Billie Sutton

It’s not often that the governor’s race in South Dakota garners the attention of the national media. The entire state has a population of less than a million people, and by the time the contest gets to the general election, it’s usually a foregone conclusion — a Democrat hasn’t won since 1974. But then Billie Sutton, the 2018 Democratic Party nominee, came along.

Sutton is a media darling. The New York Times, Pacific Standard, CBS, ABC News and The Economist, among others, have already done stories on his candidacy, and the coverage looks unlikely to slow before November. There are a number of things that give Sutton’s story the kind of glow that invites headlines. Somewhat shockingly, that he has paraplegia and uses a wheelchair is not at the top of the list.

Instead of leading with his disability, headlines about Sutton read: “Billie Sutton Will Not Be Out-Cowboyed,” “Cowboy Turned Lawmaker Hopes to Be South Dakota Governor” and “The Right Democrat Can Win.”

For the majority of the nation’s media, the fact that Sutton broke his back when his horse flipped in the chute is not quite as salable as the fact that a gubernatorial candidate from the state of Deadwood and “Wild Bill” Hickok was an actual rodeo cowboy.

Sutton is not the first politician to use a wheelchair — with Sen. Tammy Duckworth, Gov. Greg Abbott and Rep. Jim Langevin as contemporary prominent examples. Sutton doesn’t champion disability issues like Duckworth, though he has led a thus-far unsuccessful drive for Medicaid expansion in South Dakota. His most obvious comparison is to Abbott, the Republican governor of Texas, who also has paraplegia and is prone to being photographed in a cowboy hat and toting a rifle.

Both Duckworth and Abbott have shown that, regardless of political leanings, being a visible and unapologetic wheelchair user can be a boon on the campaign trail. Or as The Economist put it, to have a chance as a Democrat in red-state South Dakota, “It helps to have a compelling back story.”

Like any good politician, Sutton knows how to use his life story to his advantage. The rodeo accident and resulting paralysis feature in his standard stump speech. He uses them as he does his growing up in a rural town, riding horses and going to church — as a way of connecting with the electorate. A “South Dakota story of perseverance,” is how candidate Sutton frames his accident. “I was faced with a choice: Take the easy way and give up, or live by the values I was raised with. Do it the cowboy way — never give up and never quit,” Sutton said at his campaign kickoff.

Much of the media coverage in respect to his disability takes a similar tack, with outlets like The Economist, Pacific Standard and the Associated Press mostly framing his disability in terms of its relevance to the campaign. Pacific Standard, in particular, deserves recognition for hitting a respectful tone when discussing the fact that Sutton uses a wheelchair — and the magazine as a whole has been producing thoughtful, relevant and well reported stories related to disability.

In “Billie Sutton Will Not be Out-Cowboyed,” the initial mention of Sutton’s wheelchair is that he uses it to travel from his pickup truck to the hotel ballroom where a meeting he’s to campaign at is being held. There are none of the usual disability tropes. He is never cast as a victim, a hero or someone who overcame “despite his disability.” Here, Sutton is portrayed as a politician trying to win an election, and his wheelchair is what it is in this situation: a means of conveyance.

Sutton may have a disability, but during election season at least, most media seem to have gotten the message that paralysis is only a part of his story and not the thing that all other parts of his life must be framed against. If that was standard practice across the news industry, we’d all be in better shape.

[Editor’s Note: We contacted Sutton’s campaign with an interview request for this story, hoping to hear his views on all the recent media coverage, but aides declined our request.]

• “The Right Democrat Can Win,” ABC News;
• “A Democrat with a chance in South Dakota,” The Economist;
• “Billie Sutton Will Not be Out-Cowboyed,” Pacific Standard;