Georgia Lodewyk– Staff Writer
On Friday Oct. 15, Paul TenHaken, mayor of Sioux Falls, S.D., walked into a Dordt University corporate finance class wearing a plaid suit with an American flag button positioned on its lapel.
“I’m not going to talk much about corporate finance today,” TenHaken said.
TenHaken chose instead to speak about the joys, hardships, and challenges of being a mayor in a city of over 190,000 people. In 2000, the political leader graduated from Dordt. Now, over two decades later, the university alumni association chose to recognize TenHaken with the Distinguished Alumni Award. The honor was given to TenHaken in 2020, but COVID-19 restrictions delayed its presentation until this year’s Defender Days.
When a student at Dordt (then a college at the time), becoming mayor of Sioux Falls was not something he ever envisioned in his future.
“God will slap you around and totally pivot you in a different direction. Never in a million years did I see myself as a greasy politician,” TenHaken said.
The now-mayor graduated with a degree in graphic design. He found a career in web development, fascinated with the development of the internet and the growth he saw in the industry. TenHaken recalled how “big of a deal” Myspace became, and what it was like to be part of the first class at Dordt with email addresses. After earning his MBA from the University of Sioux Falls, he started his own marketing agency company, Click Rain. In 10 years, the company grew to 35 employees, aiding political candidates, businesses, and hotels with their digital marketing strategies. TenHaken’s work with political candidates taught him that a candidate’s use of the digital media and online platform can make or break a campaign. In 2018, he left the company and decided to run for office.
“We were making all this money, business was growing, but [I asked myself,] ‘Is this what God put me on earth for? What’s my kingdom impact?’” TenHaken said. “I felt like God wanted me to expand my mission field.”
TenHaken fully expected lose the mayoral office to two other candidates with actual government experience. But his experience with campaign management through digital platforms provided one of his biggest assets, and he was sworn in as mayor in May of 2018.
Back in the corporate finance class, TenHaken showed the students a picture from the day. He raised his hand and swore the oath with his wife by his side.
“It was one of the hardest days of my life,” he said. “I was really nervous. I knew it was what God wanted me to do but I really didn’t want to do it. I look skinny. I lost a ton of weight. It was stressful, running for office.”
TenHaken recalled when the sheriff’s office deposed him to a criminal investigation right before being sworn in because of false charges from his opponents: “I see why God brought me through that really hard time of being elected,” he said. “I really needed that coat of armor to get through what I’ve experienced these past few years.”
The mayor’s next four years as mayor were full of unforeseen challenges. In September of 2019, three tornadoes touched down in Sioux Falls, causing damage that city officials were not able to assess until morning. At the time, a number of the city’s tornado sirens failed to sound due to human error. TenHaken and his team worked to fix the issue, creating more fail-safes so the error never would occur in the future.
“When something screws up, whether it’s your responsibility or not, you have to own it.” TenHaken told the business class. “I like to think of God standing on my shoulders”
TenHaken described his political life as being thrown “pitches in the dirt.”. At times, he is approached with impossible scenarios with no right answer or safe middle ground. In 2020, the his decisions related to COVID-19 proved to be one of these pitches.
“It’s been one of the silliest and dividing and polarizing issues I’ve ever dealt with,” TenHaken said of wearing masks.
Because of his policies and leadership, a number of people have given death threats to TenHaken and his family: “You take away my First Amendment, then I’m going to use my Second Amendment rights on your family,” TenHaken said, recalling the threats.
These situations it show TenHaken then brokenness present in the world—a brokenness he works with every day.
“There’s a lot of hurt people in the world,” TenHaken said. “I think it’s our role as Christians to always try and find an empathetic angle. Why is that lady against cops? Why is this person so hell-bent on 500 marijuana dispensers over town?”
TenHaken said the greatest danger of the modern thought process, especially when it comes to politics, is forgetting to live with Christlike empathy. It is when society forgets to look to other perspectives and lives in what the mayor calls an “echo-chamber”— when one only follows and likes people that believe the same things as they do. It may be unconventional and uncomfortable to understand a completely different thought process, but TenHaken has learned to navigate the tense situations.
“I miss the private sector. But God has made it very clear that he’s got me where he wants,” he said.
At the Distinguished Alumni Award ceremony, the mayor’s nominator said, “Paul has pushed for excellence while maintaining integrity in all the various roles and fields he has entered since graduation from Dordt in 2000.”
Throughout the day, TenHaken left the various classes he spoke at with a single question:
How do we live our lives?
“When you look at your career and impact, you are two to three generations away from being forgotten. The only thing that will live