On June 1, 2004, Stephanie Herseth became the first woman from South Dakota to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives after she won a special election to f ill the state’s At-Large seat. A proponent of biofuel technology, Herseth worked to balance the agricultural needs of her rural state with the push for renewable energy. After her House career she told a local newspaper that she felt she “did an effective job seeing South Dakota got a fair shake. . . . I love South Dakota,” she said. “I was proud to serve.”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. Herseth graduated as a valedictorian from Groton High School in Groton, South Dakota. In 1993 she earned a BA in government from Georgetown University in Washington, DC. Four years later she earned her JD 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 2002 Representative John Thune gave up his seat as South Dakota’s sole U.S. Representative to run for the U.S. Senate, and Herseth entered the race to succeed him.2 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 on limited federal spending, affordable health care, the expansion of ethanol production and value-added agricultural policies, childcare tax credits, and federal aid to improve conditions on South Dakota’s American Indian reservations. Herseth supported President George W. Bush’s push for war against Iraq on the basis that Saddam Hussein had apparently developed weapons of mass destruction. But she cautioned early on about the need for a strong international coalition and warned that intervention in Iraq could sap resources from the nation’s focus on terrorist threats. Janklow won the November election with 54 percent of the vote; Herseth took 46 percent. When 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 the term. She won the Democratic nomination and faced Republican Larry Diedrich in the special election. On June 1, 2004, Herseth won with 51 percent of the vote.3 In November 2004, in a rematch against Diedrich, Herseth won with 53 percent, taking more votes than any other candidate in South Dakota for national office.4 She enjoyed a sizable margin of victory in both her 2006 and 2008 re-elections.5
On June 3, 2004, South Dakota’s two Senators, Minority Leader Thomas Andrew Daschle and Timothy Peter (Tim) Johnson, escorted Herseth into the House Chamber to take the Oath of Office. 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 help shape policy regarding Native-American interests, forests, national parks, and wildlife. In the year remaining in the 108th Congress (2003–2005), Herseth 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 and worked to find a balance between the renewable fuels industry and agricultural operations in rural areas.6
In 2007 Herseth married former Representative Max A. Sandlin who represented northeast Texas from 1997 to 2005. They have one child, Zachary Lars Sandlin, who was born while she served in the House in December 2008.7 After her marriage she served under the name Herseth Sandlin.
Throughout her House tenure, Herseth Sandlin pushed for alternative energy legislation on the Natural Resources Committee. She championed renewable biofuels and wind technology, a potential energy boon for an expansive state such as South Dakota. She also sought tax incentives for biofuel plants and worked to expand 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, Herseth Sandlin crafted legislation concentrating on the needs of South Dakotan farmers, most notably the 2008 Farm Bill. Herseth Sandlin sponsored the legislation and pressed the committee to include 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” amid the collapse of the financial services industry.11 Herseth Sandlin’s important ties to the agricultural and energy sectors did not go unnoticed by House Democratic Leadership. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi of California tapped Herseth Sandlin to serve on the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, the only Democrat from a predominately agricultural state to serve on the panel.12
In the 110th and 111th Congresses (2007–2011), Herseth Sandlin 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 Sandlin amassed bipartisan support for her Improving Servicemembers Civil Relief Act and Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act 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 voice vote.13
Herseth Sandlin joined the Democratic Blue Dog Coalition, which sought caps on federal spending and more targeted appropriations; she became co-chair of administration for the caucus in November of 2008.14 Herseth Sandlin often crossed party lines to vote with Republicans.15 She voted with Republicans in favor of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Amendments Act of 2008, which allowed surveillance of foreign intelligence targets, and she was the only Democrat to vote against the Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights Act of 2008 that regulated credit card practices.16 In the 111th Congress (2009–2011), she voted for the major stimulus bill—the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—but voted against the American Clean Energy and Security Act, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.17 During the debate in the House on the major health insurance bill, Herseth Sandlin 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.”18
In the competitive 2010 midterm election cycle, Herseth Sandlin lost re-election by 3 percent to Republican Kristi Noem, a South Dakotan rancher who served in the state house of representatives.19
Herseth Sandlin became president of Augustana University, located in Sioux Falls, in 2017.20
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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