“I was sorry to learn of the death of Congressman Frank Denholm. Although it has been many years since Frank left office, many South Dakotans still fondly remember him and his hard work on behalf of our state.” – Gov. Dennis Daugaard
It was a telephone call I didn’t want to place, similar to contacting a family that has just lost a loved one, or to a coach whose flawed end-game strategy cost his team a championship.
My anxiety in 1974 may seem silly, but it was the morning after the election, and Rep. Frank Denholm had lost to newcomer Larry Pressler.
Dutifully, I had listed my questions on paper so that in my nervousness, I wouldn’t fail to ask something obvious, or important.
But how do you ask a sitting congressman — and a thoroughly decent man — how he lost one of South Dakota’s two congressional seats to a political neophyte during a time when other Democrat candidates were winning left and right?
Born in Day County, Denholm was a farm boy from Scotland Township who eventually went to South Dakota State University and law school at the University of South Dakota.
His first political job was as sheriff of Day County and he later joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation before opening a law office in Brookings in 1962.
By the late 1960s, the Democrat Party’s star in South Dakota was in ascendancy, and in 1970, Denholm bested the GOP’s Dexter Gunderson for the 1st District (East River) congressional seat, which was vacated by the retiring Ben Reifel. Denholm won re-election in 1972 and was building a reputation as a hard-working man of the people, focusing on issues such as rural water development and protection of the Rural Electrification Act. He knew farming, and one of his strengths was an ability to communicate with urban lawmakers and obtain their support.
Though his energies and abilities served the state well, his mistake, as he acknowledged later, was not telling his story often enough at home.
Ironically, another key factor leading to his downfall was a lack of support by the liberal arm of the Democrat Party in South Dakota. Denholm was known as a moderate to conservative Democrat, a law and order lawmaker, which didn’t dovetail well with McGovernites.
“Pressler got the McGovern vote,” he said in a 2015 interview. “Pressler had a nice, friendly relationship with George. George didn’t like me.”
Denholm picked up the phone in his law office that November morning in 1974, and he made no excuses about his defeat.
That was Frank Denholm, who left us last Thursday at age 92.
A class act all the way.
April 13, 2016