Area Native ‘Flattered’ By Draft Movement For House

Rather than being alarmed about an effort to draft him, Yankton-area native Matt Varilek is flattered.

The “Draft Matt Varilek for Congress” page was started on Facebook early this month and, as of late Monday, had 458 “likes.” A group of 11 people, including Democratic political strategist Steve Hildebrand of Sioux Falls, have their names attached to a letter on the site urging South Dakotans to encourage Varilek to run against Republican Rep. Kristi Noem in 2012.

Varilek, 36, a Democrat, currently lives in Sioux Falls with his wife, Maggie, and their two daughters, Willa and Mae. He works on economic development issues as a staffer for Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson and is the son of Irene (Hejl) Wolf of Sioux Falls and Dave Varilek of Tabor.

“The truth is, I had been thinking seriously about the whole idea of running for Congress in 2012 before this draft developed,” Varilek told the Press & Dakotan during a recent phone interview. “I work for an admirable and effective member of Congress, and I get to see every day the kind of impact he can have on South Dakotans lives. The idea that some people think I would be a good person to serve in Congress and could help people in that way is quite flattering.”

To see so many people from across the state offer their support has been encouraging, he stated.

“On the other hand, the notion of actually making a decision to run is a very big one and not something I want to rush into,” Varilek continued. “My wife and I are going to give it careful consideration. But my immediate focus is going to continue to try to do a good job on economic development issues for Sen. Johnson and the state. We will keep everyone’s encouragement in mind as we think carefully about the idea of running.”

In their letter to potential supporters, the 11 drafters write that Varilek would not engage in the politics of the Tea Party movement.

“The reason we’re really excited about his potential candidacy is who he is as a person, and the kind of member of Congress that he would be: a strong progressive,” they write. “From supporting affordable healthcare care for all, to family-scale agriculture, and a tax system where everyone pays their fair share, Matt Varilek’s values align with yours and ours. He’s also the kind of guy who’s hard not to like, and he could help to restore a sense of civility that’s all too rare in politics these days.”

The draft effort has drawn the attention of South Dakota’s political blogs.

Kevin Woster, a journalist for the Rapid City Journal, wrote on the newspaper’s blog that “Varilek will have a lot of support — in finances, volunteers and strategy — from the (Sen.) Johnson camp. That will include the senator himself, a gritty campaigner with astute insights into how to win in South Dakota, as well as the serious mental muscle from the old (Sen. Tom) Daschle camp, led by (Steve) Hildebrand, who was a key part of the Obama phenomenon in 2008 …”

While Varilek is still contemplating a campaign, Minnehaha County Commissioner Jeff Barth, 59, last week became the first Democrat to file as a candidate for the 2012 Congressional election.

Meanwhile, Noem has raised more than $600,000 for her re-election campaign.

Varilek said he is not sure when the prospect of running in 2012 first occurred to him as a serious thought.

He is a long-time observer of the political process, having become a staffer for Daschle in 2004 and then Johnson in 2005. Prior to that, he was a market analyst.

The 1993 Yankton High School graduate has two master’s degrees related to economic development — a subject he became interested in while growing up with his family in the Tabor and Yankton areas.

“As I got older, I began to appreciate the fact that towns don’t become prosperous by accident but through the concerted efforts of a lot of people and businesses,” Varilek said. “As someone who loves the state, and especially where I grew up, I had an interest in figuring out how I could help that process. I was eventually able to go to grad school to study the matter and worked for lots of small businesses and farmers early on before going to work on the subject for Sen. Daschle and then Sen. Johnson.”

Varilek said the senator is aware of his interest in running for office but declined to comment further on any discussions he has had with Johnson.

Hildebrand didn’t return a phone message left by the Press & Dakotan Monday. However, a post by him on the “Draft Matt Varilek for Congress” page indicates the group’s intentions.

“When Kristi Noem has more than 14,000 supporters on Facebook, it’s important that we build a strong case of support for Matt Varilek before we go to Matt to encourage him to run,” Hildebrand wrote recently. “Once we get to 500 (“likes”), I feel we will be in a position to show Matt that there is strong support for him to challenge Noem for Congress.”

Varilek said he will decide whether to run on his own schedule and has no timeline in place for making a decision. However, he did say he has visited the site.

“I’m really happy to see the enthusiasm that is there and to receive encouragement from people I really respect, including the drafters, as well as the other folks who have left thoughts,” he said.

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