Anoka is as up for grabs in this year’s presidential election as any Minnesota city, and right now many who live and work there seem unhappy with a choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
“It’s not a very good selection,” said Justin Matthews, who cuts hair at Cowboy Mel’s Barber Shop, just off Main Street and a block from the Rum River. The 32-year-old expressed measured admiration for Trump’s business success, then just as quickly dismissed him as “a reality TV star.” At the same time, he deeply distrusts Clinton.
“Slim pickings,” Matthews said.
Having chased his rivals out of the race, Trump is trying to win over many Republicans and independent voters unsettled by his lack of political experience, frequently outrageous behavior and unpredictable shifts on conservative principles. Clinton, still widely seen as the probable Democratic nominee, has nonetheless failed to close off the challenge by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders or allay doubts about her honesty that recur in local and national polls and voter interviews.
“I think we could have come up with two better candidates in the whole country,” said Mark Undem, the owner of Cowboy Mel’s.
A Star Tribune Minnesota Poll taken in late April found a majority of respondents viewed both party’s front-runners as dishonest. But overall, Clinton led Trump 48 to 35 percent, with 17 percent still undecided.
Undem, whose bushy beard and gravelly voice lend him a formidable air, doesn’t like Clinton. But he gets worried when Trump “can’t keep his mouth shut and rants like a crazy man,” in his words. “I’ve been griping about career politicians for so long,” Undem said. “We finally get somebody who’s not one but I don’t want to jump on board just yet.”
Classic swing district
In that Minnesota Poll, the number of undecided voters jumped to 1 in 5 people who live in the outer ring of Twin Cities suburbs that includes Anoka County. It’s a corner of the metro area that’s become something of a home base for the state’s most independent voters.
Independent presidential candidate Ross Perot scored big numbers in Anoka County and surrounding areas two decades ago, and former Gov. Jesse Ventura won an outright majority of Anoka County votes in his 1998 independent bid. The county overall has trended Republican in more recent presidential and local elections, but in the city of Anoka in 2012, President Obama beat Republican challenger Mitt Romney by close to 500 votes out of nearly 9,000 cast.
At Sparky’s Cafe near the river, three old friends recalled Ventura’s unlikely victory as they chewed over the many oddities of this year’s presidential contest.
“I actually voted for him, because we were so fed up,” said Twyla Arndt, a 77-year-old retired teacher. “And then he pulled up to his inauguration on a motorcycle, and I thought, you’ve got to be kidding me.”
Arndt and her friends, 80-year-old Vada Carlson and 71-year-old Sue Peterson, meet for breakfast at Sparky’s most Tuesday mornings. None identify strongly with either political party. None were ready to wholeheartedly embrace Trump for president, but they were equally reluctant to get on board with Clinton.
“I keep thinking some knight in shining armor is going to ride up and say, ‘Here I am!’ ” said Carlson, also a retired teacher.
Carlson described herself as generally conservative, but quickly added that she supports abortion rights and Planned Parenthood. She had positive things to say about Clinton’s experience and capabilities before expressing a personal dislike for her.
“She’d probably do a great job,” Carlson said. “There’s just something about her I can’t warm up to. I think it’d be great to have a woman president, but by the same respect I don’t know if Hillary is the one.”
Peterson and her husband owned several businesses before they retired. She’s similarly conflicted.
“I’m waiting to see what the next few months bring. I don’t know,” Peterson said. “I can’t see myself voting for Hillary because we’re conservative. But Trump really challenges me.”
Trump could win over Arndt, she said, if he can “tamp down the rash statements.” She wants him to pick a running mate with a more traditional political background: “I’m looking for him to act more presidential.”
Worries about both
In more than a dozen interviews for this story along Main Street in Anoka, many expressed doubts about Trump’s ability to lead the country — particularly in matters of global diplomacy. It seems like that should make Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state an asset. But a number of those interviewed instead brought up controversies from that time: the attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi in 2012, and her use of personal e-mail in the course of official duties.
“Hillary is being investigated,” said Deborah Krona, owner of the White Buffalo Spiritual Healing and Gifts shop, where a pungent aroma of incense hung in the air. “It seems like she’s always getting away with something.”
Krona, 55, grew up in a Democratic family but said she’s unlikely to vote for Clinton. At the same time, Trump is unacceptable to her. She usually votes, but said she might not this year.
This was another common sentiment in Anoka. Down the street at another gift store, a woman shopping with her husband declined to give her name but related a recent post she shared on Facebook. It was a presidential ballot with an X next to “None of the Above.”
A handful of voters more comfortable in their party affiliation were a little more comfortable with their choices.
“I’ve always loved Hillary,” said Julie Mortensen, 19, an Anoka-Ramsey Community College freshman chilling with two high school friends at the Avant Garden coffeehouse. Her friend Kara Cox, also 19, caucused for Sanders in March but has since made her peace with Clinton.
“It’s definitely better than Trump,” Cox said.
Across the street at Teacher’s Pet, a school supply and toy store, owner Carol Thompson said she’s similarly come to terms with Trump even though “he wasn’t my first, second or third choice.” Describing herself as a conservative Christian, Thompson said she thinks Clinton “should be in jail” and that she gravitated toward Trump after her first choice, Dr. Ben Carson, endorsed him.
“I believe there’s always help for a person to be steered in the right direction,” Thompson, 62, said of Trump.
Separately, two people interviewed in Anoka mentioned an interest in former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, a Libertarian Party candidate for president. In 2012, Johnson finished third behind Obama and Romney, although his share of the national vote was minuscule — less than 1 percent.
“I think it’d be great if the Libertarians win,” said Matthews, the barber at Cowboy Mel’s. “What’s his name, Gary Johnson? He’s going to come out of nowhere.”
John Huberty, a trial attorney, also sees Johnson as an option in November. Huberty said he has Socialist inclinations but believes Sanders has lost his chance to win the nomination. He thinks the mainstream Democratic Party as embodied by Clinton has shifted too far to the right, and he sees Johnson as less compromised by special interests or bound to Republican dogma on social issues.
Huberty said he would vote for Clinton only if he felt Trump actually had a shot at winning Minnesota. But he thinks that highly unlikely.
“This one’s been particularly entertaining,” Huberty said of the presidential race. “There’s an almost macabre interest. It’s like seeing a wreck on the highway.”