Cowgirl Kristi Noem ropes in Capitol Hill: A Washington love story

Last Valentine’s Day, South Dakota businessman Ted Hustead fell in love, politically speaking.

His state’s legislature was considering taxing road signs. For Hustead, the owner of Wall Drug, that meant war. Wall Drug may have more road signs than any single entity on the planet. The signs stretch for hundreds of miles along Interstate I-90 and are also in Paris, Kenya, London and at the South Pole.

While testifying against the bill, Hustead began to take notice of a new face.

“All of the sudden I’m just sort of watching her on the committee and noticing her and noticing how articulate she is, and how knowledgeable she is and how she understood both sides of the issue,” said Husted. “After the committee dispersed I just sat back in my chair and watched her work the room. I was just very impressed with her.”

“She” was state Rep. Kristi Noem and Hustead, one of the most powerful political money men in the state, would be a good friend to have, helping her raise more than $2 million.

Unimpressed with two other candidates who’d announced runs, Hustead learned from a lobbyist friend that Noem would be announcing her candidacy for South Dakota’s only seat in the House of Representatives the following day.

“I said to the lobbyist, ‘Please get a hold of Kristi Noem and have her call me … I know where the money is,’” Hustead said. Noem agreed to drive across the state for dinner.

Everything was going well at dinner as the two discussed the logistics of how Hustead could help. It was getting late, though: 8:30 p.m. Hustead was feeling guilty about Noem’s long trip home — a two-hour drive with a loss of one hour from the difference in time zones.

That’s when Noem made her pitch. “The real reason I’m here is I want you to be my treasurer,” she said. Hustead was thrilled. The two kept talking into the night until finally, at 11:30 p.m. or so, she left, to arrive home after 2 a.m.

The next morning, at 7:30, Hustead found a page-and-a-half-long e-mail thanking him for dinner and outlining her plans for him as her treasurer.

Meet Kristi Noem, South Dakota’s new congresswoman

On Nov. 2, Noem beat former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, widely considered a rising star of the Democratic party, in an improbable victory. Shortly after the election she was chosen by her freshmen peers for one of two spots to represent the class in GOP leadership meetings.

Noem, 39, draws praise from a wide array of Republican politicos in D.C., who see great promise in her potential as an attractive messenger for the party. Her former colleagues in the South Dakota legislature, both Democrats and Republicans, laud her pragmatism and determination.

Recently rated “hottest freshman” in Congress by Huffington Post readers, a throng of photographers greeted her at the airport when she first arrived in the nation’s capital. “She walked right into a hornets’ nest — there were paparazzi at the airport!” Hustead said.

With a beaming smile and big, Western hair, Noem is attractive enough to provoke frequent references from male Republican operatives. “I hear you’re working on a Kristi Noem piece or are you just trying to get a piece of Kristi Noem???” one GOP press secretary e-mailed out of the blue. (The author is married, as is his subject, who with husband Byron has three children.) Another aide said he has seen her up close in the Capitol and “she is legit hot.”

Noem does not relish that brand of attention. Of the Huffington Post story, she said in an interview, “I thought that was kind of an unfortunate distraction, I guess, when that came out. I don’t think about that too much. I’d rather they were talking about my solutions for our country rather than that, but we’ll get there.”

Though some have made easy comparisons to two other high-profile Republican women, Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, the Democratic leader in the South Dakota state House, Bernie Hunhoff, said she’s no such thing.

“I didn’t find her to be a hardline conservative, although she could give the talking points as well as anybody,” Hunhoff said, “I don’t think she’ll be a Michele Bachmann or a Sarah Palin … we were able to sit down and work out a compromise.”

Noem agrees. “For me, maybe it’s the benefit of not having a dream of being in politics my whole life. I’ve just lived a real life,” she said. She doesn’t know yet what she’ll introduce as her first bill. “We’ve got some ideas,” she said.

GOP insiders say that, so far, Noem has not been leading her fellow congressional rookies to take on Republican leadership on issues like spending cuts. Instead, Rep. Tim Scott, the other freshman in leadership, has galvanized the 87 newcomers.

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