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Jim Soyer: The Heart of a Servant

I lost a good friend last week. Lonnie lost her husband of 37 years and her soulmate. The state of South Dakota lost a legendary public servant.

Jim Soyer always listed truck driver, teacher and newspaperman first on his biography. But, he was also an extremely accomplished, humble public servant – having served as chief of staff and press secretary to the likes of former Governor Bill Janklow and former governor of Wisconsin and U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson. I worked with Jim while I served in the state legislature, he was my legislative director in the governor’s office and, up until the time of his death, he was a member of my U.S. Senate staff.  

Jim believed that those private sector jobs held more weight than his public service – because those were jobs “normal people” held - it’s what paid the bills. He would always talk about the “producers” and the “consumers”. Speaking from a taxpayer perspective, he often preached that producers paid the government’s bills (taxes) and consumers spent the money. The infamous “bleeders and spenders” list was a consolidated list that Jim kept and managed every legislative session. To the chagrin of many legislators, lobbyists and special interests – the “bleeders and spenders” list was Jim’s way of tracking all of the taxpayer money that people were trying to spend. Over the years, many of those proposals met their demise – because Jim was looking out for the taxpayer. Jim would say: “normal people” don’t have lobbyists so “they need us.” 

While Jim would never volunteer it, the last time I counted, he had either written or had significant input in writing 19 State of the State addresses for governors in two different states. It’s possible Jim wrote more press releases and messages for governors than any other person in the history of our country.

A man, who by all accounts, rose to the highest ranks of state government – believed in the goodness of people and the greatness of our state. He could have been anything and yet he chose to serve others. Jim never wanted the spotlight, yet his impact on our state was as great as any of the political figures he served under. He loved the work and never had an agenda except making our state better.

In 2005, Northern State University recognized Jim as one of their distinguished alumni. Of course, Jim first mentioned his work as an educator before mention came of his public service. You see, Jim Soyer was at the table when Citibank moved to South Dakota, property taxes were cut, wiring the schools in South Dakota took place and when the state started the Internet Crimes Against Children program. But one of the items I appreciated the most was his ability to tell a story. It was that skill that helped to convince the people of South Dakota to invest in an old goldmine and convert it into the world-class Sanford Underground Laboratory at Homestake. He shared the powerful message of opportunity for young people to participate in this technology or they would leave our state. Jim was at the heart of my legislative team while I was working as governor. Any success we had could be largely attributed to Jim. 

Jim’s humility was on full display in 2005. Despite his many professional accomplishments – he told the story of how he believed his role was to “gather, organize, analyze and boil down accurate information so his superiors can make the most well informed decision.”  

Frankly, Jim has been with me in public service for the last 30 years. With a lump in my throat, I sadly reflect that this is the first column I’ve ever written without his input.  

I’ll miss my friend, Jim Soyer.