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Grading the mayoral candidates on their grasp of Native issues

Mayoral candidate Laura Armstrong, earned herself an A+ for her grasp of Native issues in Rapid City. (Courtesy Photo)

RAPID CITY—Given Rapid City’s sizeable Native population, one has to wonder why only one mayoral candidate saw fit to mention Natives on their website. Laura Armstrong, Brad Estes, Josh Lyle, Jason Salamun and Ron Weifenbach have all tossed their hats into the ring, and all but Lyle participated in the Mayoral Candidate Forum last Thursday at the Dahl Fine Arts Center. Not one question was asked about the Native community, save their impact on tourism, and so none of the candidates were compelled to talk about the Rapid City Indian Community.

The only question that came close to addressing Native concerns was a question about poverty, where Armstrong informed the 300 people in attendance that 52% of Rapid City school children live at or below the poverty line. Estes admitted he didn’t have a plan to deal with poverty.

Census figures indicate over 7,300 Natives live in Rapid City, but the Rapid City Indian Health Hospital has seen over 25,000 individual patients in past years, and so the actual population, although unknown, is certainly higher.

Estes says on his website: “Rapid City is hungry for a mayor that comes from the private sector.” But nowhere does he elaborate the specifics of his private sector success or discuss economic plans reflecting that experience in any detail.

Estes is one of the candidates who does not make mention of Natives on his website, and it is not uncharitable or unreasonable to speculate as to the reasons why. If we have to grade Estes on his concern for and understanding of the Rapid City Indian Community, he gets an F.

Poverty is the core reality for marginalized Natives, and crime follows closely on the heels of poverty. Four of the five candidates aren’t comfortable talking about poverty, but they have no problem talking about the crime produced by it. Salamun said, “We’re not going to cure poverty.” But he doesn’t dare say, “We’re not going to cure crime.” The idea that alleviating poverty will cut down on crime as well or better than beefing up law enforcement, doesn’t seem to occur to him.

When addressing poverty, Salamun brings up homelessness, and stresses there is a difference between “loving your neighbor and enabling them.” He does say that the best way to fight poverty is to create opportunities through economic development, but he does not address how that opportunity trickles down to marginalized people, who not only don’t readily understand how the system operates but are routinely gatekept from economically benefitting from it.

Salamun told the forum that the people of Rapid City had big hearts, and he loved that about them, but then said, “Our compassion is hurting people.” He said the homeless were “choosing the lifestyle” and he does not entertain any possibility it could be otherwise, and this mentality was expressed in cold blooded terms during the Allender administration when highway underpasses were spiked and shade trees removed to deny comfort to the homeless to pursue their preferred “lifestyle.”

Salamun barely rates above Estes and earns himself an F+.

It is obvious Weifenbach has spent time considering poverty. He was also considerate enough to answer NSNT’s five question questionnaire sent to all five mayoral candidates.

“To increase affordable housing,” Weifenbach wrote, “I will reduce red tape and look for innovative ideas to lower costs on the construction of homes. We will create a revolving fund to help in supplying quality infrastructure in front of development to help drive demand and lower cost for home purchases. We will also introduce new zoning that will have smaller footprint homes that will be more affordable for people. All this will be simultaneous with working to increase wages and job opportunities. We will work directly with the county and state and HUD when it comes to the needs of subsidized housing.”

All good news for Natives, but Weifenback then spoils this by asserting realities which are not backed by research into social patterns: “There is a service threshold when crossed turns a community into a homeless magnet rather than a success story. We most certainly have an obligation to reduce the plight of the homeless wherever city government has a legitimate role. I would like to build relationships with Native community leaders that would embrace cultural awareness in our community.” He further calls this into question by ruining his statement that he would like to see “more Native American cultural events take place where the entire community can learn and appreciate Native American culture,” by predicating it with, “To the extent it is productive…”

He does not elaborate on what would constitute unproductive Native cultural events, and it is not uncharitable or unreasonable to speculate as to the reasons why.

Weifenbach wasted no time in dodging the poverty question at the forum, saying “poverty will always be with us,” and then immediately going to the pressures put on homeowners by high property taxes, which did not address the poverty context of the question. He could have offered a viable solution—property taxes are high because there is no state income tax. A state income tax would cut down property tax on people on fixed income, and they would probably pay no income tax. However, such a plan does not benefit rich folks, so it is fair to speculate why Weifenbach doesn’t proffer the plan.

Even though Weifenbach doesn’t mention Natives on his website, he at least answered the questionnaire, and is open to dialogue with the Rapid City Indian Community, for this reason he gets a B.

Josh Lyle did not participate in the forum. He has a big commercial shown at the area movie theaters, where for some inexplicable reason, he advocates for his qualifications for mayor by telling us how and why he loves baseball so much. His website does not explore any issue in detail, and he asserts that Rapid City will benefit by being a Second Amendment town, but then does not explain how. Lyle’s website is rife with strong assertions sans reasoned explanations.

He mentions how important sports development is but does not mention LNI. In fact, he doesn’t mention Indians at all. Josh Lyle gets a big fat F-.

Armstrong’s website is chock full of keenly articulated perspectives on all the issues a mayor of Rapid City will have to address. Not only does she repeatedly mention Natives, she devotes essay after well-crafted essay explaining her perspectives on the Native community and their issues in heartfelt detail. In a post-forum interview she told NSNT that homelessness is not just a choice, that there may be deeply endemic social patterns producing those struggling with homelessness that these people are often “born into a systemic situation where obstacle after obstacle is thrown in front of them.”

When she addresses economic issues, Armstrong told the forum, “Infrastructure is critical to any city and I firmly believe that we are asset rich, but strategy poor. I think if we did this growth and development taskforce that I have in mind, this will give us a clear vision and a clear plan and a clear roadmap to how we want to see Rapid City…do you want runaway development or do you want a smart, strategic, sustainable growth?”

Given the flexibility of her mind, her person ability, her accessibility, Armstrong appears to have the strength, vision, and compassion to become Rapid City’s next great mayor. But if we rate her solely on her understanding and concern for the Rapid City Indian Community and their issues and interests, she earns an A+.

(Contact James Giago Davies at

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