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Reporter's notebook: Covering Bill Janklow
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Bill Janklow and MPR reporter Cara Hetland. (MPR file photo)
MPR reporter Cara Hetland has worked in South Dakota since 1990, observing and covering the activities of Bill Janklow. She shares some of her experiences.

Sioux Falls, S.D. —


I moved to South Dakota in the fall of 1990. I was a bit green as a reporter, but I knew enough to learn about the elected officials. Learn how to pronounce the names of cities, counties and streets. Bill Janklow was not on any of these lists (he was not in public office at the time). But his name and stories about him kept popping up. "What's the big deal?" I kept thinking.

I missed the importance of him being called in to help negotiate an insurance executive being held hostage. "Some lawyer" was all I recall saying to my editor.

My first experience with Bill Janklow was in April 1994. He was running in the Republican primary for governor. I knew he was a past governor. I knew the race was emotional following the tragic death of George Mickelson in a plane crash.

Bill Janklow's campaign called and offered an interview. They had a date available. I said that date didn't work for me, because I was going to be on my honeymoon. I had heard he held a grudge. I had heard he blacklisted reporters. I made that list. It was four years later before I could get a press release from his office and an interview.


Two things stick in my mind about covering Bill Janklow. If you're going to question him, you better know your facts. I've seen him debate and eat reporters for lunch for not knowing their topic. I also learned to speak loudly when questioning him. Janklow has a hearing aid, but he never wears it to press conferences. He always says, "I forgot to wear it today. It's OK to yell at me."


I had a personal experience with the governor in 1996, after I had my first child. My husband is a state employee, and the two of them were covered by the state's health plan. It requires a $1,000 deductible each. My daughter's required immunization shots were not covered, nor were they part of the deductible.

So I wrote Bill Janklow a letter. I told him I thought he was a hypocrite for making public speeches about the importance of immunizing kids. He put state money into outreach programs, yet he didn't offer anything to his employees' children.

One afternoon the phone rang. My husband was white as a ghost when he handed me the phone. He said, "It's Bill Janklow -- now you be nice." The governor told me I was right. He told me he was going to go to work for me. Seven years later, I can say the shots for my third daughter are now applied to the $1,000 deductible.

He's done much more for people I'm sure. But he made me a promise and he kept it.


I kept requesting interviews with Bill Janklow, but it never worked into his schedule. At one point I was assigned to do a story about prison labor -- a topic I knew he liked talking about. So, I asked again. One day, his scheduler called and said, "How badly do you want him?" She went on to say the governor had been asked to do an hour-long national ag radio interview. They found out I had the only ISDN telephone line in town at the time. They needed my line and my studio for that hour. He needed me. Then I could ask him whatever I wanted afterward.

It worked well. He was open and patient, and he knew I had done my homework. After that, I was put on his media list.


Putting our stories on the Minnesota Public Radio Web site was a new thing as of a few years ago. Reporters are asked to take pictures to go along with their stories. Once I was at a conference hosted by Bill Janklow, and I saw him wandering the halls. I said, "Governor, I need a picture of you for the Web." He laughed. His staff laughed. They told me he hates having his picture taken alone. But I needed it. He said he'd make a deal with me -- I can take one picture of him and then I have to be in one. Oh, how far we've come.


Bill Janklow doesn't mince words. He makes outrageous comments. He tells stories to back up his statements. Whenever he said, "Look," reporters knew to mark their tape because it was going to be a usable sound bite. It was a sort of code that he was done explaining, and was cutting to the chase. But oftentimes his best comments, his best stories, were not usable because he rambled for several minutes. I often wondered when he took a breath.

His State of the State speeches would often go on for two hours. For the first State of the State message that I covered, I asked for a transcript. That's what the previous governors had provided. But there was no transcript -- Bill Janklow maybe had an outline. Most of his speeches were in his head. He spoke his mind.


It's all the same, really, in South Dakota. One thing I've learned is everyone has strong feelings about the man. They may hate Janklow's politics and his style, but they respect what he's accomplished. He's an outside-the-box thinker. When he has an idea he makes it happen. He's a dealmaker.

I remember Janklow saying the state didn't have any money to keep students up to date with the technology age. But he knew it was important. He believed that most rural schools needed computers and access to the Internet. So he began a program where the state paid prison inmates 25 cents an hour to run wires through school buildings. He got businesses to donate equipment. Contractors taught inmates a trade.

I talked to some inmates who ran wires in my office at Augustana College. They told me they liked learning a trade, and liked doing something to keep busy. They also told me Bill Janklow often rewarded inmate crews with steak dinners for a job well done.

Once, I ran into Bill Janklow at the Sioux Falls airport. I was there with my family waiting for my in-laws to arrive. He was coming home from Washington for the Easter recess. He smiled and said hello. My middle daughter, who was 5 at the time, asked me who he was. I told her it was Bill Janklow, and she asked to meet him. I took her to where he was standing, waiting for luggage.

My daughter was dressed in her Sunday best. He got down to eye level and had a conversation with her. He told her she was pretty. It was his granddaughter's birthday that day and he was on his way to her party.

Walking away, my daughter said, "Wow, Bill Janklow sure is nice. We like him, don't we mommy?" I laughed and said that sometimes I didn't really like him. She was stunned. She said, "But you must reconsider, won't you? Bill Janklow thinks I'm pretty."

After news of the car accident, my daughter couldn't sleep. She asked why this had to happen. She knows only one side of Bill Janklow. She's angry with him. She's confused because she wants to like him. I told her she still could.

It seems many people are waiting to find out the ending of this story before they decide how they feel. Fear him. Respect him. Love him or hate him. It's all the same in South Dakota, really.


Anyone who knows Bill Janklow personally say he sets the bar high -- for himself, for people who work for him and for all of South Dakota. He doesn't lose well. He told me once that God gave him the talent to solve problems. He's a fighter and it gives him personal satisfaction to help people. He said if he lost that feeling he gets when he helps someone, he'd quit.

I asked a friend of his if Bill Janklow can emotionally recover from the accident. His friend said it'll be the fight of his life. I asked if Bill Janklow will let people help him. "That's the key," said his friend.

As we wait to see what happens, one thing is clear to me as a reporter. It will be done his way, in his time and we better know our facts before we ask him any questions. Oh, and speak up.

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