On June 1, 2004, Stephanie Herseth became the first woman from South Dakota elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Hailing from one of the state’s prominent political families, Herseth emerged on the national scene by winning a special election to the state’s vacant At–Large seat. In a 2008 New York Times piece, Herseth was mentioned as a female politician with potential as a national figure, possessing “an inspirational speaking style that some compare to [Barack Obama’s].”1
Stephanie Herseth was born on December 3, 1970, to Lars and Joyce Herseth and was raised on her family’s ranch near Houghton, South Dakota. Her grandfather, Ralph Herseth, was once the state’s governor; her grandmother, Lorna B. Herseth, was the secretary of state. Lars Herseth served in the South Dakota state legislature for 20 years and was a Democratic gubernatorial nominee. Stephanie Herseth graduated as a valedictorian from Groton High School in Groton, South Dakota. In 1993, she earned a B.A. in government from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Four years later she earned her J.D. from Georgetown with honors and was a senior editor of the Georgetown Law Review. While in law school, Herseth worked for the South Dakota public utilities commission and as legal counsel for the elderly. After being admitted to the South Dakota bar, Herseth served as a faculty member of the Georgetown University Law Center and taught government classes in the Czech Republic. She later clerked for a U.S. District Court judge in Pierre, South Dakota, and for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Maryland. In 2003 and 2004, she served as the executive director of the South Dakota Farmers Union Foundation. In 2007, Herseth married former Representative Max Sandlin who represented northeast Texas from 1997–2005.2 They have one child together, Zachary Lars Sandlin, born while she served in December 2008.3
In 2002, Representative John Thune gave up his seat as South Dakota’s sole U.S. representative to run for the U.S. Senate, Herseth entered the race to succeed him.4 She won the Democratic nomination, defeating three other challengers, with 59 percent of the vote. In the general election, she faced the state’s popular four–term Republican governor, William J. Janklow. Herseth campaigned for fiscal responsibility, affordable health care, expansion of ethanol and value–added agriculture, childcare tax credits, and federal aid to improve the quality of life on South Dakota’s Indian reservations. Herseth supported President George W. Bush’s push for war against Iraq on the basis of Saddam Hussein’s apparent development of weapons of mass destruction, but cautioned early about the need for a strong coalition and warned that intervention in Iraq could sap resources from the nation’s focus on terrorist threats. Janklow won the November election, but Herseth garnered 46 percent to the governor’s 54 percent. When Representative Janklow resigned his House seat on January 20, 2004, Herseth was an immediate favorite to run in the special election to fill the remainder of Janklow’s term. She won the Democratic nomination and faced Republican Larry Diedrich in the special election. On June 1, 2004, Herseth won with a 51 to 49 percent margin.5 In November 2004, in a rematch against Diedrich, Herseth won with 53 percent, polling more votes than any other candidate for statewide national office.6 Representative Herseth enjoyed a sizable margin of victory in both her 2006 and 2008 bids for re–election. In 2008 she received 67.6 percent of the vote against her Republican opponent.7
On June 3, 2004, South Dakota’s two Senators, Minority Leader Tom Daschle and Tim Johnson, escorted Herseth into the House Chamber to take the oath of office. Representative Herseth was appointed to three committees important to her South Dakota constituents: Agriculture; Veterans’ Affairs; and Resources. Her post on the House Agriculture Committee gave her a voice on issues important to South Dakota’s primary industry—farming. Additionally, Herseth’s seat on the Resources Committee allowed her to play a role in deciding matters of significance to her state, including Native–American policy, forests, national parks, and wildlife. By the end of the 108th Congress (2003–2005), Congresswoman Herseth had introduced several measures, including a bill to amend the Social Security Act to preserve Social Security cost–of–living adjustments. As co–chair of the House Democratic Rural Working Group, Herseth supported the interests of rural America, especially in regards to the development of a strong renewable fuels industry and how that would affect agriculture in rural areas.
Throughout her tenure in the House, Herseth pushed for alternative energy legislation on the Natural Resources Committee. She championed renewable biofuels and wind technology, a potential energy boon for a windy state such as South Dakota, tax incentives for biofuel plants, and expanding the number of American–manufactured ethanol–based vehicles.8 In 2009, she introduced a bill that would increase the number of gas stations that provided pumps for biofuels.9
On the Agriculture Committee, the Congresswoman crafted legislation concentrating on the needs of South Dakotan farmers, most notably the 2008 Farm Bill. Herseth sponsored the legislation, pressing for inclusion of provisions such as mandatory country–of–origin labeling for meat products, disaster relief funding, and incentives for agricultural research and development.10 She referred to the bill as “the most important piece of legislation for South Dakota’s economy that has helped weather the economic storm.”11 Herseth’s important ties to the agricultural and energy sectors did not go unnoticed by House Democratic Leadership. Then–Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi of California tapped Herseth to serve on the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, the only Democrat from a predominately agricultural state to serve on the body.
In the 110th and 111th Congresses (2007–2011), Herseth chaired the Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity. She sponsored legislation in both Congresses to improve women veterans’ health care and to increase education benefits for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Herseth amassed bipartisan support for her Improving Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) and Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) Protections Act of 2008, which expanded existing legislation to aid veterans seeking compensation from employers or universities after they returned from deployment. The bill easily passed the House by a voice vote.
Herseth joined the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of conservative Democrats, because of their philosophy of fiscal restraint and she became co–chair of administration for the caucus in November of 2008.12 Herseth also had one of the most conservative voting records among her fellow Democrats.13 She voted with Republicans in favor of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Amendments Act of 2008, which allowed surveillance of foreign intelligence targets and was the only Democrat to vote against the Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights Act of 2008 that regulated credit card practices.14 In the 111th Congress, she sustained her conservative record, voting for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act but against the American Clean Energy and Security Act, the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. During the debate on the House version of the legislation, Herseth said, “I believe Congress has a responsibility to pass health care reform legislation that is deficit neutral, that ensures access, fairness and affordability of coverage for South Dakotans, and that takes a responsible approach to long–term costs with a focus on achieving higher quality health care outcomes. This bill meets some of these goals but not all, and I can’t support it.”15
In the competitive 2010 election cycle, Herseth lost her bid for re–election by three percentage points to Republican Kristi Noem, a South Dakotan rancher who served in the state house of representatives.16 Herseth told a local newspaper that she felt she “did an effective job seeing South Dakota got a fair shake . . . I love South Dakota. I was proud to serve.”17
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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