With the election for governor coming fast, the economy is heavy on Minnesotans' minds.
Across the frozen, monotone landscape that is Minnesota in the grip of a hard winter, the talk is of dreams downsized and even small luxuries put on hold.
From the Mississippi River bluffs in the southeast to the Iron Range in the north and across dormant sugar beet fields to the west, Minnesotans say the long recession has been painful, but they're finding ingenious ways to hang on. Many worry more about neighbors who've had it worse.
This is the pulse of Minnesota at the start of a year that will end with election of a new governor.
In one breath voters say they don't want politicians in St. Paul to cut any more state aid to schools and communities; in the next, they say they don't want their taxes raised. Many seem in no mood to trust government to dig them out of this fiscal mess -- even as some point to Medicare as proof government can be part of the solution on health care. As the Star Tribune's political team criss-crossed the state on icy highways in January, Minnesotans eagerly shared their deepest concerns. Disgust with bank bailouts was intense.
What their communities desperately need, they said again and again, are jobs that can support a family.
"People have a hard time hoping," said the Rev. Lisa Buchanan, associate pastor at Gethsemane Evangelical Lutheran Church in Virginia up on the Iron Range. "The congregation doesn't feel allowed to dream because they don't know when the next ball is going to drop again."
But like a midwinter thaw, there were also wary glimmers of optimism emerging across the state.
'Waiting for the big boom'
HOYT LAKES -- After the mine shut down, the town boarded up its only elementary school and put it up for sale. At Virginia Regional Medical Center, the New Year's baby was born Jan. 4.
A grueling decade of mine closures, business failures and layoffs has left an indelible mark on northeastern Minnesota. Empty Iron Range storefronts and defunct restaurants stand as weather-beaten grave markers to promises of industrial resurgence and tourism that never took root.
Staunchly Democratic, the Range puts the 'L' in DFL. Grizzled miners embraced the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, a fiery, wild-haired professor from Carleton College, as their adopted son. In the last election, 65 percent of the voters in geographically gargantuan St. Louis County went for President Obama -- a proportion second only to Ramsey County.
When talk turns to what's needed from the next governor, it's a simple plea: jobs.
For many, hope is a local fragrance. They see salvation deep in the mines and uncut forests, loaded in rail cars and shipped across Lake Superior.
Jobs, they say, will solve a growing catalog of woes: families leaving, low wages and lack of specialized medical care.
They want the state's next leader to clear the way for companies to restart the mines or for entrepreneurs to make money from minerals left behind in the process. They want Twin Citians to visit, understand their issues, spend money, but not stay too long. They are suspicious of politicians, especially Republicans.
At Megan's Family Restaurant in Aurora, a customer can get a burger for $4.50 and a bottomless cup of coffee for $1. These days, customers linger over a single cup for hours.
"We're all waiting for the big boom," said Gwen (Megan) Keskitalo, an owner.
In their politicians, many prefer those who protect their rights to have guns, to run their ATVs deep into the forests, and, when they can, slip a few dollars in their pockets at the Capitol for the folks back home. The Twin Cities, they say, already get more than their fair share.
When talk turns to why the area hasn't flourished, increasingly these mostly proud DFLers draw a bead on an unlikely villain: environmentalists. They say the same folks who want to restrict their ATVs and motorboats are the very people who fought for crippling restrictions on mining.
"We'll be fine if we can get around the green people," said Ryan Salo, 31, who lost his job when LTV Steel Mining Co. closed in 2001. He went back to school, drove a truck for three years and finally got a job back in the mines as a mechanic. "All our money goes to the Twin Cities," he said. "All they care about is their economy. The only thing they want to do up here is build trails and parks."
Some longtime residents are frustrated at those they say over-hyped the promise of tourism. Golf courses, nature trails and ATV parks have brought a smattering of new jobs, but low wages.
"They pushed tourism down everybody's throats," said Darryl Rice, 60, who has worked as a bartender for 40 years. "They got rid of industry and replaced it with restaurants. Now what have we got to show for it?"
A few communities are trying to move away from the sometimes soul-crushing cycle of industrial Renaissance and decline. The population in St. Louis County is 196,864 -- down nearly 2 percent from 2000, according to U.S. Census data. Unemployment stood at 8.1 percent in December.
Duluth Mayor Don Ness is seeking to thwart decline with an eclectic city emitting an artistic vibe. In St. Louis County, nearly as many people now work in the arts, entertainment and recreation as in the mines. But wages are far less in those jobs. Ness wants his city to beckon young homeowners and entrepreneurs.
First, he must convince people like Emilie Marshall, 18.
Raised in Duluth and attending the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, she was back in town in early January visiting high school friends.
"Duluth feels kind of used up," she observed. "It's the kind of place you come back to when you are done living."
-- BAIRD HELGESON
'It could be a ... lot worse'
DETROIT LAKES -- On frozen Detroit Lake, the solid middle is not a bad place to weather an economic storm.
"We don't have the big highs and the big lows. We kind of float in the middle," Archie Wiedewitsch said, taking a break from dropping lines through the floor of his snug ice house to the water below.
Fuels costs took a ding out of the trucking company he co-owns with his brother, so he can't retire quite yet. But as straining ice strummed a deep, cello tone below, he said he can't complain.
"It could be a whole lot worse. We could live in the Twin Cities," the white-haired 69-year-old said. Like many in the plaid-clad populous of northwest Minnesota, he likes the solitude of the woods and prairies, where Polaris and Arctic Cat are among the biggest employers.
There is a price for that distance from neighbors: Bemidji High School, in a district the size of Rhode Island, struggles to pay high busing costs. Mary Ann Prudhomme, 68, retired from a state job in St. Paul in 2001 and loves that "it's extremely quiet" in little Backus. Yet she worries that the nearest hospital is 47 miles away.
But most wouldn't have it any other way. That independent streak colors the politics. Although Backus rests in the staunchly Democratic Eighth Congressional District where Rep. Jim Oberstar wins easy reelection, most of northwestern Minnesota is in the Seventh District that leans Republican -- even though they've reelected party-bucking Democratic U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson every two years since 1990.
When it comes to what they want from Washington or St. Paul, people say a bit more funding for schools, cities and health care. But largely they want politicians off their backs so they can succeed on their own. Without prompting, many say they wouldn't mind a new Vikings stadium if the team pays its share.
"They've got to let the noose loose," said Detroit Lakes school superintendent Doug Froke, who chaffs under too many unfunded mandates.
Doug Howe, owner of Sparkling Waters restaurant in Bemidji, said his fine dining spot has done well, thanks to creative discounts and a private project that attracted workers to the area. It's a crude oil pipeline, loathed by some environmentalists, being built from Western Canada's oil sands to Superior, Wis., with a work hub in Bemidji.
Thousands of workers on the line enrich the local economy buying goods. A room 6 miles out of town was renting for a Twin Cities-like price of $600 a month. Pipeliners have snatched up nearly every stick of new or used furniture, said Lori Paris, the city's Chamber of Commerce president.
They help keep the Final Touch Salon busy, said Jennifer Devlin, 39, as she highlighted the hair of a pipeline welder's wife.
But some younger residdents have aspirations beyond the area's small cities and wide open expanses. They are plotting exit routes. The population is aging more quickly than it is being replaced -- a reflection of the state overall. By 2035, the Minnesota Demographic Center projects, the majority of counties will see a more than 30 percent increase in the number of people over 85.
So far, this area has held on to its overall population numbers. Downtowns are surviving, and grade schools are still filled with kids.
But Anjali Phkan, 18, a Bemidji High School student, has applied to about 15 colleges, from Macalester to Harvard -- although she's unsure how she'll pay for it. She hopes to live elsewhere as an adult.
Fellow Bemidji student Eva Gould, 17, has found inspiration in the hard times she's observed around her. "I want to do something big and make some kind of difference. ... There are just too many people without."
Delores Rousu knows all about that. "There are a lot of hurting people and there is nothing to help them because of money," she said, her voice choking with emotion. She lives 80 miles away on the White Earth Indian Reservation, where chronic unemployment is has been a long-term plague.
"I am so proud of my grandson," Rousu said. "He actually moved away."
-- RACHEL E. STASSEN-BERGER
'I thought, what the heck?'
ROCHESTER -- Quiet optimism pervades Greg House's Stewartville dealership as he proudly shows off a new Chevy Camaro, confident that someone with $37,265 will soon walk through the door and buy it.
The same feeling hangs in Mustang Sally's cafe in Caledonia. Sally Slavicek, a wisp of a woman, opened it last year at age 51, in the teeth of the worst recession since World War II. "I thought, what the heck?" she said.
Simply moving forward despite economic forces to the contrary seems to be the ethos in the southeastern corner of Minnesota that starts at the Mississippi River bluffs, descends westward through picturesque hills around Rushford and flattens into sprawling farms near Dexter.
Local businesses signal hope and despair, from the landmark Anderson House that sits closed in Wabasha to the sprawling Mayo Clinic in Rochester that many credit with sheltering the region from the worst of the recession. Work has been steady in Austin, home of Hormel, where unemployment has been at 5.9 percent. But not so dependable in nearby Albert Lea, where 8.9 percent are jobless.
Pam Ridgeway limps along with six kids enrolled in her Wabasha day care center set up for 12. Her husband, Dan, a trucker, can be "stuck for days" in a strange town waiting for a load to haul home. For now "doing big, fancy things" is on hold, she said, smiling even as she describes a life that has been squeezed. Her last vacation? "Does going to the liquor store in Nelson count?" she joked, nodding to the Wisconsin town across the river.
Politically, the region defies neat definitions. It is newly shaded blue in the south, where the First Congressional District sweeps along the Iowa border and U.S. Rep. Tim Walz is just the second Democrat since the 1800s to hold the seat. It turns red nearer the Twin Cities, where Republican Second District U.S. Rep. John Kline has served four terms. Republican State Senate Minority Leader David Senjem comes from a Rochester district that narrowly voted for Obama.
There is a sense here that --like the Amish man in a wooden wagon rolling through the fog near Lewiston -- keeping things simple in these hard times has its blessings.
Hairdresser Brooke Laske outwitted the recession by holding down prices to keep business steady. "Hair is one thing, especially in a girl, that makes you feel better [about] yourself."
Jim Kitchens rebuilt his Rushford bowling alley after the 2007 flood. He talks of friends you can count on and politicians you cannot.
Jim Judd, whose great-grandfather was the first employee ever at Hormel's massive plant in Austin, heads to work there before 5 a.m. He made $8.75 an hour when he started in 1982. Three decades and a brutal strike later, he makes just under $16 an hour. At 55, there are few ambitions -- and no illusions. "It's just a pig factory," said Judd, who moved back in with his mother. "We're not astronauts."
Dreams belong to the young. Aly Meyer, co-captain of Caledonia's defending state champion basketball team, has plans -- vague, for now -- about college. More imminent was the upcoming game against Kingsland and the fun of sliding toward graduation.
The girls seemed oblivious to teachers walking by with anguished looks, worried whether their union would settle its contract. "I don't think they see how rough things can be," said Coach Scott Sorenson of the giggling team that includes his daughter. Dave Meyer, the school's athletic director, spoke haltingly in his office of whether he would have a job.
Emerging from a $3 tanning session at a salon in Wabasha, 17-year-old Amanda Kruger verbally unfolded her own road map. The future? Simple -- summer at the farm milking cows and college in the fall, studying mortuary science. "My family digs graves," she explained, "and I think I'm able to handle death very good."
-- MIKE KASZUBA
'We'd say fire them'
WORTHINGTON -- In tiny Westbrook, high school classes for Future Farmers of America are filled with Hmong immigrants who grow crops foreign to longtime residents.
A couple of miles from the South Dakota border, fifth-generation farmers eye new technology to plow fields, and fear future environmental regulations will hurt their operation.
But along the endless horizon, two-lane blacktops vanish under wisps of blowing snow and the spinning blades of wind turbines can be seen for miles, giant sentinels of environmental concerns fueling new revenue sources.
Southwestern Minnesota often finds itself depending heavily on forces beyond its control.
Agriculture policies set in Washington and overseas affect commodity prices in a region home to some of the state's biggest grain farms. Local officials and business owners are anxious about how government policies will affect them. There seems to be consensus that the legislature and governor have failed to come to grips with problems that bedevil average people.
African, Asian and Latino families attracted to jobs at JBS meat-packing plant in Worthington are part of the reason Nobles County's population was 26 percent minorities in a recent census count. (JBS was Swift until a Brazilian firm bought it two years ago.) Across the region, immigrant families are credited with keeping populations up and schools open.
Sitting in his auto body repair shop, Mayor Alan Oberloh recalls writing letters to immigration officials pleading leniency for respected but illegal residents before they were deported. "We have to find a way they can become citizens," he said.
While much of Minnesota struggles with high unemployment, many southwestern counties have low jobless rates -- 6.5 percent in December, compared to 7.3 percent statewide. High grain prices have boosted farm income and spending. So many people arrived looking for work in Worthington that Burmese immigrants had to find housing 20 miles north in Fulda.
Even as the newcomers require more education and social services, local governments face reduced state aid. Worthington sold its public hospital and increased its sales tax to raise cash to balance the city budget and upgrade an auditorium. "If things continue on this trend, our golf course could probably become a nature park," Oberloh said.
Twenty-nine miles north on Hwy. 59 in Slayton, schools superintendent Summer Pankonen figures a prolonged delay in $1.3 million in state aid could force reduced staff and larger classes. She worries that the state's projected budget deficit is so large that the aid won't merely be delayed. "We're not sure we're ever going to see it," she said.
Gene and Mike Sandager cultivate 2,500 acres of corn, soybeans and alfalfa, and worry farmers will shoulder an unfair burden of future restrictions on fossil fuels.
"Right now the corn industry is viewed as bad for the environment because we use fertilizers," said Gene, who fears growers won't prevail against other powerful interests.
Politicians from either end of the political spectrum have a shot here. It's socially conservative -- folks in Rock County are less likely to buy a lottery ticket than anyone else in the state. But it's also fertile terrain for prairie populism. Even Democratic-Farmer-Laborers sometimes win elections here.
Frustration with bailouts of failed banks percolates easily to the surface. "We're upset about the huge bonuses," Gene said. "We can't understand someone getting a half million bonus. We'd say fire them."
They are banking on technology, pondering getting a new GPS-guided tractor to improve productivity.
Farmer David Willers is turning to a different technology: wind turbines. He makes $7,000 a year renting land to a wind energy firm. "We're making our own juice from the wind," he said.
-- PAT DOYLE
'Better than 15 years ago'
TWIN CITIES -- At the Creekside Community Center in Bloomington, Dick Friebe and Dick Pieper are two guys in their 80s divided over the politics of health care.
"The government never runs anything correctly," said Pieper, who opposes the proposals pending in Congress. "They're putting in a bill what they haven't even funded."
Friebe is more optimistic: "There is talk about how there will be a lot of bureaucracy. But Medicare, it works. These old folks sure use it."
While they may disagree about the cure, Twin Citians still raise the health care system as a persisting problem, along with the $1.2 billion state budget deficit and crime.
Every political party lays claim to some turf in the Twin Cities metro area. Minneapolis and St. Paul are the financial engines of DFL politics. The unemployment rate is lower in Minneapolis than in the rest of the state and it boasts five Fortune 500 firms. It also has enclaves of deep poverty.
Elections in the core cities tend to be intra-party spats. A DFLer who gets into office is nearly impossible to dislodge. But Republicans have flourished in many suburbs. The Anoka area gained political cachet as the epicenter of independent voters who elected Jesse Ventura governor in 1998.
All of the political and cultural forces swirling around the state seem to collide in the metro area, but with an urban twist. Bass boats share Lake Minnetonka in the western suburbs with wind surfers. Bike trails meander near choked highways.
Inside Los Amigos grocery in the Whittier neighborhood of south Minneapolis, Gassan Khori operates a cash register and recalls the day a fight erupted in the store. He doesn't want the budget crisis to result in less police protection because he worries about crime.
"It's better than 15 years ago, but even so, there is a new problem with gangs, problems with drugs," he said.
Across the metro area, a non-descript Roseville strip mall is an unlikely place to find optimism, but there it is. Tucked among vacant storefronts is the Ukrainian Gift Shop, nominally headed by Elko Perchyshyn. His mother, Luba, 86, is the shop's driving force, selling Ukranian Easter eggs for 63 years. An egg adorned with a horse, signifying wealth, prosperity, endurance and speed, sells for $35.
It's their busiest time and better than last year. "It was tough making the rent," Perchyshyn said of the recession.
Brigitte Cawthorne, 23, works at a St. Paul nonprofit. She cried listening to a man seeking a job describe life in a homeless shelter. "There's a lot of people in Minnesota a lot worse off than me, " she said, echoing a refrain heard across Minnesota.
Caring for the neediest citizens and preserving the parks and other urban amenities wealthier residents expect mean the cities and inner-ring suburbs will be counting on state aid to keep property taxes in check. Minneapolis in particular has an interest in DFLers capturing the governor's office and restoring aid cuts. But that's going to be hard for any governor of any party given the state's $5.4 billion budget deficit and the conundrum posed by Joe and Charney Petroske as they bowled at Tuttles in Hopkins.
"The kinds of things you'd cut, they've already cut," said Joe, who works in computer security. "Education is already on the way down," noted Charney, a molecular biologist, referring to delayed state aid to public schools. "I think they need to improve education rather than cut."
But, "it's hard to raise taxes now with so many people out of work," Joe said.
So what would they do as governor?
"That's the million dollar question, isn't it," said Charney. "The billion dollar question."