ALUMNI NEWS GU Grad To Run For U.S. Congress By Rebecca Regan-Sachs Special to The Hoya

Courtesy Ye Domesday Booke Herseth.

The next voice representing South Dakota in the U.S. House of Representatives may be the calm and cordial one of Stephanie Herseth, a 31-year-old alumna of both Georgetown College and the Georgetown Law Center.

Herseth announced a little over two weeks ago that she would seek the Democratic nomination for the at-large seat currently held by Republican John Thune, who in 2002 will run for the U.S. Senate. There are currently five other democrats she is competing with for the nomination.

Though relatively young, Herseth has long-running family ties to South Dakota politics: her grandfather was governor from 1959 to 1961; her grandmother was its secretary of state; and her father served for 20 years in the state legislature. Both her parents attended high school with Tom Daschle, the U.S. Senate Majority Leader who is from her hometown of Aberdeen.

The campaign is nevertheless very much her own. Herseth returned to Washington this week to conduct a flurry of fundraising events and political meetings in support of her candidacy.

“There have been a number of issues I don’t think have been effectively addressed at the federal level in the last [few] years that have a direct impact on South Dakota,” she said in a telephone interview last week. “I would be most effective as a leader in Congress [as opposed to state government] . in part because of my experience in Washington.”

This experience in the nation’s capital began in 1989 when Herseth entered the College as a freshman. After spending all her youth on her family’s South Dakota farm, the transition to a big-city university was challenging at first.

“My freshman year, I was in Darnall, and I had a view of the hospital parking lot . Before, my window had looked out on national park lands,” she recalled with a laugh. “The first semester was an adjustment.”

She also had to learn how to navigate the Washington area, coming from a state not known for its public transportation system. “I was kind of timid about getting around the city. That first year I stayed pretty close to campus.”

By sophomore year, however, she was getting more involved in activities both on and off campus – especially with the Georgetown College Democrats. After serving as chair for guest speakers, Herseth was elected president of the organization her junior year and served as secretary to the College Democrats of America at the same time. Herseth also held top positions in the International Relations Club and the Georgetown University Student Association. She took internships with the U.S. Senator from her state, Timothy Johnson, and with a lobbying firm.

One of her most memorable experiences, however, was introducing then Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton (SFS ’68) in 1991 for the first of a series of speeches at Georgetown establishing his campaign platform. After meeting the future president and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, she changed her mind about whom to support in the primaries and convinced her family in South Dakota to vote for Clinton as well.

After graduating in 1993 with a degree in American government, Herseth continued her Georgetown education at the law school and clerked for federal judges in South Dakota and Baltimore. She graduated in 1997, taught at the university for a semester and worked as an attorney for the Washington law firm Skadden Arps, where she still serves as a consultant. She moved back to South Dakota in July.

Once more in her home state, she began preparing for her quest to become the first woman elected from South Dakota to the U.S. House of Representatives. She was concerned about a number of problems she saw there, such as low morale and salary of schoolteachers, trouble with senior homes on Indian reservations and too-low profits for farmers. She saw an opportunity to affect these challenges from Washington.

“Policies at the federal level should be consistent with policies at the state level,” she said. She has also vowed to work on establishing more affordable health care and ensuring “fair” tax policies at the national level.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, however, “America faces two critical challenges: assuring national security but fighting for economic security as well,” she said. These types of national security problems are “new challenges. They’re unlike anything we’ve ever experienced before.” But, she added, “We’re going to be judged just as closely on how we help those in society most vulnerable to the economic consequences of the [attacks].”

“I’m very interested in working on economic policy across the board – with a very close eye towards South Dakota,” she said

Herseth is encouraged by the fact that Democrats have held this Congressional seat for 14 of its 20 years in existence. Still, one of her major challenges will be to appeal to moderates from the other party in a state that voted Republican in the last nine presidential elections. She must also reach out to the growing number of independent voters while still retaining the support of her Democratic base.

It is in dealing with these issues that she is able to apply some of the non-academic lessons gleaned from her time on the Hilltop.

“The population of South Dakota is not as diverse as the student body at Georgetown,” she noted. “I learned to appreciate the different perspectives people brought to the table . It made me much more aware and conscientious. I had to learn how to master the art of compromise.” She is also greatly helped by “the network of friends I made during my time at Georgetown.”

She met a number of them, in fact, at the Yates Field House, playing pickup games of basketball. She continues to love basketball, running and golf – although she admits it’s a challenge to find time for 18 holes while on the campaign trail. She often turns then to jogging or playing the piano for an “emotional release.”

And she still avidly follows Hoya basketball. “I think Coach [Craig] Esherick did a great job last year,” she said. “He really exceeded expectations.”

Growing up in such a political family, Herseth knows what it’s like to live with high expectations. And she has learned, she said, not to get “caught up” in them.

“I did not expect to be running for Congress at the age of 31,” she explained. “But sometimes if you end up going down a path that’s not fulfilling day by day, you have to try a change.” She advises students to “never stop questioning the path you’ve decided to go down, and don’t be fearful of changing direction mid-course.”

“Jump in with both feet,” she continued. “Regardless of the outcome of the endeavor, it will be one of the best experiences you’ve ever had.”

And in the midst of a heated, potentially historical campaign for the U.S. Congress, Stephanie Herseth is doing just that.

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