The Republican Party of Minnesota is moving its headquarters from the shadow of the State Capitol to a DFL stronghold in south Minneapolis that is one of the city's most liberal neighborhoods.
Gone are quick walks to the Capitol and to the Kelly Inn bar to mingle with politicos. Soon, the short walks will be to the Seward Community Co-op and the Seward Cafe — a favorite among vegans and left-leaning activists.
The move will result in significant rent savings for the cash-strapped party, but leaders also say it will infuse the GOP brand squarely into the middle of what they describe as everyday Minnesotans.
"We are moving out from inside the political beltway in St. Paul to be closer to the people," Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey said Monday. "It is a visible and tangible sign that the Republican Party will be focused on regular Minnesotans and immersed in their circumstances."
The new offices are located at 2200 E. Franklin Av. in the Seward neighborhood, across the street from Tracy's Saloon and Eatery, famous for its wooden nickel happy-hour specials. The new location puts GOP leaders near the Twin Cities' burgeoning East African population and the University of Minnesota.
"This is a great move for us on many levels, including the chance to connect with our new neighbors and show that we are on their side and our ideas work for them," Downey said.
Seward skews so liberal that its most heated political battles are between DFLers and the Green Party. Rep. Karen Clark, the DFLer who represents the area in the Legislature, crushed her GOP opponent last year with nearly 90 percent of the vote. President Obama did about as well, as did Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison.
But for a party trying to rebrand itself as being among the people, the move might miss its mark a bit.
Seward is actually less racially diverse and more affluent than the neighborhood the party will leave at the end of January. The neighborhood surrounding the Capitol and GOP headquarters is one of St. Paul's most diverse, and has higher poverty rates, more rentals and fewer college graduates than the statewide average, along with a population that skews heavily Hmong and African-American.
Party leaders considered several new spaces around the Twin Cities, with a keen eye toward driving down their rent, Downey said. The GOP has been forking over $16,000 a month for its offices a block from the Capitol.
In addition, Downey said, the location works well because some of the party's call-center employees rely on public transportation to get to work.
Rocked by scandal and the abrupt departure of a free-spending former chairman, the party has been digging out from $2 million in debt over the past couple of years. At one point, the party faced eviction from its 7,340-square-foot headquarters for falling $111,000 behind in rent.
Downey said the party has caught up on its back-due balance and the new space will slash its rent by a third.
A chilly reception?
The Seward community is taking a wait-and-see attitude about their new neighbors.
"Ewww, gross. Really?" said Kimber Fiebiger, a sculptor and owner of Joan of Art Gallery on Franklin Avenue. "This is the wrong place for them. We got nonwhites, we got feminists, we got hippies. This is not their 'hood."
"It is kind of an odd choice for their location," said Karl Juhnke, owner of the Precision Grind Coffee shop, a short walk from the new GOP headquarters.
His brother is Al Juhnke, a former longtime DFL legislator who now works for U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.
"We are happy to serve coffee to everyone," said Karl Juhnke, who like his brother is a Democrat. "Other than that, we will see how it goes with the rest of the neighborhood."
Downey realizes that an office full of GOP activists might seem a bit out of place in a bastion of liberalism.
But just maybe, Downey said, some of their beliefs will appeal to the locals after a while, particularly issues of unemployment, wages and the achievement gap for minorities.
"I think we have a compelling story," Downey said. "If you want a job and you want to raise a family, then you should take a serious look at us."