• Candidate seeks to recapture District 7 Senate seat
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of articles featuring area political candidates. Pamela Merchant, a Democrat, wants to reclaim the state Senate seat she once held in Legislative District 7, which includes the City of Brookings and Brookings and Medary townships She is opposed by Republican Larry Tidemann, who is seeking a second term in the Senate. Profiles of the candidates for Brookings County Commission appear in next week’s Registers.
BROOKINGS – Can a self-described “PTA Mom” find happiness in the rough-and-tumble world of politics?
She can if she’s Pamela Merchant.
Actually, it’s the “mom” part of her résumé that is motivating the Brookings mother to run for state senator – the same office she captured in 2008.
Merchant is passionate about education, and she believes local school boards are losing control to the state.
There’s been a steady erosion of district-level power, she says, and funding formulas for both public schools and the university system have gotten badly out of kilter: “Both formulas need to be reset and brought back to where they should be.”
However, in the plans being presented, “money is being spent at the top levels, not locally, and that troubles me so much,” Merchant says.
A Democrat, Merchant is a well-informed candidate, but when it comes to education, she brings firsthand experience to bear: she was a two-term school board member in Brookings, and she currently serves as president of the Mickelson Middle School PTA. Her campaign materials describe her as “an outspoken advocate for education.”
The former senator – who calls her service in the capital “a privilege” – was something of a reluctant candidate this time around.
“I was really planning to run for school board, and I was looking for someone to run for the Legislature,” she says. “When no one came forward, I felt I had to make the effort. … I couldn’t rest with the decisions that have been made to move toward a merit-pay system and to diminish local control.”
Merchant and her husband, Dan, live in Brookings with their three children: Lucas, Parker and Courtney. Dan, with his family, owns and manages Merchant Job Training and Safety.
Merchant started her public service life as a PTA mom and officer when her now-21-year-old was a first-grader at Medary Elementary.
“I’ve been part of PTA ever since,” she says. “I’ve been very much involved with the schools, and I believe I have my ‘finger on the pulse’ at all levels of the school district.”
One effort she’s especially proud of was her part in the Brookings School District’s opt-out vote, which brought the local schools an additional $750,000 annually. She calls the opt-out “a huge gift, one of the great things our citizens have accomplished.”
If public education was Merchant’s only concern, she’d have a full life, but her middle name is “volunteer.” Currently a professional grant writer, she has obtained funding for numerous nonprofits in the Brookings area. And as an advocate for the arts, in 2002 she spearheaded the effort to start the Brookings Community Theatre. She serves on the Brookings Junior Achievement board and the Brookings Historical Preservation Commission and chairs the East Central Behavioral Health board.
She adds that “in her spare time” she is pursuing a degree in history and a career in children's book writing and illustrating. A web designer and graphics specialist for 20 years, Merchant volunteers as the regional adviser for the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators.
Perhaps no project is as dear to Merchant’s heart as her work with exchange students.
Merchant is the youth exchange officer for Brookings Rotary and has helped dozens of students experience what she describes as “life-changing, year-long, cultural exchanges.”
She and her family have hosted six students over an eight-year period, and her son, Lucas, is now fluent in Norwegian after spending a year in Norway. Parker, a Brookings High sophomore, will soon be heading for Germany.
“The experience gives them confidence and makes them global citizens,” Merchant says proudly. “And it transforms them; it really enhances their lives.”
She is currently working with administration and SDSU professors in her role as a PTA chief to offer more foreign language opportunities for students. She is also leading the charge to create the Brookings Language Camp, which will offer French, Spanish and German for local school kids beginning next summer.
Merchant says her volunteer spirit and her international attitude are her birthright – she grew up on a farm near Walhalla, N.D., which is just five miles from the Canadian border.
“We were isolated. There was no Internet. And we got just two TV stations,” she recalls, “and a third from Canada.”
Her parents were doers.
“Dad was president of the school board, and I remember Mom stopping to check on our elderly neighbors, taking time to get to know them. They were both very involved with our church – mom took her Sunday school class to different churches so they could experience what other services were like.”
Merchant wants to keep that spirit alive.
“The world keeps unfolding for me,” she says. “I believe in taking advantage of the opportunities I have. And you know, they say the more we try to help others, the more we enhance our own lives. I really do believe that seems to work.”
Contact Ken Curley at kcurley@-brookingsregister.com.