It hit me on Day One somewhere near the corner of Judson and Underwood: I should’ve have told ’em to come to the State Fair and see Minnesota values for themselves.
Permit a recap of my week: On Tuesday, it fell to me to tell about 200 lawmakers from 26 countries — attendees at the annual summit of the National Conference of State Legislatures — about “the political, social and economic aspects of Minnesota.” So read my assigned luncheon-speech topic.
I served up a Minnesota history lesson about New England boys who knew how to turn running water into money and the Scandinavians who reinforced New England ideas about citizens running their own state, without much nod to kings, bishops, fat cats or party bosses. Other folks from other places came later and are still coming, but they’ve had to adapt to the structures and habits the New England-Scandinavian nexus established.
What does that mean for modern Minnesota? Here’s what I said — and here’s how I could have cited the State Fair to make my points:
• Minnesotans are big on participatory democracy. Opportunities to sign a petition, wear a sticker, or take a selfie with a candidate are as plentiful as hot dog stands at the fair. The fair’s Merch & More Web-based vendor-finder lists only seven booths under the “political” category but a whopping 101 more in the “schools, government and public service” list, which includes the likes of the DFL Party and the Minnesota House of Representatives.
The heavy dose of politics at the fair befits a state that practically considers it a birthright to lead the nation in voter turnout in presidential elections. Democracy isn’t just a concept here. It’s everybody’s business.
• Commitment to education runs deep. When your town is governed by a town meeting or your state by a “citizen Legislature,” the educational attainment of the next guy or gal matters to you. That thinking explains why New England was the cradle of American public education, and why the 1858 Minnesota Constitution made the establishment of a “general and uniform system of public schools” a duty of the Legislature. As the Constitution says, “the stability of a republican form of government depend[s] mainly upon the intelligence of the people.”
The State Fair, birthed the year after statehood, owes its origin to the same notion. It was all about imparting useful knowledge to citizens for the betterment of the state. Today, it explains why the crowd is thick and the restroom lines long at the Education Building, and why the University of Minnesota enjoys prime real estate on Dan Patch Avenue.
• “Minnesotans don’t like to be bossed.” That’s according to a 1947 book by a 50-year veteran reporter of the Minneapolis Morning Tribune, Charles B. Cheney. Seven decades later, it’s still true. If they want long careers, this state’s politicians had better behave like public servants, not bosses.
No statewide candidate would dare skip the fair — or, having arrived, would stand aloof from the crowd. Rubbing shoulders and elbows is required. As Gov. Mark Dayton said Thursday, “you can stand in one place and the rest of the state comes passing by.” His GOP opponent, Jeff Johnson, added, “You’ll not find a broader cross-section of Minnesotans.”
Dayton is a son of one of Minnesota’s elite families. But that fact fades as he tells of attending more than 60 State Fairs during his 67 years. On the Star Tribune’s back porch Thursday, he told every-parent stories about a sister lost in the swine barn and a son talking him into a risky bungee jump. His stoic reaction on the receiving end of a bucketful of ice water to raise money for the ALS Foundation will be one of the iconic images of the 2014 fair and campaign.
• The weather makes Minnesotans hardy — and interdependent. Wide-open spaces bred rugged individualism in some states. That trait is less in evidence here, though this state’s prairies were as vast as any western butte when folks of European descent arrived. One difference: bitter-cold weather. There’s something about living through 50 days of below-zero temperatures, as Minnesotans did last winter, that reinforces a sense of shared humanity and responsibility for one another’s well-being.
Even on a 90-degree day, winter is a subtle but omnipresent theme at the State Fair. On a walk along Cosgrove Street from the Horticulture Building to the Eco Experience, a fairgoer can collect tips about winter-hardy garden plants, the latest in snowblower technology, and home energy conservation. This state’s love affair with the fair is enhanced by its timing at summer’s end. Minnesotans know what comes next.
• The twins had to learn how to share. The duality of Minnesota’s urban center also shaped this state — and shaped the State Fair. It was a genius move to claim the old Ramsey County Poor Farm as the State Fairgrounds in 1885. The site was rural then, and about as near to downtown Minneapolis as to downtown St. Paul. It was able to establish an identity apart from either place. It belonged to Minnesota.
In that sense, the State Fair became a model for other urban assets in the second half of the 20th century, when 100 years of rivalry gave way to friendship between St. Paul and Minneapolis. The big-league sports teams that arrived in 1961, the Vikings and the Twins, took Minnesota as their place name; subsequent professional teams followed suit. The Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra became the Minnesota Orchestra in 1968.
Minnesotans are still considering when and how to share. Among the notions GOP politicians have spouted this season is that state aid to Minneapolis and St. Paul is too generous and should be reduced or eliminated. A good place to ponder that idea is at a Como Avenue State Fair gate, as St. Paul police officers stand on steaming pavement amid zooming traffic to assure a safe crossing for fairgoers from all over Minnesota.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.