You’ll see plenty of politicians, parties and politics at the Minnesota State Fair.
But keep walking up Cosgrove Street and you’ll find the one fairground exhibit that tries to strip the partisanship out of politics to give visitors a bipartisan glimpse of the people in the People’s House.
At side-by-side House and Senate exhibits in the fair’s Education Building, visitors can touch a crumbling chunk of the Capitol facade; pose for a picture, gavel in hand, behind a model of the speaker of the House’s podium; take a poll; and meet a lawmaker.
Dozens of state representatives and senators take shifts in the booths throughout the fair, alongside volunteers from the House Public Information Services and the Senate Information Office.
“It’s actually kind of fun, just visiting with people,” said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, who spent two hours in the House booth Friday morning, teamed with a DFL lawmaker.
Among other things, he said, he heard from a Democratic couple who thanked him for striking a civil tone during House debates and fielded a suggestion from one fairgoer who thought Minnesota drivers should be required to retake a driving test every 10 years.
“It’s kind of a neat opportunity to get them in an unsolicited situation, where we’re not asking them for anything,” Daudt said. “They just show up and talk to you about what issues they care about.”
After they meet their elected representatives, fairgoers can snag a paper hat shaped like the Capitol dome or run a finger across the eroded marble carvings that workers have begun to repair and replace.
The elaborate carvings are so scarred and pitted after more than a century of Minnesota’s freeze-and-thaw cycles that project manager Vic Thorstenson jokes with visitors that they look like they were carved from Alka-Seltzer, not marble.
The most frequent questions from visitors so far are: What’s going to happen to all those old bits of marble that will be replaced during the four-year, $272 million restoration project? Can people buy a piece of the old Capitol for their very own?
Capitol planners are still debating those questions.
The real stars of the fair are the annual polls both the House and Senate run each year.
“We try to be really engaging with fairgoers, and often [the poll] is what draws them in. Everybody’s got an opinion,” said Barry LaGrave, director of Public Information Services for the Minnesota House.
His staff will be manning their booth in six-hour shifts, from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. every day until the fair ends on Sept. 2.
This year, the House is polling fairgoers on issues that include legalizing medical marijuana, raising the gas tax, background checks at gun shows and whether or not state lawmakers deserve a raise on their current salaries of $31,140 a year. The results will be tallied at the end of the fair.
Poll results are far from scientific, but they do yield some interesting results. On Facebook, response to the House’s medical marijuana poll was running 57-4 in favor of legalization, as of Friday.
So many people participate in the poll — 9,000 last year, more than 12,000 the year before — that Ramsey County is using the event to test new voting machines. The Senate poll will be fed into one device, the House into the other and Ramsey election officials will watch to see how they hold up.