As a former circuit judge, Tim Bjorkman saw many people from all walks of life come before the bench.
Now, the Canistota resident is running as a Democrat for South Dakota’s lone seat in the U.S. House. He visited Yankton Thursday as part of his statewide campaign swing.
“We’ve been to more than 80 communities, and we’ve had nine town hall meetings,” he told the Press & Dakotan. “We’re listening to what the people have to say. We need political leadership to find solutions and counter these problems.”
Making his first run for political office, he didn’t shy away from a congressional race and tackling “the swamp” in Washington, D.C.
“I wanted to be a part of the solution, particularly on health care. Congress is where those decisions are made,” he said. “I don’t care who comes up with an idea. I’ll work across the aisle. People are sending a very clear message that they want (partisanship) to end and to find solutions.”
The U.S. House seat has become open, as Republican incumbent Kristi Noem has passed up a re-election bid to run for governor.
The Republican candidates for the U.S. House seat include South Dakota Secretary of State Shantel Krebs and former Public Utilities Commissioner Dusty Johnson.
In making his run, Bjorkman stressed his small-town South Dakota roots. He grew up in Kimball and attended South Dakota State University for two years. He transferred to the University of South Dakota, where he completed his bachelor’s degree and receive his law degree.
He worked as a lawyer in Bridgewater for 23 years. He ran for First Circuit Judge in 2006, winning 74 percent of the vote. He ran unopposed for election.
“I served on the bench from 2007-2017,” he said. “I left (as judge) before I could even consider whether I wanted to run for Congress.”
If elected, Bjorkman said he would work to meet South Dakota’s unique needs.
“I would fight for rural America,” he said. “Rural issues just aren’t receiving attention (in Congress). We need to do more for our rural areas and small communities.”
For Bjorkman, the thought is more than just a campaign sound bite or a platitude on the stump.
“I’ve lived in rural South Dakota my entire life. As I travel around the state, I see small communities doing wonderful things,” he said. “These small towns are a great place to live, but we need to fight for them.”
Bjorkman has seen the struggles that small towns are facing. He pointed to a recent stop in Tripp, which has seen the closure of its only grocery store and nursing home, along with financial struggles for its school district.
“There was just a pall over that community,” he said, adding the town was taking action to turn around things.
Other rural communities are also dealing with education, housing and economic development, he said.
Bjorkman said he learned much about weighing the issues during his time as a lawyer and judge.
He spoke of his years practicing law for rural clients. In particular, he spoke of his experience of appearing before the late Circuit Judge E.W. Hertz of Menno.
“(Hertz) was my mentor,” Bjorkman said. “When you came before him, you better have brought your ‘A’ game. When I became judge, I tried to conduct myself the same way.”
When it comes to his campaign, Bjorkman has made health care a major issue.
“The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) was a very imperfect effort, but Congress isn’t doing anything to make it better,” he said.
“We need affordable health care. There are an estimated 50,000 South Dakotans who can’t afford health care. They’re receiving care, but it’s coming at the emergency room, where we all pay for it. And the outcome is that they are stabilized but not treated.”
Even South Dakotans covered by health insurance are facing higher premiums, co-payments and overall taxes, he said.
The high health care costs aren’t limited to the hospital or emergency room, Bjorkman said, Americans are facing high costs for prescriptions drugs and other medical care.
Bjorkman would support an effort to import lower-cost, high-quality pharmaceuticals from foreign nations charging a fraction of U.S. prices.
The high medical and drug expenses weigh down the entire economy, including the costs for employers and their ability to offer health insurance.
He referred to a statement by Warren Buffett, the Berkshire Hathaway chairman and chief executive.
“Warren said the ballooning costs of health care act as a hungry tapeworm on the American economy,” Bjorkman said.
The health care issues also affect the prison system, Bjorkman said. “We see inmates with addictions and mental health needs,” he said.
In South Dakota, 93 percent of female prisoners and 88 percent of male inmates have some sort of substance abuse issue, he said.
As part of his role in the judicial system, Bjorkman worked with the James Valley Drug Court established in Mitchell.
In terms of priorities, he believes in working to meet the needs of working class and lower income families and individuals.
“I want to see them get a fair shake. They’re struggling with things like college tuition and affordable health care,” he said. “Strong families are the key to democracy. If the middle class is struggling, we all suffer.”
Bjorkman said he’s running as a pro-life Democrat because it represents his values in protecting and defending all stages of life.
He said he took a pro-life stance with the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973 and has maintained that view ever since. His pro-life view extends from protecting the unborn child to providing support for end-of-life decisions and experiences.
A growing number of South Dakota children are being born into single parent and low income families, Bjorkman said. The state also has a high rate of unintended pregnancies for women ages 21-35, he added.
“Nearly one in two — 47 percent — of births in South Dakota are paid by Medicaid,” he said. “Children born to single parents have a 70 percent chance of living in poverty.”
Bjorkman’s political interests aren’t limited to domestic and social issues. He also looks at foreign affairs as a crucial part of his campaign and the role of congressman.
When it came to talking about the military, Bjorkman suddenly paused and then fought back tears. He said the subject remains very personal for him, as three of his four sons have served in the military. Their service included stints in Iraq, with one son serving with the Yankton-based Bravo Battery (then Charlie Battery) in 2005-06.
In addition, his father and father-in-law were veterans.
“I understand the gravity of a vote, sending our sons and daughters in harm’s way,” he said. “And if we’re sending them to war, we need to pay for it. We need to vote for a tax to pay for it. If we can’t find the courage to pay for the war costs, then we need to re-think (going to war).”
When it came to diving into the political waters, Bjorkman received strong support from his wife for a U.S. House race. And while he holds no political experience, he has enlisted the support of Drey Samuelson, who served as chief of staff for former U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.).
“Drey is my sole advisor,” Bjorkman said of his skeleton staff.
Bjorkman acknowledges he faces obstacles entering the campaign, particularly name recognition and fundraising. However, he notes he has made major strides on both fronts.
“When I started this campaign, I had zero friends on our Facebook page, while my opponents had about 3,000 on theirs,” he said. “Now, I’m at 7,000 Facebook friends, and they each have about 3,400 to 3,500. I’m at double their numbers.”
Bjorkman credits the surge because of his grassroots campaign.
“I’m running in a bipartisan fashion,” he said. “I’m reaching out to Republicans, Democrats and independents. I’ve received support from a number of Republicans.”
When it comes fundraising, Bjorkman estimates he will reach around $300,000 by the end of the quarterly financial reporting period. He anticipates that the Republican candidates will far outspend him.
“I’m not taking any contributions from PACs (political action committees),” he said. “I’m raising funds from the grass roots and I’ve put some of my own money into my campaign. I’m using my dollars as effectively as I can.”
At age 61, Bjorkman said he doesn’t want to become a career politician or beholden to outside money.
“I just want to work for the people of South Dakota,” he said.
The message is resonating all across the nation, Bjorkman said.
‘We need to start sending people to Washington not looking for a career there,” he said. “We need people who serve the people who elected them.”
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