Former Sen. James G. Abourezk, D-S.D., who launched a short congressional career with a boost from his state’s rural electric cooperatives during a high-profile referendum campaign in 1969, died in Sioux Falls on Friday, his 92nd birthday.

He served in the Senate for one term (1973-1979) after two years in the U.S. House representing a district in western South Dakota. The son of immigrants from Lebanon, he was the first U.S. senator of Arab-American descent.

As a lawyer in Rapid City, he represented the influential USDA-financed electric utilities in an effort to gather signatures for a referendum on a new state regulatory commission that the co-ops felt would give private power companies preferential treatment. Abourezk traveled the state speaking against the new commission and its lead sponsor, Gov. Frank Farrar. The controversy was in part responsible for Farrar’s defeat in 1970. 

“I spent a great part of 1969 making speeches around South Dakota, trying to build support for referring the Farrar bill to a vote of the people,” he wrote in an autobiography.

The law, Abourezk said in a 2018 interview with the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader, made Farrar quite unpopular. “I went around the state making speeches against it,” Abourezk said. “God, I got the greatest welcome from everyone. The farmers were really pissed at him.” The co-ops collected 50,000 votes to force a statewide vote, but the legislature repealed the law in 1970. 

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During his congressional career, Abourezk became a champion of native Americans, persuading the Senate in 1977 to create a Select Committee on Indian Affairs, which later became permanent.

He unsuccessfully advocated for the end of the U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba, a position supported by most farm and agribusiness interests. But he also opposed President Jimmy Carter’s successful 1978 effort to ratify the Panama Canal treaty, which had agricultural support.  

During his time in office, he helped launch the careers of two younger South Dakota Democrats, Tom Daschle, who later would become Senate Majority Leader, and Tim Johnson, who also had a successful and lasting House and Senate career. Abourezk chose not to seek a second term, saying he had become disillusioned with the Senate. 

After his retirement, Abourezk co-founded and was the first chairman of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. He was the author of two books, “Advise and Dissent: A Memoir of South Dakota and the U.S. Senate,” and “Through Different Eyes,” a dialogue on the Middle East co-authored with Jewish lobbyist and writer Hyman Bookbinder.

Editor's Note: Contributor Jim Webster worked for the East River Electric Cooperative at the time that Abourezk was launching his political career and assisted in that effort.