ABERDEEN, S.D. – It’s been 10 years, but Northern State University political scientist Jon Schaff clearly remembers the time his name was mentioned on national television.
It was 2004, and the TV program was “Meet the Press.” The show’s longtime host, the late Tim Russert, read aloud from a South Dakota news story regarding the U.S. Senate race between Democratic incumbent Tom Daschle and Republican challenger John Thune. The article quoted Schaff.
“That’s a good memory,” he said with a smile. “I was watching it, and next thing I know, everybody’s calling me.”
A decade later on a sunny summer day in his office in NSU’s Technology Center, Schaff is tracking the status of another potential national news story in which he’s been quoted. The U.S. News article reports on a political race in Mississippi between two Republican candidates. Mississippi, Schaff explains, is similar politically to South Dakota, which is why he received the reporter’s call.
Schaff, professor of political science at NSU, has been fielding calls from local, state and national media outlets for years. Besides U.S. News, he’s also been quoted in national media outlets such as ABC; Roll Call, a Washington, D.C.-based publication; Financial Times; and USA Today.
Calls increase during an election year – his opinions have already been sought regarding South Dakota’s political races this fall. Schaff said his areas of expertise include the presidency, Congress, American political institutions and American political thought.
But, he said, “They call me on everything.”
Being knowledgeable, talkative, quotable and available are likely what have made him a frequent source for various reporters, he said.
Schaff has been teaching at NSU since fall 2001, and the elections he comments on make their way into the classroom. This fall for his American government class, he and students will go over news stories, discuss political polls and watch political ads on YouTube. He plans to visit every candidate’s booth at the Brown County Fair to pick up materials to share in class. He will also bring in a sample ballot and encourage out-of-state students to bring in absentee ballots for comparison. This fall, he is also teaching an upper-level Congress class, which he alternates every two years with a presidency course.
A native of Rochester, Minn., Schaff has a bachelor’s degree from Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minn.; a master’s from the University of Wyoming; and a Ph.D. from Loyola University in Chicago. He and his wife, Katy, have two children: Frederick, 5; and Bridget, 2. Off campus, he’s involved in Aberdeen’s Shakespeare Club. He also enjoys reading and bicycling and describes himself as a long-suffering Vikings fan. On campus, he is faculty adviser to the College Republicans and the Newman Club.
He can’t say where exactly his “preternatural” preference for politics comes from. Growing up, his family wasn’t especially political, and yet some of his earliest memories are of his own interest in politics. This affinity went hand in hand with an interest in history.
His favorite elections have been those that have garnered national attention for South Dakota. Along with the 2004 Daschle-Thune race, that also includes the 2008 presidential primary, when Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama visited Aberdeen within a span of several days.
Schaff’s political aspirations do not, however, include seeking an elected position. While holding office interests him, he said, campaigning and raising money do not.
He does, though, have a compelling campaign to get students interested in their government. It involves an explanation that the word “citizen” means someone who governs and is governed in return.
“You’re a citizen, not a subject,” he said.
Being a citizen means being involved – if you are passive, you are no longer a free person.
“You have a duty to be active in your own self-government.”