New Prague: A town divided - by congressional districts

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 27, 2012 - 10:23 AM

The new boundary runs down Main Street, putting districts represented by Republican Kline on one side and Democrat Walz on the other.

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Chameleon Coffee Shop owner Rhonda Doerr chatted with customer Richard Lucas. She declared it “kind of weird’’ that her business now falls in the congressional district represented by Democrat Tim Walz.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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WASHINGTON - Main Street has been the unifying social hub of New Prague since the farm town was settled in the mid-19th century by Czech and Bavarian immigrants bringing with them Old World delicacies like spaetzle and kolacky.

Now the main drag will be the dividing line between two congressional districts, one side represented by Republican John Kline, the other by Democrat Tim Walz.

In a redistricting year marked by minimal changes that respect local political boundaries and so-called communities of interest, New Prague, population 7,321, is an exception -- a quirky outlier on a map announced this week by a judicial panel in St. Paul.

"It's kind of weird," said Rhonda Doerr, owner of the Chameleon Coffee Shop in a historic building on the south side of Main Street, that now finds itself in Walz's southern Minnesota district. Across the street from Doerr is the Fishtale Grill & Bar and further down is the iconic Church of St. Wenceslaus -- both of which remain in Kline's south-suburban Second Congressional District.

Civic and business leaders in New Prague say the split adds to a sense of a city already straddling two counties and living on the boundary between the Twin Cities metropolitan area and rural Minnesota. If Main Street is not quite the Mason-Dixon Line of Minnesota politics, it still represents a town divided.

"If the north and the south of a small town aren't a community of interest, I don't know what is," said former state Rep. Laura Brod, a Republican in New Prague. "The demographics of the entire community are distinctly aligned in a way a lot of other communities are not. There's no demographic separation. It's a very close-knit town."

As best as the locals can figure, the new boundary follows Main Street, aka County Road 13, because it also serves as the boundary between rapidly growing Scott County to the north and rural Le Sueur County to the south.

City officials have grown accustomed to that over the years. But overlaying a congressional boundary on top of the county line adds an extra layer of ambivalence.

A plus or a minus?

"I look at it as an advantage," said New Prague Mayor Chuck Nickolay. "Now I have two representatives I can contact if I have issues." Chuckling, he added: "They won't know which county I'm calling from."

But the city workers who operate the daily machinery of government don't necessarily see that as a plus.

"It also works against you," said city administrator Michael Johnson. "You don't just have one point of contact. You now have multiple points of contact to try to get stuff done for your community."

Kline's Burnsville office is a 40-minute drive in one direction. Walz's offices in Mankato and Rochester are at least an hour's drive the other way. "It doubles the time and effort to do something," Johnson said.

Then, he says, there's the danger of falling between cracks. "Does that mean they take an interest in half the community, not the whole community?"

New Prague is not the first Minnesota community to be split by congressional lines. There are a few large counties and perhaps some close-in suburban townships that have been divided before. But political observers say it rarely happens to incorporated cities with distinct histories like New Prague.

One such place was Lake City, which until now also was divided between Kline's and Walz's districts. Lake City didn't like it, and successfully pressed to be reunited, which it was under the new congressional boundaries announced Tuesday.

"We prefer to be in one district rather than two," said Lake City administrator Ron Johnson. "Not from a city administrative perspective, but for residents, so they have one person to contact."

The potential for confusion extends to the business community, as well. Doerr said Main Street businesses already have learned to appreciate the differences between Scott County regulators, who have a reputation for strictness, and Le Sueur County government, which is considered a little more "laid back."

Walz, who will be the new congressman on the block, has extended the hand of friendship. "I am very excited to get to meet new neighbors in New Prague and hear about the issues that matter most to them," he said.

Meanwhile, the New Prague Chamber of Commerce already sees a new business opportunity. "We'll have a few more politicians for our Dozinky Days parade," said Kristy Mach, the chamber's executive director, referring to the annual harvest festival celebrating Czech culture. "Let's raise the rates on the politician fee for the parade!"

Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.

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  • When Richard Lucas crossed Main Street in New Prague after having lunch Friday at the Chameleon Coffee Shop, as he’s done since 1974, he walked from Democrat Tim Walz’s district into Republican John Kline’s.

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