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Bill Janklow: Love him or hate him
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Bill Janklow in happier times. (MPR file photo)
Bill Janklow faces manslaughter charges as a result of a fatal traffic accident. Many in South Dakota wonder what's next for the man who's dominated South Dakota politics for more than three decades. He's been attorney general, governor and now the state's sole U.S. Representative. To some he's a hero -- a champion for the underdog, and a great leader in the face of fires, floods and tornadoes. But to others he's a bully, who doesn't just beat his opponents; he obliterates them. Janklow can be harsh when he speaks his mind. And no matter what the controversy in his political career, he has come out on top -- at least until now.

Sioux Falls, S.D. — Bill Janklow is a complex man. He has a true passion for helping people. But it has to be done his way.

"No one would accuse him of being very diplomatic with people who opposed his ideas," says one of his oldes friends, Scott Heidepriem.

Heidepriem first met Bill Janklow in 1974, the year Janklow ran for attorney general. Heidepriem was a college freshman and campaign volunteer.

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Image Janklow in court

"It's my sense that Janklow has this towering intimidating intellect. He does not suffer fools gladly, and if you're against him -- and cannot articulate why you're against him -- then he doesn't respect that type of opposition," says Heidepriem. "On the other hand, I've seen him turned around on issues by people who sincerely articulated their differences with him. And he respects that sort of challenge. He really does."

Bill Janklow is a high school dropout. He joined the Marines at 16. When he returned to his home state, he talked his way into the University of South Dakota without having a high school diploma. Then, he went on to law school.

Janklow's plans were to go on to New York to study tax law. But he needed a job, and was hired as a legal aid lawyer on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. In time, he was hired by the South Dakota attorney general as a prosecutor. Janklow was lead attorney at the trials of American Indian Movement leaders arrested at Wounded Knee in 1973.

In 1974 Bill Janklow was elected attorney general, and served in that office four years. In 1978, he was elected governor and served two terms. South Dakota law prevents a person from serving as governor for more than two consecutive terms. So he entered private law practice when he left office.

In 1994, Janklow ran again for the state's top office, after the death of then-Gov. George Mickelson in a plane crash. Janklow told Republicans they needed him following Mickelson's death. Janklow won that race, and then a second term four years later. Janklow was South Dakota's governor for 16 years -- the nation's longest serving governor. Last year, South Dakotans sent Bill Janklow to Washington as the state's lone congressman.

While Janklow has been a popular figure in South Dakota for more than 30 years, he has his critics. Bernie Hunhoff, one of his former Democratic opponents, is one of them. Hunhoff was the Democratic challenger in the 1998 race for governor.

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Image Scott Heidepriem

Hunhoff declined an interview for this story, but during the 1998 campaign, Hunhoff tried to discredit Janklow's character. He accused Janklow of investing in the state's retirement fund when the stock market was booming. Janklow made retroactive investments from his first eight years as governor and four years as attorney general.

After a joint appearance, the two sparred in front of a group of reporters. It was classic Janklow, launching a torrent of words to drown out his opponent.

"Bernie is like Mike Tyson," Janklow said at the time. "He talks a good fight but he's got to cheat by trying to bite your ear. Because he knows his campaign is floundering. He knows it's not getting off the ground. ... As a matter of fact, Bernie took a poll and found out that the only way he could win is by doing low blows, making accusations that are very personal in nature."

"There's nothing personal about public finance," Hunhoff responded, but Janklow quickly jumped in with more comments critical of Hunhoff.

Janklow then turned to reporters and said he wasn't in office to make money, saying he hadn't cashed any of his paychecks received for being governor for the previous 15 months.

He wasn't reticent. He didn't filter things. He told you exactly what he thought, and if you didn't like it -- tough. And there's a certain admiration for that.
- Political scientist Bill Richardson

The mention of Bill Janklow inspires very strong reactions. People either love him, or they love to hate him. Many people are reluctant to rub Janklow the wrong way. MPR contacted more than a dozen people for interviews for this story: almost all declined to have their comments recorded.

Indian tribes are less reluctant to criticize Janklow. Their dislike for Janklow goes back to the early '70s, when he prosecuted AIM activists. He told reporters at the time, "The only way to deal with these AIM leaders is to put a bullet in their heads."

When a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report confirmed that South Dakota has violated the civil rights of Native Americans, Janklow called the report "garbage."

Bill Richardson, who chairs the University of South Dakota Political Science Department, has followed South Dakota politics for the last five years. Richardson says when he first heard Bill Janklow speak he was surprised by his frank and off-the-cuff style.

"He wasn't reticent. He didn't filter things. He told you exactly what he thought, and if you didn't like it -- tough. And there's a certain admiration for that," Richardson says.

Janklow also was never afraid to push for controversial plans. Legislators who served while Janklow was governor remember one tough vote, on a plan Janklow proposed to close a state-run university in Springfield to turn it into a prison.

Scott Heidepriem served in the state House at that time. He says it was not a move most politicians would make.

"There was nobody saying, 'Governor, will you please close that school?" But he looked at the other universities and the students attending there. And he said, 'We could do a better job with a little more money, and this is really going to be painful, but it's worth it,'" says Heidepriem.

Janklow won that fight. But in every election since, he's lost in the Springfield area.

Bill Janklow has led many other battles. He closed the state borders to truckers carrying goods from Canada. He wanted trade laws to change.

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Image A show of support

Janklow started a boot camp type program for juvenile delinquents, partly because he credited the Marines' boot camp with turning his life around when he was a 16-year-old droput.

Then a female student died at one of those boot camps when she was forced to run on a hot humid July morning. Janklow said the state was responsible, and was adamant about brokering a deal with the family. Janklow said then he didn't feel any better about settling the case.

"My mother says if money can fix it, it's not a problem. ... Money doesn't bring people back. You can give them as much as you want -- it doesn't make it any better. I have no loved one that I would trade for any amount of money. You can't put a price on anybody I love," Janklow said at the time.

Janklow is known to have a tender side. Friends say he would move heaven and earth if he believed someone needed it.

People who oppose Bill Janklow are reluctant to talk about him now. Most said they don't want to kick the man when he's down.

Janklow has been seen only once since the Aug. 16 accident, and that was during his initial court appearance earlier this week. Police reports say Janklow was speeding and ran a stop sign when his car was struck by a motorcycle. The cyclist, Randy Scott, died at the scene. Janklow was charged with second degree manslaughter and three lesser charges.

Political scientist Bill Richardson says while people have strong feelings about him, most are waiting for the end of the story before they offer opinions.

"I have been not surprised to see both sides have been pretty willing to sit on the bench as this legal proceeding begins to play out. That everyone is aware of the importance of the legal proceeding, and not piling on and doing anything to taint it," says Richardson.

Friends say Janklow is facing his toughest challenge. Scott Heidepriem says it's an ironic situation, because if someone else had been driving the car, Janklow would be the first to jump in and help the Scott family.

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