Rep.-elect Kristi Noem has all the makings of a fresh-faced rising star in GOP House leadership. The 38-year-old South Dakotan is photogenic, well-spoken, and able to draw a crowd and stay on message.
But Noem, who has already secured a seat at the leadership table in the next Congress, said she’s not worried about being pigeonholed as a token female in Republican leadership.
“When people start to spend a lot of time with me they realize that I’m a hard worker,” Noem said in an interview Tuesday at the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel downtown. “I work hard on policy and issues. … I’m a contributor and not just there to fill a seat.”
Dressed in a tailored taupe suit with knee-high snakeskin boots, the state Representative exuded all the confidence of a polished politician despite the fact that she’s a Washington neophyte.
Her rapid rise to become Assistant Majority Leader in the South Dakota House two years after being elected in 2006 underscores Republican leaders’ high expectations for Noem.
Nicknamed “South Dakota’s Sarah Palin” on the campaign trail, Noem was singled out as an up-and-comer almost immediately after defeating Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D) last month. She campaigned hard for one of two spots for freshmen in elected leadership and became the second female in GOP leadership, joining Conference Vice Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.).
Incoming Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) said he’s been impressed with Noem in leadership meetings.
“You would never suspect her to be a freshman when she is sitting in the meetings,” McCarthy said.
Noem is following in the footsteps of a fellow South Dakotan, Sen. John Thune (R). Thune served for two years as the representative of his class on the leadership team after being elected to the House in 1996.
He was one of the first people Noem talked to about seeking the freshman leadership slot.
“I encouraged her to seek a seat at the leadership table as a way to help represent South Dakota and the interests of rural Americans,” Thune said. “I think she’ll do an excellent job.”
While being a member of leadership gives Noem a broader platform than most freshmen, she said that wasn’t the allure of the post.
“My goal in coming out here to Washington, D.C., if I was going to be away from my family, away from my businesses, that I wanted to be as effective as I possibly could,” Noem said.
Sticking with that mentality, she has already made two strategic picks for staff with home-state ties in Jordan Stoick and Joshua Shields. Stoick, a former aide to Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), and Shields, a former aide to Thune, will serve as her chief of staff and communications director, respectively.
“You want them to hold you accountable to your goals as well, but you also want to hit the ground running and be effective while you are here, too, and not spend a lot of time getting up to speed on procedures,” Noem said of the hires.
Still, Noem may run into trouble with keeping her promise to reduce the deficit and toe the GOP line of forcing spending cuts, particularly when it comes to key issues for South Dakota such as agricultural subsidies. Noem played it safe when asked whether she would take definitive measures on changing the funding mechanisms in the upcoming farm bill.
“It’s going to be a big topic of discussion,” Noem said. “I think all in all, every person that is going to be here and is serious about reducing our debt and deficit has to be willing to have the conversations on even those tough topics.”
Noem has said she is interested in spots on the Agriculture, Energy and Commerce, and Natural Resources committees.
She said she would be effective working on issues important to South Dakota even if she doesn’t get on one of those committees.
“We’ve got a pretty diverse state. With a lot of committees, the work they do impacts South Dakota,” Noem said.
Rep. Kay Granger (Texas) noted that Noem’s election showcases the increasing diversity of the House Republican Conference and the talent in the freshman class.
Granger, who served in leadership in the 110th Congress and was the only woman on the National Republican Congressional Committee’s executive board in the 2010 cycle, said the addition of Noem to the leadership table was “very significant.”
“I think she’s great,” Granger said. “She’s very articulate, very principled and high energy.”
She said Republicans “need the creativity” that Noem and her freshman colleagues bring to the table as the GOP gets set to rewrite the rules and change the way Congress operates.
Noem said she has looked to GOP women such as McMorris Rodgers and Rep. Lynn Jenkins (Kan.) for guidance. Jenkins talked to Noem throughout her campaign to help encourage her.
“It will be great to get here in January and have more time to spend with them,” Noem said. But getting ingratiated in Washington politics, Noem said, isn’t her biggest priority.
“I tried to stay true [to myself] from the beginning,” Noem said, noting her mother’s refrain: “My mom said, ‘Kristi, people don’t want somebody who is perfect. … They want somebody who works hard for them, and just be yourself.’”
Jackie Kucinich contributed to this report.