Even the frigid temperatures couldn’t keep angry South Dakotans away. Despite the blistering, nine-degree cold, as many as 150 people gathered in the snow outside the 2023 Midwest Gender Identity Summit in Sioux Falls Friday morning to protest Sanford Health’s unwelcome presence in their state. Standing by snow drifts, with a long convoy of cars heading to join them, organizer Adam Broin insisted, “This is NOT South Dakota!” But according to a bombshell report by NRO reporter Nate Hochman, it may already be South Dakota, thanks to the transgender movement’s unlikely ally: Republican Governor Kristi Noem.
For Noem, who’s been trying to rehabilitate her image for 2024 after a series of conservative betrayals, the timing of Hochman’s piece couldn’t be worse. Two years removed from her shocking veto on a girls’ sports bill — and three from her behind-the-scenes death blow to a ban on child-mutilating surgery — Noem was hoping she could put the questions about her bona-fides behind her. Instead, she’s staring down another career-crushing controversy over her cozy relationship to one of the largest providers of puberty blockers and sex change surgeries in the Midwest.
Of course, the ties between Sanford Health and the state’s establishment Republicans haven’t exactly been a secret in South Dakota. What has come as a surprise is just how deep those political tentacles run — often, as Hochman points out, dictating policies at complete odds with the states’ social conservative roots.
“I think it’s impossible to understate or to overstate how powerful Sanford Health is in South Dakota,” Hochman told Family Research Council President Tony Perkins on “Washington Watch” Thursday. “It’s a $7.5 billion company.” They employ almost seven times more people than the second largest employer in South Dakota, he explained. “And they fund the campaigns of a lot of Republican leaders in the state, including a bunch of the Republicans who sit on the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, which is the committee that killed the bill” protecting minors from gender transition procedures.
As for Noem, Hochman explained, “She has a very close relationship with Sanford Health. It’s her top career donor.” In exchange, she’s bowed to their demands on LGBT issues, even when it’s in direct conflict with her state’s wishes or her party’s agenda. In a state where the number of self-identified conservatives outweigh liberals by more than 30 points, it’s not a place “where one would expect to find a major trade conference for transgender medical specialists,” he wrote.
But unfortunately, Sanford Health’s influence runs deep — so deep, the country learned in 2020, that Noem was willing to do their bidding on a profoundly popular policy to protect kids. At her behest, the bill’s sponsors said, the committee voted to sink a measure that would give teenagers and their families more time to weigh a decision that could destroy them forever. It’s a “pause button” on transgender surgery, Rep. Fred Deutsch (R) called it. “Nobody is saying that kids can’t pursue these treatments later on — but surely, we can all agree that children who can’t even drive shouldn’t be steering themselves into permanent medical procedures.” Despite having the committee majority, Republicans voted 5-2 to sink the only hope South Dakota parents had.
That was the first inkling that the “most conservative governor in the country,” as Noem likes to call herself, wasn’t as advertised. The second shoe dropped in 2021, when the fight to protect women’s sports started to break out in state legislatures. Buoyed by Idaho’s momentum, both chambers of the South Dakota legislature rushed a bill to the governor’s desk to make biology the determining factor of any athlete’s team.
It wasn’t a heavy lift. As Perkins pointed out, “Almost every state that’s even pink has embraced that.” Noem herself seemed to be on board with the idea at first, tweeting that she was “excited to sign this bill very soon.” Two weeks later, after meetings with left-wing activists (including, Hochman writes, Sanford Health), the governor abruptly changed her mind. On a Friday afternoon, to the astonishment of Americans everywhere, she announced she was vetoing HB 1217 — caving to the mob in spectacular fashion and reaping a whirlwind of backlash so intense that people wondered if her career would recover.
Noem went on a face-saving media tour to try to mitigate the damage, but it was too late. She was tagged as a phony, a squish, a sellout to the liberal interests of the state. Her cowardice was helpful in one way, conservatives would say later. More than a dozen leaders raced to sign sports bills into law, hoping to avoid the wrath the South Dakota governor endured for capitulating.
In the months since, Noem has tried to rebuild her status as a GOP firebrand — an effort that’s fizzled with every failed bill. As Hochman points out, “Conservative lawmakers have struggled to get any number of social-conservative bills, particularly as they pertain to transgender issues, across the finish line” — including more conscience rights for medical practitioners (HB 1247), a ban on sex change surgeries and drugs for children (HB 1057), a ban on changing South Dakotans’ sex on birth certificates (HB 1076), a requirement for teachers to inform parents if their child is struggling with gender identity issues (SB 88), a requirement that students use bathrooms and locker rooms that matches their biology (HB 1005), and the establishment of the “fundamental” parental right “to make decisions concerning the upbringing, education and care of a child” (HB 1246). As of February 2021, there had also been seven failed attempts to protect women’s sports, according to the ACLU.
By all rights, South Dakota has become a state where conservative bills go to die. That’s been incredibly frustrating to the state’s grassroots organizations. Norman Woods, director of South Dakota’s Family Heritage Alliance, told Hochman, “We see [Sanford] attack good social conservative ideas all the time.”
It’s no wonder, Hochman told Perkins, since plenty of Sanford Health employees are either South Dakota legislators themselves or lobbyists — or both. “One thing that I found through a lot of digging through old … legislative hearing files is that Sanford lobbyists show up often, literally in lab coats, to effectively lobby against a lot of these bills that are on the record as testifying and lobbying against things like the ban on the chemical castration of children. And they’ve lobbied against a variety of other social conservative bills, almost all of which have died.”
Sounds like “an enormous conflict of interest,” Perkins shook his head. “And did they recuse themselves,” Perkins asked, “from voting on issues of interest to Sanford?” “Not only do they not recuse themselves,” Hochman replied, “but they actually actively champion the efforts to kill a lot of these bills.”
Meanwhile, for Woods, Noem’s alliance with the far-Left is personal. After South Dakota State University hosted a “kid-friendly” drag show on state property, he dashed off a December 20 letter to the governor, urging her to act.
“Considering you have the power to hold the South Dakota Board of Regents accountable and fire at will, I am greatly disappointed you and your administration have taken no action to rectify this situation or to ensure that drag shows for children never happen again on South Dakota soil. The only answer we have seen from your office is for South Dakotans to reach out to the Attorney General. Our children deserve our protection, and as Governor, you have not only the duty, but the responsibility to act.”
Noem flew into a rage, publicly calling for Woods’s head if the Family Heritage Alliance ever wanted to work with her again. The disproportional response to Woods’s run-of-the-mill call to action was a stunning, over-the-top display.
“I am disappointed in Mr. Woods’ decision to attack me publicly by sending this letter out of the blue and releasing it to the media at the same time, instead of reaching out to my office to have a productive conversation about how we can work together. This behavior is both counterproductive and unbecoming of the executive director of your organization, but unfortunately, it has become a pattern in recent years,” Noem wrote.
“As a result, my office will no longer work with the Alliance until and unless its executive director chooses to act professionally.” She goes on to claim that she shares the Alliance’s goals of “faith, family, and freedom” (despite a checkered record to that effect) and expresses “disappoint[ment]” that the Alliance’s Woods “has made it impossible for us to work together to accomplish our shared goals.”
“I’d encourage the Family Heritage Alliance to evaluate the purpose of your organization. Is it to promote family values—or is it to attack the most conservative governor in the country? I believe it is the former and urge you to focus your efforts on bringing our shared pro-family message to the people of South Dakota. I suggest you find an executive director who agrees.”
Shocked, Woods told reporters, “As an organization exclusively lobbying on behalf of South Dakota families, we naïvely thought we could engage America’s ‘most conservative governor’ (her words) in an effort to put an end to the explicit sexualization of children on our public university campuses. Sadly, she misconstrued our efforts. Regardless, just like Protecting South Dakota Kids was successful this fall, so will we be when it comes to putting an end to these grooming events.”
As for the governor’s insistence that the Alliance should have reached out to her privately, conservative organizations understand firsthand how futile that would have been. At the height of the debate over gender transitions for minors in 2020, Family Research Council’s Perkins requested a phone call with Noem to discuss the bill. In a letter obtained by The Washington Stand, FRC’s president outlined the urgency of the conversation, writing, “I would love to talk to you as soon as possible, to alleviate any concerns you may have about this bill and to receive your assurance that you will do everything possible to protect vulnerable children in South Dakota.”
The governor never responded, despite a follow-up call to then-General Counsel Tom Hart. The only time she did reach out to FRC, ironically, was a year later when she needed help cleaning up the PR mess of her girls’ sports veto.
Unfortunately, Noem’s vindictive streak toward Woods won’t come as a surprise to the state’s conservatives, many of whom found themselves primaried in 2022 for upholding true South Dakota values. The Blaze’s Daniel Horowitz was “shocked” to discover that the governor was “declar[ing] war” on social conservatives like Fred Deutsch, who wrote the child protection bill. Together with Sanford Health, who Hochman explained had “dumped a really significant amount of money into efforts to [unseat] all of the conservatives … who got in their way,” Noem began openly campaigning against several solid Republicans in the midterms.
“All of the people on her target list are true Christian conservatives, and those are the people she wants gone,” Rep. Rhonda Milstead, the lead sponsor of the girls’ sports bill told The Blaze. Noem aligned with “liberal leader of the Senate,” Republican legislators warned, working to purge incumbents with a 90%+ rating from the Family Heritage Alliance.
Less than two months later, the same governor was on Fox News, angling for a spot on the 2024 ticket and insisting her state is “thriving because we put forward and put in place conservative policies.” If those “conservative policies” include rolling out the red carpet to dangerous transgender extremism, count voters out. As Hochman explained to Perkins, he’s been “inundated” with emails and messages from South Dakotans saying they had no idea this was happening in their state — and they’re appalled.
“You know, South Dakotans are a good, solid conservative people. This does not represent their interests or their views, but … a lot of it has been sort of happening under clandestine circumstances. And the Republicans who lead the state aren’t broadcasting that. … The average South Dakotan often isn’t aware. And I think they would be horrified — and they are horrified — when they find out that it is.”
Broin, who organized the event outside of Sanford’s transgender conference Friday, talked about the passion of the protestors who showed up “at the crack of dawn,” shoveling the snow-covered sidewalks outside the event to make room for more. “A lot — a lot — of people want to stand up [to this agenda],” he told “Washington Watch” guest host Jody Hice, including freshman state Representative John Sjaarda (R), who joined the crowd.
“We wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing as a group if the political folks of South Dakota would truly represent the people,” Broin said. “But unfortunately, even though there’s great people in our in our state … [who] say a lot of really nice things, the most important conservative legislation seems to always fall through the cracks, not make it through committee, get vetoed for mysterious reasons …”
That’s why, he believes, more groups are springing up to fight the “secrecy” and duplicity of the state’s Republican leaders. “With everything in the national media,” Broin said, “we’ve really started to pay attention and realize that our party isn’t doing what they should be doing. … [W]e are pushing back” on anyone urging the GOP to “cleave itself from grassroots engagement,” he insisted. “And hopefully, we can get our party to represent the third most conservative voting population in the nation.”
Suzanne Bowdey serves as editorial director and senior writer at The Washington Stand.
EDITORS NOTE: This The Washington Stand column is republished with permission. ©All rights reserved. The Washington Stand is Family Research Council’s outlet for news and commentary from a biblical worldview. The Washington Stand is based in Washington, D.C. and is published by FRC, whose mission is to advance faith, family, and freedom in public policy and the culture from a biblical worldview. We invite you to stand with us by partnering with FRC.