Minnesota State Fair politics: Pols go to prove they're just like everybody else

  • Article by: RACHEL E. STASSEN-BERGER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 23, 2013 - 9:54 PM

A trip to the State Fair, all but a requirement for anyone running for office, lends candidates a human touch, and maybe some name recognition.


Early morning on the first day of the Minnesota State Fair, Sheryl Chute and her sister slipped away from their work at the fair to join the line of Minnesotans hoping for a moment with U.S. Sen. Al Franken.

With the sound of the Democrat’s booming laugh mixing with the noise of the fair throngs, the two reflected on what they get out of meeting politicians at the state’s biggest get-together — and what politicians get out of meeting them.

“It humanizes them and you forget, sometimes, that these guys are not like the bad guys,” said Chute, 67.

“Good point, good point. It humanizes them. Yup,” said Lydia Wigren, 70. Wearing matching blue State Fair shirts, Wigren and her sister are DFLers from Minneapolis, working parking and tickets sales.

By this time next year, Minnesota’s airwaves will be polluted with dehumanizing messages, tearing down the men and women vying to be the state’s next U.S. senator and governor. But with a year to go before the flood of nastiness, politicians are at the fair in force, employing low-key meet-and-greets and maybe a touch of humor to woo the Minnesota masses.

“We haven’t gotten into that season where candidates are beating up on each other yet, so people generally don’t come to you with a preconceived notion of how evil you are,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who is running for the Republican nomination for governor. “The vast majority of people just say hello.”

At his State Fair booth — in the same spot as the booth he had when he ran for attorney general in 2006 — Johnson is asking Minnesotans their top priority if they were governor and posting the answers on his booth. He’s also offering one of the more understated political buttons at the fair: “Re-elect Dayton? Um … no.”

In this off-election year, wise politicians know to dial down the bile and keep their messages more digestible and less pointed than fried food on a stick.

At the DFL Party booth, visitors can have their pictures taken with life-size, cardboard cutouts of First Dog Bo, President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and, interestingly, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who retired from office and who is widely expected to run for president in 2016.

Not to your liking? Wander over to the Republican Party booth, where a cardboard figure of Ronald Reagan beckons, along with a luckless volunteer sweltering in an elephant costume. At the Libertarian Party booth, a flat figure of frequent presidential candidate Ron Paul carries the words, “Miss me yet?”

“There are actually alternatives to the left and right paradigm and we’re going to show that,” said Libertarian Party executive director Andy Burns, as a rock band’s warm-up blared in the background.

At the Minnesota Tea Party booth, party leaders Jack Rogers and Jake Duesenberg offer another option. “A lot of people are feeling like the Republican Party isn’t giving them the answer and the Democratic Party isn’t giving them the answer, so they’re like, ‘Hey, Tea Party,’ ” Duesenberg said.

Rogers said their booth is an attempt to put a more approachable face on the Tea Party and show Minnesotans that they are neither “monsters” nor “radicals.”

Candidates who are less than household names also get a chance to show voters that they exist.

GOP gubernatorial candidate Rob Farnsworth, a special-education teacher from Hibbing, was at the fair the moment it opened. He’s hoping the crowds who pass by his booth will, later in the season, at least see his political signs and say, “I remember that name.”

For Minnesota fairgoers, there will be lots of political names to remember. Along with Johnson and Farnsworth, GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott Honour has a stand at the State Fair, as do House Reps. Kurt Zellers of Maple Grove and Dave Thompson of Lakeville and other U.S. Senate candidates.

More established pols like DFL Gov. Mark Dayton can afford to keep their appearances very low-key.

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  • Kurt Zellers greeted supporter Luke Hellier of Edina and his daughter Betty at the Republican Party booth at the Minnesota State Fair on Friday.

  • Sisters Arielle Mathre, left, and Grace Mathre, of Maple Grove, posed with cutouts of Hillary Clinton and President Obama at the DFL Party booth. Candidates of both parties agreed that the tone at the fair is best kept upbeat.

  • State Auditor Rebecca Otto, center, led a discussion about education with Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, and Sen. Alice Johnson, DFL-Spring Lake Park, at the DFL booth on Friday. Said Gov. Mark Dayton of his fair visit, “I’m not in campaign mode.”

  • Where to find political booths at the 2013 fair

    Cam Winton for Mayor of Minneapolis, west side of Cooper between Wright and Dan Patch

    Constitution Party, west side of Underwood between Carnes and Judson

    Green Party of Minnesota, upper Grandstand, southeast wall

    Honour for Governor, east side of Cooper near Wright Avenue

    Independence Party of Minnesota, south side of Dan Patch between Nelson and Underwood

    Jeff Johnson for Governor, west side of Underwood between Wright and Dan Patch

    Libertarian Party of Minnesota, west side of Nelson near Judson

    Minnesota Majority, west side of Underwood near Wright

    Minnesota DFL Party, north side of Dan Patch between Cosgrove and Cooper

    Minnesota House of Representatives, Education Building

    Minnesota State Senate, Education Building

    Minnesota Tea Party Alliance, west side of Underwood near Dan Patch

    Republican Party of Minnesota, south side of Carnes between Nelson and Underwood

    Rob Farnsworth for Governor, west side of Cosgrove near Wright

    U.S. Sen. Al Franken, northwest corner of Judson and Underwood

    U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, north side of Judson between Underwood and Nelson

    Taxpayers League of Minnesota, in the Grandstand, lower level northwest quadrant

    Tim Holden for Mayor of St. Paul, west side of Cosgrove between Wright and Dan Patch

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