PIERRE — After John Thune was first elected to Congress in 1996, his fellow Republican newcomers chose him to be the freshman class liaison to the House leadership.
He beat Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., in that leadership battle, but the two men have since become good friends.
ŒŒI think John is a good, decent, hardworking, caring person who has the right set of things that motivate him in public service,” Moran said. ŒŒI don't know anybody who doesn't like John.”
Thune said the best part of his job is that he can help people solve problems.
ŒŒI have deeply held beliefs and principles I try to apply,” he said. ŒŒI mean it when I say public life is a way to make a difference.”
Friends and family said Thune seemed destined for success from an early age.
Thune was born January 7, 1961, in Murdo, the fourth of five children. His father Harold, was a teacher and coach. His mother, Pat, was the school librarian.
Lifelong friend Brian O'Reilly, now a banker in Murdo, remembers that baseball, football, basketball, hunting and fishing dominated their childhood years. ŒŒIf it was outdoors we were doing it.”
People have always liked Thune, O'Reilly said.
ŒŒI think he's about as genuine as you get. What you see is what you get,” O'Reilly said. ŒŒI think he's as honest as anyone I know.”
O'Reilly said he's never known Thune to drink or smoke. ŒŒHe's very straight-laced.”
Thune acknowledged that he doesn't drink or smoke, but laughed and said ŒŒnever say never” when asked if he ever tried such things.
ŒŒIt's not something I engage in,” he said. ŒŒI have an opportunity to be a role model to young people, and I take that very seriously.”
Thune ran on the high school track team and played football and basketball. His interest in public service was sparked when a noted politician watched Thune play on the freshman basketball team.
The day after a game in which he made five of six free throws, he met someone in a store in downtown Murdo who commented that Thune had missed one. The spectator turned out to be Jim Abdnor, then a House member who went on to be a U.S. senator.
ŒŒHe was the kind of kid you take to immediately,” said Abdnor, who later hired Thune to work for him in Washington. ŒŒI was just impressed with what he said and did.”
Thune attended college at Biola University, a private, accredited, Christian-oriented school in La Mirada, Calif. While he was a junior, another student introduced Thune to Kimberly Weems, a fellow South Dakotan from Doland. She was transferring to the school.
ŒŒHere was this tall, handsome young man. It was like ŒWow,' and sure enough that was John. That's how we met, and it was the South Dakota connection,” Mrs. Thune said.
They married in 1984, the same year Thune received a master's degree in business administration from the University of South Dakota.
ŒŒWe shared the same faith, which was important to us,” Mrs. Thune said.
Thune went to Washington to work for Abdnor in 1985. After Abdnor lost his Senate seat to Democrat Tom Daschle in 1986, Abdnor was appointed head of the Small Business Administration. Thune worked for Abdnor in that agency.
ŒŒHe was so good at what he did, I thought he might be more interested in going out and being a great success in the business world,” Abdnor said.
But when it became clear that Thune was interested in a political career, Abdnor encouraged him.
ŒŒAbove all, he's a great honest, sincere, dedicated young man who's trying to do his very best for South Dakota,” Abdnor said. ŒŒI've never heard a nasty word or comment made about him.”
Thune said his association with Abdnor started him to look seriously at politics as a way to help people. While working with Abdnor, Thune decided he might run for office if the right opportunity ever arose.
ŒŒI kind of decided that maybe I had the gifts to make a difference in public service, and it was an area where you could make a big difference,” he said.
Thune returned to South Dakota in 1989 to become executive director of the South Dakota Republican Party.
Dwight Adams of Brookings, who was party chairman at the time, said he was quickly impressed by Thune's hard work, high morals and ability to work with others. Adams, a retired Army officer, said Thune is one of the most outstanding young men he has ever known.
ŒŒI think he's an outstanding leader. He's got tremendous leadership abilities,” Adams said. ŒŒHe just combines all the features you'd be looking for if you were going out and looking for a candidate to run for office.”
Thune was state railroad director from 1991 until 1993, when he was hired as executive director of the South Dakota Municipal League.
His political career began when he decided to run for South Dakota's lone seat in the U.S. House. Democrat Tim Johnson was giving up the seat to run for the Senate in 1996.
Thune was initially considered an underdog to Lt. Gov. Carole Hillard, who was better known and had more campaign money. But he won the GOP primary and the general election. He won re-election in 1998 and 2000, but had pledged to serve no more than six years in the House.
Thune was headed toward a campaign for governor, but President Bush and other Republicans helped persuade him to challenge Johnson instead in a race that could determine which party controls the U.S. Senate.
The family lived in the Washington area during Thune's first two years in Congress, but then Kimberley and their two daughters, Brittany and Larissa, moved to Sioux Falls. The congressman was spending nearly every weekend back in South Dakota, so the family figured they could spend more quality time together if their home was in Sioux Falls.
ŒŒWe definitely have found this is better. He does make the soccer games. He does make the recitals. He will do everything he can to make sure he is there for the girls,” Mrs. Thune said.
She remembers a weekend last spring when officials urged Thune to attend what was billed as an important meeting. He stayed home to cheer for Brittany at her final track meet of the season.
ŒŒHe's a family man, and that's the priority in his life,” Mrs. Thune said. ŒŒHe always thinks of us first.”
Thune said he makes sure his family is his top priority.
ŒŒI think you have to have priorities. Sometimes I've seen colleagues of mine who get involved in politics sort of lose sight of their roots and foundations, and it takes its toll,” he said.
Mrs. Thune said her husband works hard and conducts himself so he has no regrets at the end of the day.
ŒŒHe never gives up, and I really appreciate that,” Mrs. Thune said. ŒŒHe has strong convictions, and because of that he works very, very hard for what he believes in.”
Mrs. Thune said she always knew her husband was a leader. ŒŒFrom the very beginning I could see those qualities, and he was never afraid to step out and take a chance.”
Thune said his religious beliefs play an important part in his life. ŒŒI'm serious with respect to my faith.”
Moran, the congressman from Kansas, said his family and the Thunes have become friends because they have common backgrounds and both have daughters of about the same age. Thune has succeeded in the U.S. House because he works hard and is respected as a man of integrity, Moran said.
ŒŒHe's very tenacious. He gets issues of importance to South Dakota, big ones and small ones, and just never gives up,” Moran said.
ŒŒWhen you observe John in the House of Representatives, he has a natural ability to connect with people. He's got an easy way about him,” Moran said. ŒŒHe's made a lot of friends, Republican and Democrat, who think John is a good guy doing a good job.”
Thune said he is driven by his love of his family, his desire to help people through public service, and his love of the outdoors.
He said if given a choice of things to do, he would like to spend a quiet evening with friends and family on a boat somewhere on the Missouri River or go pheasant hunting with family and friends. ŒŒThose are things that kind of get me going.”