James Abdnor

Ellis James Abdnor (February 13, 1923 – May 16, 2012) was an American politician from the state of South Dakota. Abdnor was a Republican and served as a U.S. Senator from South Dakota.

James Abdnor
15th Administrator of the Small Business Administration
In office
March 12, 1987  April 18, 1989
PresidentRonald Reagan
George H. W. Bush
Preceded byJames C. Sanders
Succeeded bySusan Engeleiter
United States Senator
from South Dakota
In office
January 3, 1981  January 3, 1987
Preceded byGeorge McGovern
Succeeded byTom Daschle
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from South Dakota's 2nd district
In office
January 3, 1973  January 3, 1981
Preceded byJames Abourezk
Succeeded byClint Roberts
30th Lieutenant Governor of South Dakota
In office
January 7, 1969  January 5, 1971
GovernorFrank Farrar
Preceded byLem Overpeck
Succeeded byWilliam Dougherty
Personal details
Ellis James Abdnor

(1923-02-13)February 13, 1923
Kennebec, South Dakota, U.S
DiedMay 16, 2012(2012-05-16) (aged 89)
Sioux Falls, South Dakota, U.S
Political partyRepublican
EducationUniversity of Nebraska–Lincoln (BA)
Military service
Allegiance United States
Branch/service United States Army
Battles/warsWorld War II

Personal life

Abdnor was born in Kennebec, South Dakota, on February 13, 1923,[1] the son of Mary (née Wehby) and Samuel J. Abdnor.[2] Abdnor served in the United States Army during World War II and then graduated from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln in 1945 where he became a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity.[3] He was a member of the South Dakota Senate from 1957 to 1969. A common, decent,[4] plain spoken man,"[5] he was affectionately known as "the people's Senator."[6] He was also described as a "nice-guy public servant" with a "down-home, warm and fuzzy way.[7] His staff considered him to be a friend as well as an honorable mentor and public servant.[8] Like his South Dakota Congressional colleague James Abourezk, he was a second-generation Lebanese-American and second U.S. Senator of Lebanese descent after Abourezk, as well.[3]


From 1946 to 1948, James Abdnor worked as a teacher and coach.[2] Abdnor was chief clerk of the State Legislature in the early 1950s.[2] Abdnor was the 30th Lieutenant Governor of South Dakota from 1969 to 1971, and unsuccessfully sought the nomination for the House of Representatives in 1970.[3] In 1972, he was elected to the House of Representatives as a Republican.[1]

Abdnor ran in the 1980 election against three-term incumbent and 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern for the United States Senate. Abdnor claimed McGovern was out of touch with the state[1] and unseated him by a large margin. During his term as a senator, Abdnor served on the Appropriations Committee and chaired three subcommittees, including the Environment and Public Works Subcommittee.[1]

In 1986, after winning by a wide margin a bruising re-election primary campaign against then Governor Bill Janklow, Abdnor narrowly lost his Senate seat to then-Representative Tom Daschle. He served as the administrator of the Small Business Administration from 1987 to 1989, and served in an advisory capacity for John Thune's successful campaign against Daschle in 2004.[1]


Abdnor's accomplishments included authorization of the Grassropes irrigation project and the Walworth, Edmunds, Brown (WEB) rural water system,[9] reauthorization of the Belle Fourche irrigation project, and the inclusion of oats (of which South Dakota is a major producer) in the farm program.[10][11]

As a fiscal conservative, on April 2, 1984, he introduced S. 2516, the Deficit Reduction Act, a forerunner to the Gramm–Rudman–Hollings Balanced Budget Act. As chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Water Resources, he exerted leadership in passage of legislation requiring cost-sharing for Federal water development projects.[12][13][14] His interest in chairing the subcommittee was spawned by the importance of water to South Dakota's primary industry, agriculture, and the fact the state had been promised irrigation development in trade for inundation of its Missouri River bottom land behind massive dams in order to provide flood control and navigation benefits to downstream states.[15][16]

Notable Abdnor staffers

John Thune had been a member of Senator Abdnor's staff.[17] Other notable members of Abdnor's staff who went on to fill important public service roles include John Hamre, Undersecretary of Defense; Jeff Trandahl, Clerk of the House; Bruce Knight, Undersecretary, Marketing and Regulatory Programs, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA); Larry Parkinson, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Law Enforcement and Security, U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) and Director, Office of Enforcement, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC); Phil Hogen, Chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC); Vern Larson, South Dakota State Treasurer and Auditor; South Dakota State Senators Walter Conahan, Mike Vehle, Lee Schoenbeck and Scott Heidepriem; South Dakota State Representative Sean O'Brien; Charlotte Fischer, South Dakota Public Utilities Commissioner; Roland Dolly, Commissioner of Economic Development for the State Of South Dakota; and Stephen Censky, Administrator of the Foreign Agricultural Service, CEO of the American Soybean Association, and United States Deputy Secretary of Agriculture.


Abdnor died on May 16, 2012, at the age of 89.[2]

See also

  • List of Arab and Middle-Eastern Americans in the United States Congress


  1. Schudel, Matt (May 16, 2012). "James Abdnor, GOP congressman and senator from South Dakota, dies at 89". The Washington Post.
  2. McFadden, Robert (May 16, 2012). "James Abdnor, Former South Dakota Senator, Dies at 89". The New York Times.
  3. "James Abdnor". Pierre, South Dakota: South Dakota State Historical Society. Retrieved May 16, 2012.
  4. Eulogy for Senator Jim Abdnor, Senator John Thune, May 19, 2012
  5. Plain Old Jim: A Tribute to Jim Abdnor, Herb Sundall, May 19, 2012
  6. Jim Abdnor and his people, Kevin Woster, Rapid City Journal, May 21, 2010.
  7. Even at 80, former Sen. Jim Abdnor retains voting bloc, David Kranz, Sioux Falls Argus Leader, February 23, 2003.
  8. Farewell to a Public Servant and a Friend, Bruce Knight, Agri-Pulse.
  9. Abdnor's role in authorizing the WEB rural water system is highlighted in Uphill Against Water: The Great Water War, by Peter Carrels
  10. A complete listing of the bills, resolutions, and amendments sponsored and co-sponsored by Abdnor in the Senate is available in the Government Printing Office's (GPO) online Congressional Record Index (CRI)
  11. Bills sponsored and co-sponsored by Abdnor in the U.S. House of Representatives from the 93rd through the 96th Congress (1973 - 1982) can be discovered using the Library of Congress' (LOC) Thomas system
  12. President Reagan's remarks in support of Senator Abdnor's reelection, September 29, 1986
  13. Water Resources Development Act of 1986
  14. Sharing the Burden, United States Army Corps of Engineers publication
  15. Oahe irrigation potential remains untapped Archived June 29, 2013, at Archive.today, The Daily Republic, September 29, 2012
  16. Pick–Sloan Missouri Basin Program
  17. John Thune#Early life, education, and early political career
Political offices
Preceded by
Lem Overpeck
Lieutenant Governor of South Dakota
Succeeded by
William Dougherty
Preceded by
Charles Heatherly
Administrator of the Small Business Administration
Succeeded by
Susan Engeleiter
U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by
James Abourezk
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from South Dakota's 2nd congressional district

Succeeded by
Clint Roberts
Party political offices
Preceded by
Leo K. Thorsness
Democratic nominee for U.S. Senator from South Dakota
(Class 3)

1980, 1986
Succeeded by
Charlene Haar
U.S. Senate
Preceded by
George McGovern
U.S. Senator (Class 3) from South Dakota
Served alongside: Larry Pressler
Succeeded by
Tom Daschle
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