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

Noem grew up on her family’s working ranch in Hamlin County, South Dakota. Her father was “was kind of superman,” Noem said, “You know, he was a cowboy and a very hard worker. I don’t remember very many days where he wasn’t up and out the door by 5 or 6 a.m. He came in late at night. Nobody ever out-worked him. He demanded a lot out of his family. He taught us to work hard and to do everything with excellence, but he never expected more out of us than he was willing to do as well.”

On the campaign trail, Noem spoke frequently with Hustead about her father, remembering how he would wake her up before the sun rose to go elk hunting and stay up past her bedtime reading the Bible. She had wanted to be just like him. “I knew from the time I was little that I wanted to grow up and to farm and ranch with my dad,” Noem said.

But while she was away at South Dakota State University, Noem’s father died in a tragic farming accident. “If you happen to fall into a grain bin with corn, it can almost suck you up like quicksand, and that’s what happened to him,” said Bob Faehn, the former Republican leader in the South Dakota State House.

Her siblings in other states, Noem left college to come home and run the family ranch. The wrenching loss colored what had been her dream. “It was very hard to imagine doing it without him,” she said.

In the midst of loss, the family was hit with a major financial burden from the estate tax.

“We had to make a decision if we were going to sell land to pay those taxes or take out a loan. We chose, and made the decision, to take out a loan. But for 10 years that loan really impacted our ability to make a profit every year,” Noem said.

The tax hit turned into a galvanizing moment for young Noem politically. “That was definitely when my eyes opened. You know, when you run a business, you have a lot of experiences that teach you the ways that government can interfere or make it more difficult for you to keep your doors open,” she said.

Two years later, to make ends meet, Noem opened a lodge, guiding pheasant hunts. “I have a Benelli 12 gauge that I shoot most of the time. We have a 20 gauge, too, but usually one of my daughters is using that one,” she said. Asked if she was a good shot, Noem replied: “I can hold my own.”

Meanwhile, Noem’s widowed mother bought a coffee shop, part of a lifelong dream to own a restaurant. “Within about six months or a year she called and said, “I need some help, you know the restaurant business is hard.” So I would go up there at night and I helped do her books and help manage her employees and things like that. That got to be kind of involved after a while and took more and more time,” Noem said.

A quick rise in South Dakota politics

Resolved to limit the sometimes destructive role of the government on business, Noem started dipping her toes into politics, serving on local boards and committees.

In 2006, Noem ran and won for a seat in the state House. In her second term, she was promoted to assistant Republican leader under Faehn, who saw great promise in his junior colleague. “I want you to remember her name,” he told colleagues.

Noem was a quick study and stuck to her party’s script. She was known for being forceful behind closed doors. “She’s very outgoing and friendly. But she certainly can be tough. She absolutely can be tough,” Faehn said.