Ellis James Abdnor (February 13, 1923 – May 16, 2012) was a Republican politician from the state of South Dakota.
Abdnor was born in Kennebec, South Dakota, the son of Mary (née Wehby) and Samuel J. Abdnor. 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.He was a member of the South Dakota Senate from 1957 to 1969. A common, decent, plain spoken man,”he was affectionately known as “the people’s Senator.” He was also described as a “nice-guy public servant” with a “down-home, warm and fuzzy way. His staff considered him to be a friend as well as an honorable mentor and public servant.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.
Abdnor was chief clerk of the State Legislature in the early 1950 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. In 1972 he was elected to the House of Representatives as a Republican.
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 and unseated him by a large margin. In 1986, after winning 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. Thune had been a member of Senator Abdnor’s staff.
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); 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 Commissoner; Roland Dolly, Commissioner of Economic Development for the State Of South Dakota; and Stephen Censky, CEO of the American Soybean Association.
Abdnor’s accomplishments included authorization of the Grassropes irrigation project and the Walworth, Edmunds, Brown (WEB) rural water system, reauthorization of the Belle Fourche irrigation project, and the inclusion of oats (of which South Dakota is a major producer) in the farm program
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 project 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 damns in order to provide flood control and navigation benefits to downstream states.
Abdnor died on May 16, 2012, at the age of 89.