The Reluctant Politician

In Alumni, Fall 2020, Issue by James Schaap

The mayor’s office, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is not at all palatial. It’s in the southwest corner of an ordinary yellow-brick building, downtown. True, you don’t just walk in; there’s an official-looking character at the door to admit you after you state your purpose; but once inside, if you were expecting “swanky” or “splurgy,” don’t.

However, the place has the makings of a tourist stop, its four walls hung with memorabilia, lots of it noteworthy—big, colorful, signed jerseys from stars on the gridiron and court. The city could charge a fee and turn a dollar or two if they’d call the TenHaken office a museum.

To be sure, a museum is not what you might expect of Mayor Paul TenHaken (’00) because he’s still, in many ways, someone who just happens to be mayor of South Dakota’s only real metropolis, Sioux Falls, a 200,000 person city sprawling into the vast prairies in every direction, a city that continues 40 years of significant growth.

“If you have a passion or an issue or a cause that’s near and dear to your heart,” he says, “you’re going to find it in Sioux Falls—arts, faith, all kinds of housing options, a 30-mile bike trail, hunting options within driving distance, vibrant downtown, amazing culinary scene, and more.”

TenHaken is smart and savvy, an award-winning businessman, entrepreneur par excellence. He has been named one of Entrepreneur Magazine’s “Top Ten Emerging Entrepreneurs” as well as South Dakota’s “Young Entrepreneur of the Year” for the amazing success of Click Rain, a company he created. Thin and wiry as a triathlete, which he is, he’s easily mistaken for a kid.

The museum all around him makes clear that he hasn’t stood still for a day since he graduated from Dordt with a degree in graphic design—quite an accomplishment for a guy who’s color blind.

“I would have never guessed that I’d be here,” he says, from behind the mayor’s desk. Politics was an unlikely turn, but then little of what he’s done could have been foreseen. The Paul TenHaken story will take your breath away, so hold on.

After graduating in 2000, Paul and Jill (Driesen) TenHaken moved to Sioux Falls to hunt for whatever challenging work a color blind graphic designer could locate. He started in a “dot.com,” one of a million early-risers in the huge and complex world then being created by something people called “the Internet.” This particular dot.com created something brand new on the tech screens—technical devises called apps (you may have heard of them?) for a medieval gizmo called a Palm Pilot.

Often as not, dot.coms made money hand-over-fist, if those fledgling businesses didn’t go up in smoke from poor management, sour corporate culture, too much dreaming, and not enough elbow grease. It was a wild-and-crazy life in a wild-and-crazy time. Paul TenHaken knew inside of a year that this particular dot.com wasn’t necessarily a habitat he could learn to love.

He was only a year out of Dordt, fascinated, as he’d not been before, in the potential this whole Internet thing was going to bring to the culture. When he looked for another job, he went over to Midland National Life, an insurance business the polar opposite of where he had been. At Midland National, marketing became his thing—head of a department of four employees (all older than he was) whose job it was to create all the literature for the business.

He lasted three years. “Great people, but I wasn’t fulfilled,” he says. With what he saw happening on the Internet, he couldn’t stop thinking he had to get back there, a high energy place for a high energy guy.

But those three years in insurance taught him something he never forgot—the undeniable importance of listening. At Midland he found himself heading up an office of company veterans, and he was just 24 years old. The boss believed in him, made him the leader anyway. To get along, he says, he had to sit still. He had to learn to listen.

In 2004, he went looking for something with a little more pop and ended up at a tech firm called Electric Pulp (a cute way of saying “web pages”) and began a transition from a desk job to a marketing position, doing nothing but sales.

He can’t say enough about sales, because sales taught him a great deal. He claims he’d recommend it to everyone—even cold sales, making uncomfortable phone calls. Why? Because sales taught him how to deal with rejection. He couldn’t help but grow thick skin from sales, and everyone, the mayor says, needs thick skin to get along.

He lasted two years at Electric Pulp, while the business itself became the best web developer in the region, creating websites and content for all kinds of customers, even professional athletes like Randy Moss, Dante Culpepper, and South Dakota’s own NBA superstar, Mike Miller.
One of the biggest clients was local—Sioux Valley Hospital, where TenHaken ended up doing the hospital’s website work, plus the work of their entire fleet of regional affiliates.

He left Electric Pulp for reasons that had to do with faith. There was more to work, he told himself, than “bigger houses, nicer cars, better vacations, slicker watches, better shoes.” He left a perfectly good position with lots of pizazz because Sioux Valley Hospital, like other hospitals, was making people’s lives better. In his book, that mission counted for something.

The Sioux Valley Hospital job was a plum; he was fast-tracked as the Associate Vice President of Marketing. But more importantly, he’d been hired by a man named Mark Elliot, who, the mayor says, shaped directions when Elliot told him, openly and sincerely, that he believed life’s priorities lined up this way: “faith, family, work.”

“’I’d never had an employer who was open like that to faith,” he says.
TenHaken says Elliot allowed his team to talk about faith in the everyday hours of the job, and when Elliot did so, Paul signed on the bottom line. He wanted to work for this guy, and he did.

Three years later, he started into a brand-new venture when four people he didn’t know pulled him aside and made him an offer he refused for a year before being lured into buying in. It was a company the four of them were operating, a start-up that secured government grants to do web content that would, for instance, get kids to eat healthy foods. Suddenly, he was back in sales.

Soon enough it became clear that for what he was doing—signing up more clients on his own—he didn’t need the others. “I started hustling,” he says, “started making phone calls, beating the streets, going back to my roots at Electric Pulp, trying to make money.”

He knew the ins and outs of web construction, and he was still fascinated by the potential of the web. But he was getting his own business. Just a year later, he started a brand new company he and Jill named Click Rain, “a marketing technology firm.”

That move couldn’t have come at a better time. The political world was thunderstruck at the ascendency of a man named Barack Obama who’d won the presidency of the United States in a way no one else had ever worked—digitally. Paul didn’t need to hustle because politicians called him. “What’s Twitter?” they’d say.

Click Rain took on local politicians running for office, but the strength of their work secured contracts from near and far. What Click Rain promised was to create digital content for very specific needs, not only for politicians (“how can I get more young people to like me?”), but also businesses (“how can we sell more tomato soup in Florida?”). And it was, as you can imagine, successful.

“God calls us to go into this world and use our talents to reflect him in our work through the different mission fields in which we have been placed,” says Paul TenHaken.

It was his work with politicians that lured the color blind graphic designer, who’d become a dot.com guy, a salesman, a digital marketer, and then a CEO, along with wooing from others and his own fascination, that nudged him down a road he eventually couldn’t help but feel called to follow, politics.

“Why would anyone want to get into politics—it’s gross, it’s divisive, it’s terrible—No!” he told himself. “But God kept putting it in front of me, through conversations, through Scripture, through quiet time.” He read stories about Jonah and Moses and Gideon—none of them wanted to do what God was telling them to do. They’d all have rather not, would have turned it all down. But didn’t.

What he also knew, he says, was that God was with them—and him. What he’s come to learn, he says, is that “God’s calling is not always comfortable—it’s not always our desire.”

The mayor’s job came open. He threw his hat in the ring, prepared to lose. He’d determined that a first run would give him some name recognition should he ever want to try again. “Who’d vote for me, after all?” he asked Jill.

But he could not escape the sense that God was calling him to run. Period. End of sentence. No, the beginning of sentence.

Eight people were in the race. To win required fifty percent of the vote, plus one. When votes were tabulated, no candidate got there. At 30 percent, he was at the top of the list. There’d be a runoff, and he’d be in it.

Then came the horror. Rumors morphed into accusations that looked all too plausible to those who didn’t know him or didn’t want to believe him. Someone had hacked into his competitor’s bank account, and TenHaken, as everyone understood, was a tech guru. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Young techie like him?

It was the darkest time of his life, he’ll tell you. “I got into the politics of politics, you know: ‘sweet Christian guy’—sure. But look what he’s doing.” In a way, guilt by association was a given, and today, as everyone knows, the accusation alone can put an end to a campaign and even a career. All of this went down ten days before the election.

He was questioned, deposed by the Department of Criminal Investigation and the Sherriff’s Office, interrogated at length, his lawyer present. He told people he was innocent—and he was. Just three days before the election, the authorities announced as much—none of the story was true. Votes were cast, and he won. Paul TenHaken would be the mayor of Sioux Falls.
It’s over now, but in some ways, he says, it isn’t gone. “There’s still some splatter on me, but at the same time the whole story thickened my armor too.”

And as anyone from Sioux Falls knows, he’s needed a wearying coat of protection because in the last two years, in his first term of office, Mayor TenHaken has had to handle a devastating tornado that hit the city’s busiest streets, immense flooding all over the town, the rampage of Covid-19 through a huge packing plant, and racial tensions that exploded after the death of George Floyd.

But then, no one ever told him the job would be a cake walk, and he knew as much. He just hadn’t expected the successive storms, totally unforeseen, that every Sioux Falls resident knows he’s had to handle. It hasn’t been easy.
Still, with two years in, he says he knows that “God wants me here. I feel reaffirmed in this calling every day. I’ve not doubted the decision to run three years ago. He’s been crystal clear.”

Paul TenHaken is still a young guy. Some of us might even call him a kid. But he’s learned some things, as we all do. Empathy, for starters. “People want to see empathy in their leaders. They don’t see it enough of it in government, but they want to feel empathy from their elected leaders.”

So how does the young, high-energy mayor of a city like Sioux Falls gain empathy? “By sticking with the values you know to be eternal and true,” he says. By holding on to clichés when they speak the truth. “As much a cliché as it is,” he says, “I ask myself daily in this office, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’”
He has to deal with what comes his way from the other side of the mayor’s desk. He has to listen—to Black Lives Matter and LGTBQ advocate groups as well as a host of others. “I’ve had to come to a moment of reckoning about the homogenous life that I’ve lived,” he says. As mayor he knows he can’t and won’t dismiss those with whom he disagrees.

Being mayor has changed him, he says. “I have had to listen to so many different people in this office, so many people from different walks of life that it’s given me an appreciation of other people’s viewpoints, sometimes begrudgingly because I’ve had to admit that maybe they’re right.”

TenHaken runs every morning, sometimes as much as six or seven miles. He does Ironman competitions, too, even Obstacle Course Racing World Championships for three separate years. If you didn’t know better, you might think the mayor could pass for 19 years old. Athletic, trim, and wiry as a bed spring, he’s been tough to beat in any kind of race.

But he’s not a kid. He’s the elected mayor of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, who listens when he hears the voice of Jesus and when he hears the voices of the people he serves. He’s an entrepreneur, an innovator, a politician who’s the captain of a team of diverse men and women, boys and girls.

He’s a husband and a father and, he’s happy to tell you, a servant of the King.