Sen. John Thune kicked off a series of town hall meetings Monday, with the first two in Watertown and Brookings.
They were the first of seven town halls that Thune is holding across the state. He has one scheduled for Wednesday in Sioux Falls. The events are open to the public, and Thune will take questions from the audience.
With the Senate set to return next week, Thune said he wanted to hear from constituents before returning to Washington.
“I think it's always a good way to get the pulse of what's going on,” he said.
Thune’s tour of the state comes after he spent about a week in Africa as part of a congressional delegation that went on a fact-finding trip. The tour included stops in Tanzania, Ghana and South Africa.
The continent holds much promise over the coming decades as a trading partner with the United States, Thune said. But big problems must be overcome: poverty, HIV and AIDS, and security threats. The United States can play a role in helping Africa, particularly when it comes to developing hybrid seeds for agriculture.
A big takeaway from the trip, he added, is that China’s influence is growing there. South Africa, which has the continent’s biggest economy, has aligned itself with Russia and China. China is leasing land to expand its reach for natural resources, Thune said.
“My impression is they are more there for extraction purposes rather than development purposes,” he said.
Besides Africa, Thune spent part of his holiday break campaigning for Mitt Romney.
Rep. Kristi Noem and Sen. Tim Johnson also have made public appearances. Noem was in Sioux Falls and Aberdeen last week. The House is scheduled to go back into session today, meaning Noem had a shorter break.
Johnson was in Pierre on Friday, and was at two events Monday in Rapid City. He'll attend events this week in Aberdeen and Sioux Falls.
“Tim has been in South Dakota since the break,” spokesman Perry Plumart said.
While the delegation has been keeping up public appearances — an important part of remaining in the good graces of voters — Thune is the only member to hold full-on town halls. As many in Congress learned during the summer of 2009, town halls can be risky. Political opponents are free to take shots, and there's always a chance that an unflattering video can be whipped into a campaign commercial.
Thune said he’s willing to take the risk, saying tough questions “sharpen” him. “They're always going to attack you for something,” he said.
Ben Nesselhuf, chairman of the Democratic Party, called town halls a “valuable tool for citizens who are interested in the workings of government.” As for Thune’s town halls, Nesselhuf noted that Thune isn’t up for re-election for another five years and that Democrats don’t plan to monitor the events.
“I think town halls are a very good thing,” he said. “There’s nothing orchestrated out of the party to dissuade legislators from doing them.”
Meetings this week:
YANKTON: 1 p.m. today, Yankton Riverfront Event Center
MITCHELL: 4:15 p.m. today, Highland Conference Center
MADISON: 1 p.m. Wednesday, East River Electric
SIOUX FALLS: 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Avera Hall at University Center