Noem-launched pheasant conservative effort.
Noem sat for two interviews with Breitbart News here in South Dakota in late September for the latest On The Hill exclusive video series, one here at Custer State Park after the roundup and the other at Mount Rushmore National Memorial over in Keystone, South Dakota, just outside Rapid City.
The two days of events and interviews are featured here, with exclusive footage from the roundup as the governor invited Breitbart News’s film crew to ride in the back of one of the pickup trucks that was part of the roundup. The pickup truck that our team rode in was one of several used for herd management and was just feet away from the hard-charging and free-roaming buffalo—a front row seat to one of her treasured annual events.
The two days that Breitbart News spent with Noem revealed a lot about her background, her character, and her political identity. She also addressed conservative critics of some of her policies, defiantly pledging that she does not think it is the proper role of the government to stop private companies from mandating coronavirus vaccines on their employers and that she thinks she handled the transgender bill controversy in her state well earlier this year.
Noem, who is running for reelection next year in 2022, said that she would support former President Donald Trump if he runs again in 2024. “If President Trump runs again, I certainly will support him,” Noem said, adding that “I’m not” thinking about any future presidential campaign of her own at this time.
“I’d rather stay here in South Dakota and round up buffalo,” Noem said.
But at a national level, Noem said, “people are shocked by what they see happening” in Washington, DC, under complete Democrat control in the U.S. Congress and a White House led by President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.
“That’s what I’m noticing is just this last six months is people—even people who thought Joe Biden would be a bad president—are shocked at how quickly he’s wrecking this country,” she said. “Really what resonates with them is what’s happening at the southern border. They can’t believe that humanitarian crisis down there—even some of his supporters are questioning why he would let that happen. Then Afghanistan—that was a decision made by somebody in the Pentagon or the White House to pull out the way that they did. There’s no way they made that grave of a mistake in that process and how it happened. That’s what people need to start is what is their motive? What are they trying to do? I believe with my whole heart they are fundamentally trying to change America. I will fight them tooth and nail before I let them do it.”
Noem, from her position here in South Dakota, is trying to stop them in her own unique way—and her background serves to inform who she is as a person and how she fights back.
Noem grew up farming and ranching in South Dakota. “I didn’t grow up in a political family at all,” she said. “We worked together every single day—a strong family and our faith is very important to us. We’re together all the time. But we also respected other people—we served other people, and we obeyed the law. It was important to us that we always remember how special this country is.”
“For me, that probably gave me the problem-solving, common-sense approach that I have,” Noem said. “Every day on a ranch, you’re constantly solving problems, fixing things, making it right, trying to figure out how to be strategic, save time, and become more efficient. I think that’s beneficial in government.”
When Noem was just 22 years old, back in 1994, her father was killed in a farming accident.
“I was in college at the time and he went into a grain bin—it was a 50,000-bushel grain bin that was getting hot and moldy on the top—and fell through the crust,” Noem said. “The rest of the grain fell in on him. We lost him on March 10. It changed everything for our family. It was devastating. We had a very large operation—a lot of land, a lot of machinery and cattle—but we didn’t have money in the bank. I think that’s pretty typical of a lot of small businesses.”
The death tax notification she got several months after her father died shocked her—and drew her into politics. “Several months later we got a notification from the IRS that we owed death taxes on everything we owned and no way to pay them back,” Noem said. “That’s what really got me involved in government and politics, was it made me angry. I couldn’t believe a family would have a tragedy and then all of a sudden owe the federal government hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Noem said Americans nationwide are going through this problem where the government screws them over on things where it is not their fault. That’s what brought her into politics in the first place, and she offered advice on how to fight back against it by advising conservatives to “show up.”
“I didn’t stand around waiting for other people to fix it for me,” Noem said. “I went to meetings. I got involved in creating policy. I served on several different boards. I was on the Farm Service Agency, which oversaw all the federal programs in the state, and then I ended up running for office. That’s really what got me involved in it. In our family, you don’t complain about things—you fix them. So it was never standing back asking somebody else to solve our problem for us. We knew we had to do that ourselves.”
Even though he died when she was young, her father had an outsized influence on her life and work ethic. “The way that I tell people the most about the way Dad was to work with was a story when I was about 9 or 10 years old, we were fixing fence together,” Noem said.
“He went to pound a post in and he realized I didn’t have the post mall there, the pounder that he needed—it was still in the pickup. So he said, ‘Get to the truck, get it, and get back here as soon as you can.’ So I ran to the truck, got it, and when I came back I remember when I handed it to him he said—because he had been waiting—he said, ‘You should know what I need before I know what I need.’ I remember thinking—I was like 10 years old—I was thinking, ‘How would I ever know you need before you need it?’ But he was teaching us to think three steps ahead of him—to always think three steps ahead. Never make him wait, always have the tools laid out. That’s the way we were raised all the time—not to look at a situation and look at what you’re dealing with today but what are the consequences three or four steps down the road and what can I do to make it a better situation then?”
Noem applies those life lessons to governing now as the chief executive of the state of South Dakota. What put Noem and her state on the national political stage over the past couple years is how she has handled the coronavirus pandemic compared to some other governors—especially Democrats but even some Republicans. South Dakota under Noem’s governorship was one of the only states that never locked down and never implemented restrictions like mask mandates or other government edicts.
“I think I basically did pre-virus-hitting-South-Dakota what a lot of other governors did—we all studied the science, talked to researchers, watched the virus affect other countries before it came to the United States, and consulted with our health experts within our states. So we were prepared for when we started to get cases,” Noem said. “I maybe took it another step and spent a lot of time with my general counsel and with constitutional attorneys because I really wanted to understand throughout that process what authority I had as governor and then what authority I didn’t have. For me, it was really important that I did my job—and I didn’t try to do more than what government should do in people’s lives, and I really wanted to make sure that I followed the Constitution. At the end of the day, my number one job is I raised my hand and swore an oath to uphold the Constitution of the state of South Dakota and of the United States.”
Noem never locked down—even for a day. “We never did,” Noem said of lockdowns. “We never closed a single business. We are the only state that made that decision. We also, in fact, I didn’t define even what an ‘essential business’ was. I didn’t believe I had the authority as governor to tell any business in this state they weren’t ‘essential.’”
Even though Noem never locked down, there was an effort at the beginning of the pandemic—which was ultimately rejected by the state legislature—that her administration sought powers to give state health officials such powers to lock down. While that was rejected by the legislature so it never passed, it is unclear if there ever would have been a use of those powers had the state legislature approved them. Asked about this, Noem said she was never seeking to lock down.
“There was some debate about that authority that other health secretaries had in other states—conversations with legislators and health systems and those that were in the health care field and wanted to see what the debate would be during the legislature,” Noem said. “That’s really what I think makes this a people’s government is to have the debate, take into committee, make sure that you’re doing the research behind the statute and that you’re really educating the people on what that authority would be. It did not pass. We operated, I believe, the exact same way we would have if it had passed. But it was always every option on the table is what I think people wanted to debate and discuss.”
Noem has been competing with other GOP governors like Gov. Ron DeSantis in Florida and Gov. Greg Abbott in Texas to showcase the best response to the pandemic. Asked to explain why she thinks South Dakota’s response was better than say, Florida or Texas, Noem said “I believe we have to look at results.”
“I’m not here to judge any other state or any other leader other than I trusted my people,” Noem said. “I really told them I was going to let them use the personal responsibility that I believe that they had in this situation and that we would support them—give them all the information and help that we had—but that I was going to do my job and that our job was to partner together and get through this as a state. We did that in very innovative ways—I was overwhelmed and encouraged by how I saw people partner together during this virus and I think the results speak for themselves. We have the fastest growing economy in the country right now. We have record numbers of people visiting our state, moving to our state, investing in our state, bringing their businesses here. They want their kids in classrooms getting an education. All of that speaks to the fact that we stood up for freedom and we stood up for protecting people’s liberties that folks in the country recognize that so now they want to come here so they can be like us and live the kind of life that we do here.”
Noem’s position on vaccine mandates is curious. She opposes the government mandating the vaccine, like what President Joe Biden is attempting to do for a still-as-of-yet-to-be-released Labor Department rule. But she does not oppose private companies independently deciding to mandate vaccines for their employees. Noem says she intends to sue Biden if and when he releases the rule.
“That’s not his job—the constitution is very clear that he has no authority over public health and the safety of the people,” Noem said. “That is left to the states and local governments. One of the things when I campaigned for governor, I committed to my people I would fight against federal government intrusion and I will sue him over that because that’s not an authority the federal government has. We’ll make sure they don’t do what is left to the states and the power that is left to us.”
But on private companies independently deciding to mandate vaccines for employees, Noem takes a similar approach in that she believes the government also has no input there.
“We don’t have a policy in South Dakota and I’m not planning on bringing any kind of a restriction on private businesses,” Noem said. “The Constitution is pretty clear on that as well: private property and private businesses need to have some rights as well respected by the government. I think if we start doing that as conservatives, mandating to businesses then what’s the difference between what the government tried to do in the Hobby Lobby case or in the baker case where they were mandating that businesses had to serve certain constituencies mandated and they had to provide contraception for their employees? We have to be careful as conservatives what we’re doing to blur the lines on constitutional responsibilities and make sure we’re standing on the principles and foundations that have kept this country free for hundreds of years.”
Asked hypothetically about if all of South Dakota’s major hospital systems—there are only a few in the state—mandate the vaccine, what a nurse with a medical or religious objection should do, Noem said there are independent other places a nurse could work.
“We’ve still got some independent healthcare places and and jobs and careers and positions in the state as well,” Noem said. “That’s a decision that really the employee will look at and evaluate their feelings and beliefs and that vaccine. It is a challenge and it’s a difficult time. So many times it is not an easy decision for these employees. Many times their work has benefits that are very important to their family, they have a retirement that they’ve been working towards taking care of their family, or it’s very close to home. It’s such a challenge. That is one of the things we talk about consistently is how can we support employees like that? But also what can we do to help them find the position that respects them and their decisions and also the freedom to pursue a job to help them live the kind of life they want to?”
Noem has taken some criticism from some corners of the right on this stance, and over her style and form veto of a bill that would have banned biological males from participating in women’s sports at the high school and collegiate level in her state. Asked to respond to those critics, and address any conservatives who might be wavering about her, Noem told Breitbart News she is worried about giving the government too much power.
“I would tell them to be careful about what they ask the government or public officials to do for them,” Noem said. “I take my guidance from the Constitution. I swore an oath to that. It’s very important to me that I adhere to that oath. The government that you make too big and too powerful and give leaders that kind of authority that the Constitution doesn’t give them will be powerful enough to take away your freedom too. So, I know many times we get into these fights and it gets tough and they are asking me to do things that will make them feel better, but we have to consider the precedent we’re setting. When you have a leader take that kind of authority—especially in a time of crisis—we will break this country. Where will it stop? I know people are looking for me to fight on issues but I’m very focused as well on fighting but fighting to win. In order to do that you have to have a strong foundation and keep the integrity of the Constitution and the laws that we follow.”
Noem also, as Breitbart News previously reported, ripped Biden for withholding life-saving monoclonal antibodies medicine from states like hers in the battle against the coronavirus pandemic. Nonetheless, despite Biden’s mismanagement of the pandemic, red states in America—especially South Dakota—are thriving economically.
Noem is absolutely correct that South Dakota’s economy is exploding with growth. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), South Dakota’s unemployment rate is currently 2.9 percent—it has been consistently under 3 percent since the early spring of this year—and the state’s GDP outpaced Texas for the first time any state has in a long time recently, something Abbott even congratulated Noem for at a recent event.
“In South Dakota today I have right about around a thousand people in the entire state that are on unemployment benefits right now,” Noem told Breitbart News. “When President Trump offered the elevated unemployment benefits to the country, South Dakota was the only state that said to the president, ‘Thank you for that flexibility, but we don’t need it because South Dakotans want to work.’ They did. I have people here every day that get up and want to go to their job and realize they were created to serve people and to take care of people and that’s what we do. Tourism and hospitality is our second largest industry but we also prioritize training folks and keeping them in their jobs. Right now, I have 27,000 open jobs in this state because our economy is growing so fast and because we see companies benefiting and profiting. We have incredible opportunities for people to pick the job that they want and pursue their dreams.”
Noem added that “usually it’s a little tough to beat Texas” on GDP, and that the Lone Star State clocked in earlier this year at 7.5 percent but South Dakota came in even better at 9.9 percent. Her state, she said, has “incredible growth here and I think that reflects how we were innovative here to help people be successful even in the midst of a pandemic.”
Noem said the surge of people moving to South Dakota from across the country does not concern her politically, noting that most of the folks coming share South Dakotan conservative values.
“I believe people are moving here because they want to be like us,” Noem said. “They’re moving here because they’re tired of the policies under Democrat leadership and they recognize how it’s penalized them and their families and they want to be somewhere where they’re respected, where the government respects them and does their job and does nothing more. I don’t believe this state is getting more liberal. I believe the people that are coming here are conservatives that want to come here and live the kind of life where they can be respected by the government.”
In the package, Noem also as Breitbart News previously reported addressed her efforts to restore an Independence Day fireworks celebration at Mount Rushmore. She also discussed leftist efforts to rewrite history—on display through Critical Race Theory (CRT) battles playing out nationwide—and tear down monuments like Mount Rushmore because they dislike the presidents featured on it.
“They talk about how they’re flawed men and they weren’t perfect,” Noem said when asked to explain why the left wants to tear down Mount Rushmore. “Nobody has ever said these four men are perfect. But they did incredible things during challenging times for this country and we all have things we can learn from their lives that we should take and try to do better but also recognize the courage it took to stand during the trials they went through. That’s what history is. We tell the story and we tell an honest and true history. Tearing them down doesn’t make all the atrocities of the past go away. But it does tell a story of what America is and how it’s incredible and how it can be even better in the future.”