Statehouse reporter Bob Mercer spent some time talking with Tim Bjorkman and watching him greet people at the State Fair. The retired state judge from Canistota is the Democratic candidate for South Dakota’s seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018. Here are some impressions.
Why he’s running: Tim Bjorkman talked at length about statistical trends in South Dakota’s criminal justice system. Eighty percent of felons in state prisons are serving sentences for nonviolent crimes, he said.
That is too many, and too often, for Bjorkman to accept.
“That’s at the very genesis of what led me to run,” he said.
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The specific problem has many roots, from his perspective. Bjorkman listed:
A need for access to better health care;
Underlying mental illnesses that show up as multiple addictions;
Lack of general public funding for early-childhood education;
Failure to hold parents accountable;
High frequency of never-married parents, whose children in seven of 10 instances grow up in poverty;
Low work ethic, or none at all; and
The minimum wage didn’t keep pace with inflation.
Bjorkman said professionals in South Dakota’s courts and corrections system provided broad patterns of evidence.
He said he frequently saw those instances of those patterns in the individual cases during 10 years in his courtroom.
Hundreds of men and women in South Dakota’s prisons could be better engaged in the workforce, he said.
Bjorkman noted that South Dakota’s prison population grew nearly 10 times larger since 1978 and 30 times faster than South Dakota’s overall population.
He said South Dakota has double the number of people in prison that North Dakota does. “We should be asking ourselves why that is,” he said.
The annual turnover rate of South Dakota’s prisoners was 88 percent recently, with 3,300 entering the system and 3,150 released.
“So they’re going for very short times,” he said.
Bjorkman said children in vulnerable situations haven’t received protection that they need.
“Their plight is the unspoken source of so much that America is struggling with today,” he said. “We are not calculating how much these people cost us when they can’t make it through.”
One step he suggests is paying a higher minimum wage.
Raising South Dakota’s minimum to $11 per hour from the current $8.65 would restore the wage to where it stood 50 years ago, he said.
Bjorkman said he has “no confidence” South Dakota’s elected leaders would adapt Medicaid expansion. A majority of states have, including North Dakota.
For North Dakota, that’s $270 million more annually than South Dakota. He said South Dakota is doing “an enormous disservice” to its citizens. “It’s big time money,” he said.
How he’s organized his campaign: Bjorkman said his campaign is foremost about the working population of South Dakota.
“Everything I have to say in this race is centered on this point,” Bjorkman said. “That’s who I really want to work for.”
Republicans slowly increased their voter registration during the past 10 years. Meanwhile Democratic voters plummeted and independents climbed.
Bjorkman acknowledged the three trends. He leaned forward to give his answer.
“We need an advocate for South Dakota,” he said. “Anybody who knows me. knows I’m pretty nonpartisan.”
He said South Dakota needs to “blow past the people who divide us. We’ve got to start in the vast middle.”
How he raises money: Bjorkman started his campaign this summer. He filed his statement of organization with the Federal Election Commission July 12.
His initial quarterly report, covering finances for July through September, is due Oct. 15.
He announced the official start of his campaign during a community meal July 13. Drey Samuelson is adviser, he said. Samuelson was chief of staff throughout the 28-year career of U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson, a Democrat, who retired rather than run for re-election in 2014.
Bjorkman said he wants every member of his congressional staff to be trained in economic development.
How he views the current Congress: Bjorkman said Americans deserve “affordable, timely” health care.
“That’s the most American thing we can do,” he said. He added, “A lot of states are doing creative things.”
How he greets ‘new faces’: Bjorkman looked like he was trying to find a workable balance.