Jeff Johnson is dodging strollers and slowpokes at the Minnesota State Fair, trying to get to an event.
“It’s some food thing, which should be interesting because I’m not a very adventurous eater,” says the Republican candidate for governor.
He’s a celebrity tasting judge at an event called Minnesota Cooks. He bites into a hit of this State Fair — a fancy BLT. “As a Norwegian Lutheran from northern Minnesota, there’s just the right amount of spice in there,” he says.
A few days later, Tim Walz, the DFL nominee for governor, is on a little stage near the cattle barn, among celebrity contestants in a butter-carving event. Walz’s goal is to carve an image of the state of Minnesota with the word “ONE” etched into it, a nod to his campaign slogan of “One Minnesota.” His staff is laughing nervously.
“Butter knows no partisanship,” Walz says with a laugh.
Walz attempts to explain his sculpture to the crowd: “It’s one Minnesota, and the butter symbolizes the glue that holds our hot dish, to our Sweet Martha’s, to all of our communities.”
Minnesotans expect more from a governor than just being able to talk about topics such as state employee pension liabilities, and being up for anything at the fair is pretty much job No. 1.
Both Johnson and Walz are game.
“This is my fourth day at the fair, and you’ve been here every day!” says Aleya Champlin, of Orono, to Johnson.
Johnson figures it’s a good sign that people keep giving him that look of recognition, even if they can’t quite place him. “That wasn’t happening in 2014,” he says, referring to his last run for governor, when he lost to Gov. Mark Dayton. This year’s fair has been fun, relaxing almost, he says. “It’s more fun than raising money!”
Walz is a natural extrovert who looks like a kid at the, well, at the fair.
Bodie Bice of Waseca and Valerie Sauder of Pine Island are Future Farmers of America students leading him through the CHS Miracle of Birth Center, where a cow is nearly ready to deliver.
“No promises,” says Sauder. “You can’t time a miracle.” Walz says he’s going to steal that line from her.
In a state that is increasingly politically polarized, the fair has become one of the few times and places when residents from vastly different geographies can come together to celebrate what Minnesotans have in common.
Walz makes his way to the Minnesota Farmers Union booth to get his second fancy BLT. He’s also a regular at Hamline Church Dining Hall, where he gets a calorie bomb called the “bananas Foster French toast.” (The nice folks at the dining hall knocked down one of Walz’s internet trolls the other day with a tweet saying “Jesus is love.”)
In addition to food, there’s wry humor, too. Minnesotans have that in common.
Barbara Herbert is checking out the birthing barn with a T-shirt that reads: “Nope. I’m Going Back to Bed.”
Despite the shirt, she made it: “I had some coffee and said, “OK, I’ll get goin’.” Herbert, who lives in northeast Minneapolis, said she hasn’t decided who will get her vote, and she probably won’t decide until just before Election Day.
A man approaches Johnson and says, “Hi. I’m Jeff Johnson.” Golly: Not one but two Jeff Johnsons at the Minnesota State Fair.
The Johnson who is not a candidate for governor grabs a button and wants a yard sign. He supports the candidate with whom he shares a name, even though he says Republicans like himself are few and far between in his St. Paul neighborhood. He and his wife Lucy own an independent pharmacy. Their key issues are health care — and ending the rancor between the two parties.
“It’s OK to disagree, but let’s be civil,” says Lucy Johnson.
It’s easy to be civil at the fair.