Allegations of sexual misconduct can sink a political career or at least raise serious doubts and leave a wide-open lane for a challenger in the next election cycle. But when you openly admit to sexual misconduct that creates a whole different sort of political PR scenario.
Such is the case of South Dakota House member Mathew Wollmann, a 26-year-old former Marine, who admitted having sexual conduct with interns in both 2015 and 2016. This bombshell acknowledgment sent shockwaves across this relatively sleepy South Dakota town. Pierre, despite being the capital city, is home to only about 14,000 people, and many claim to operate on a Las Vegas mindset of “what happens there stays there.”
Certain forms of relationships between elected officials and interns are not specifically illegal, but they are frowned upon. Which, some say, leads to a don’t ask don’t tell policy about what goes on when officials are not conducting affairs of state. And, according to those same “some,” what goes on is fairly outside the bounds of what folks back home might approve.
At least, that’s the message which has been leaking out through various media reports since Wollmann’s announcement. And folks in the strongly conservative state are beginning to raise more than eyebrows. This has several current elected officials rushing to stem the tide of negative public reaction.
House Speaker Pro Tempore Don Haggar told the media, “I’ve known legislators around these halls on and off for 40 years… Almost to a man and a woman, they’re outstanding people in every facet of their lives.”
Outstanding in every facet of their lives? Some aren’t buying that, saying Haggar might just be protesting a bit too much. The insinuation being that the strength of the denial is tantamount to admission.
Meanwhile, the one legislator who has admitted to dalliances recently apologized and said he stood ready to accept his punishment. This statement came right about the time his fellow legislators were about to convene a committee to investigate his conduct.
So, which narrative is correct? Is Wollmann one bad apple who needs to be dealt with, or are the rumors trickling out about widespread moral turpitude and hypocrisy more accurate? Public sentiment is likely to shift toward the latter, regardless of what Haggar and his fellows have to say about it. Folks love to think the worst but hope the best about their elected officials.
The rumors may not hurt incumbents at election time, but you can bet if any real proof surfaces, there will be some sacrificial lambs led out for the public to do with as they please.