Dillan Stewart may not be a household name around Mobile, but the 16-year-old has made quite a splash in the Dakotas — or the Dakota, as he’d probably prefer.
The McGill-Toolen sophomore could someday go down in history as “The Father of MegaKota” if his change.org petition gains enough votes. More than likely, though, he’ll just go down as the guy whose joke went viral and convinced at least 16,000 people and more than a few media outlets that an effort to unite the Dakotas was underway.
Hopefully along the way young Dillan has learned a very valuable lesson — that the world is full of idiots who take things way too seriously. But a recap is probably in order for those who aren’t up to speed on the MegaKota saga.
The way Dillan explains it, the concept of uniting North and South Dakota as one state came out of a more serious conversation about Puerto Rico one day becoming the 51st state. The problem, Dillan thought, was having an odd number of states would “mess up the flag” when that extra star was added. He decided the easiest way to prevent a massive flag overhaul would be to combine the relatively unpopulated Dakotas into one huge state.
So earlier this month Dillan took the bold step of putting this idea out there in the ether and started a petition on change.org, a site best known as a viral hotbed for young people to get fired up about politics for a week or two at a time. He thought asking President Trump to name the new state MegaKota would be just goofy enough to tip people off this was a tongue-in-cheek suggestion. And while there were certainly plenty of folks who got the joke, it went over more than a few heads.
“I thought it would be funny. But last Monday is when people started taking it seriously,” he explained.
Suddenly thousands of people were signing the petition and others were raging against it. And it wasn’t long before some folks in the media were treating MegaKota like a true movement. TV stations were doing man-in-the-street interviews, getting feedback from Dakotans of either polarity, with most of that feedback displaying the kind of go-it-alone attitude that’s kept these two states from uniting since they entered the Union together on Nov. 2, 1889, and made the “Dakota Marker” the 61st most recognized college football rivalry game.
Reporter Makenzie Huber of the Sioux Falls Argus Leader may have gotten one of the thrills of her journalistic career when USA Today picked up her story about the MegaKota movement and ran it nationwide last weekend. Unfortunately either Makenzie or an undercaffeinated editor at USA Today declared Dillan “a change.org user from Fargo, North Dakota,” assigning him unearned status as a resident of the “Flickertail State.” Dillan says this was entirely fabricated by the media.
“They totally guessed where I live,” he said.
Dillan soon got a firsthand lesson in lazy journalism, as he says almost all of the other outlets running the story simply repeated the line that he was a change.org user from Fargo. “Lots of news sites just copied it,” he said.
Looking at Dillan’s petition, there’s nothing to indicate he’s from North Dakota, but also nothing saying he’s from Alabama. Maybe it just made for a better story if a resident was pushing for MegaKota. The world may never know.
Dillan also had to suffer through more than a few insults, intentional or otherwise. He said one angry poster declared MegaKota to sound like something a SIXTH GRADER would make up!
Unfortunately, the professional media hasn’t done much better.
KOTA-TV, the pride of Rapid City, South Dakota, devoted close to three minutes of its award-winning Sunday night broadcast to the matter, declaring Dillan an 8th grader and running old photos pulled from the web of him with a mustache drawn on his face in grease pencil. Brutal.
KOTA’s ace reporter Brooklyn DeGumbia conducted several interviews for the story. They included the general thoughts of two unnamed 20-somethings on Skype from New York and Arizona (Brooklyn college friends?), as well as those of Rapid City, South Dakota, Communications Coordinator Darrell Shoemaker, who lauded North Dakota for its efforts in keeping “wayward moose” from crossing the border, but pushed back against crazy unification talk.
“They have their identity and we in South Dakota have our own unique identity. I think generally speaking we’d like to keep it that way,” Shoemaker offered, drawing a line in the sand, or whatever they have up there.
DeGumbia’s report did drop the bombshell that Dillan “doesn’t live anywhere close to North or South Dakota,” but failed to mention his Alabama roots. Perhaps that’s for the best given how seriously some people have taken the petition.
As with anything these days, there’s been political backlash. There are those who have accused Dillan’s petition of being nothing more than an insidious plot to rob the Republican-leaning Dakotas of two U.S. Senate seats, transferring them to what would almost certainly be two new Democratic senators from Puerto Rico. No matter how mega MegaKota might be, it would still only have two senators, these critics have explained in outing the perceived liberal plot.
Should MegaKota actually ever become a real thing, Dillan believes he should definitely be invited to cut the ribbon or at least be present at unification. You know, since it was his idea and all. But he’s not holding out much hope, as the petition has lost steam in the past few days.
“It got about 4,000 signers in five hours at the beginning, but now that’s slowed down to a couple hundred a day,” he said.
But even if MegaKota remains nothing more than a dream, Dillan says he’s had a lot of fun with it. A friend even made 25 MegaKota T-shirts that were a big hit at a basketball rally last week, and Dillan says everyone at McGill-Toolen has gotten a laugh out of the petition.
The 10th grader says engineering — not comedy or politics — is his most likely future path. Hopefully, whatever path he takes will at least lead him to visit the Dakotas, since he’s never been to any of them — North, South or Mega. But he’d love to see MegaKota with his own eyes, he says.
And who knows? Maybe this bold initiative to unify the polar-opposite states will regain its head of steam, President Trump will see how it could immediately stop the wayward moose issue his administration has almost completely ignored and MegaKota will become a thing. If so, it’ll be pretty convenient that there’s just enough room on the new state’s Mt. Rushmore to memorialize Dillan right next to Teddy Roosevelt.
But if that happens, somebody please send MegaKota a current photo of Dillan before the carving begins.