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Native Sun News: Kristi Noem and Matt Varilek meet for debate

The following story was written and reported by Brandon Ecoffey, Native Sun News Staff Writer. All content © Native Sun News.

Republican Congresswoman Kristi Noem and her Democratic challenger Matt Varilek arrive at University Center in Rapid City Friday, Oct. 12, 2012, to debate. The two confronted each other on issues facing the nation and South Dakota.

Noem, Varilek bring it on
Pay little attention to Native issues
Story and photo by Brandon Ecoffey
Native Sun News Staff Writer

RAPID CITY — South Dakota’s lone congresswoman, Republican Kristi Noem, and her Democratic challenger, Matt Varilek, squared off against one another in their only West River debate thus far.

The event, which was held Friday, Oct. 12, at Rapid City’s University Center, was viewed in person by approximately 400 people, most of who were there to support incumbent Noem.

Although the debate became testy at times, the conversation held between U.S. House Rep. Noem and Democratic nominee Varilek was much more civilized and congenial than the recently televised presidential and vice presidential debates.

Agreeing to disagree on a number of topics, the two presented their points and counterpoints in a way that was reminiscent of two savvy and experienced political veterans.

In their opening statements, Noem and Varilek both relayed their strong South Dakota roots, with Noem recasting her childhood growing up on a farm in eastern South Dakota and Varilek describing his own humble beginnings in Yankton, saying he was from a family that “never had a lot of money.”

The two differed on a number of issues, including the Affordable Care Act. The two also traded jabs over the health care law, with both candidates’ opinions falling along party lines.

Noem spent significant time criticizing her opponent’s support of President Barack Obama’s health care law, while Varilek countered by strongly defending the law. The Democrat attacked a number of statements made by Noem, even saying at one point: “You’re making it up,” when Noem claimed the Affordable Care Act would cost Medicare $716 billion.

Although the debate will most likely be the only one held between the two in western South Dakota, very little focus was given to issues affecting the state’s large Native American population.

Noem paid no attention to Native people in her opening statement, and Varilek’s only reference to Indian country — prior to specific questioning on tribal issues — occurred when he verbally listed Native Americans in the state of South Dakota as one of the groups he would fight for if elected.

The one question posed during the debates that did actually force the two candidates to express the views they have on some of Indian country’s issues had to do with how each candidate would help bring jobs and economic development to the state’s poverty-ridden reservations.

Varilek seemed to be the better prepared of the two when he mentioned the importance of recognizing the sovereignty of tribal nations, the importance of protecting treaties and acknowledging that he would respect the trust relationship that exists between the federal government and tribal governments.

Varilek continued by praising the work of Lakota Funds, an organization that provides loans and technical support to small businesses on the Pine Ridge Reservation. He went on to say that he would support similar endeavors and make infrastructure projects like sewage and roads on reservations a priority; he claimed that projects like these would allow economic development to flourish on reservations.

When Noem had her chance to answer, she cited her work on water projects in Indian country. Noem has supported water projects in Indian country in the past, including voting to support funding to complete the Mni Wiconi water project, which is a project that brings safe drinking water to South Dakota’s reservations from the Missouri River.

Noem also said that she helped drive legislation that kept organizations like the National Labor Relations Board from pushing their way on to Indian lands where they had no business or jurisdiction. In addition, she said she supports a permanent office of tribal relations which would be included in the Farm Bill.

After the debate concluded, Native Sun News was able to ask each candidate about the proposed Mitt Romney/Paul Ryan budget — which plans to cut over a billion dollars between Indian Health Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs combined.

Noem responded by saying she would not support such a budget: “Not if it has those kind of cuts in it. It depends on what else is in the package — but obviously those kinds of cuts have to be justified by them (Romney and Ryan).”

Varilek responded by saying, “That is the difference between what I want to do and them (Republicans). I want to support projects in Indian country.”

During the debate, Varilek also criticized Noem’s attendance record while in Washington, where she sits on the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs.

(Contact Brandon Ecoffey at

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