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Small South Dakota town plays oversized role in Illinois governor’s race

The 10,000-person town of Vermillion, South Dakota has connections to two candidates in Illinois’ gubernatorial primaries.

Both Republican candidate Jeanne Ives and Mary Kathryn Muenster, wife of Democratic candidate J.B. Pritzker, were born there.

Ives left Vermillion to attend West Point after graduating high school but her sister Sarah Taggart reportedly still lives and works in town as a real estate agent. Ives’ upbringing has featured prominently in her campaign.

The gubernatorial candidate released an ad during the Super Bowl broadcast that played up her Vermillion roots and connections to small town America. At a recent event at the City Club of Chicago, Ives said Vermillion was an ideal place to grow up.

“I am one of six children and we all grew up working on our uncle’s farms,” Ives said of her time in Vermillion. “I was fortunate to have loving parents, good teachers and a safe community that provided plenty of wholesome activities for kids to be involved in.”

Pritzker’s wife, Mary Kathryn Muenster, was also born in Vermillion. Her father, Ted, re-located to Vermillion from Nebraska to work in the University of South Dakota’s political science department. He was later chief-of-staff to South Dakota Gov. Richard F. Kneip.

Muenster left South Dakota to study at the University of Nebraska and later worked on Capitol Hill. It was there that she met Pritzker. Some of Muenster’s family still lives in South Dakota, and Pritzker told the Chicago Sun-Times in April 2017 about his first visit to South Dakota.

“It was 30 below zero! I thought I was prepared wearing a parka. Her dad was waiting with a coat that looked like Nanook of the North had given up his hide!” Pritzker said. “So that was my first exposure, literally, to South Dakota!”

If both the Pritzker and the Ives campaigns are successful in their primaries, there may be a lot more to learn about Vermillion.