One year ago, President Donald Trump won Ely, Minn., by 44 votes.

One month ago, the Minnesota DFL set up shop in this onetime Democratic stronghold, determined to win back those votes — one conversation at a time.

Starting those conversations isn't easy. Even small talk can be hard work these days.

"I bumped into some old neighbors in the grocery store. They asked me what I'd been doing and I said, 'I've been busy setting up the Democratic office,' " said Mary Louise Icenhour, a retired professor of nursing and DFL volunteer.

Born and raised in Ely, Icenhour, 82, lived most of her adult life away from this small city on the boundary of the Boundary Waters. Five years ago, she moved back to a changed hometown.

"The Ely I remember was solid Democrat," she said, adding with a chuckle, "It is not solid Democrat anymore."

Her old neighbors, it turned out, voted for Trump.

"The long and short of it is, they walked away in a huff," Icenhour said.

The new outreach office in Ely — the first in recent memory — is one of nearly a dozen the Minnesota DFL has opened across the vast red stretches of the state political map.

The 11 offices outside the Twin Cities are places to organize volunteers, hold meetings and distribute yard signs ahead of next year's midterm elections, said state DFL Chair Ken Martin. A brick-and-mortar investment in the votes and voices outside the blue cities and suburbs.

"It's important for us to show visibility in the community; that we as the DFL care enough about that community that we're willing to hang a shingle and invest resources in those communities," Martin said.

Once upon a time in Ely, the consensus was that Democratic politics and policies helped the whole community. Now Icenhour and fellow volunteers search for the handful of topics that can start a conversation instead of an argument.

"We're trying to avoid those issues where people are just nailed to their belief," she said.

So … not masks. Not abortion. Definitely not the copper-nickel mine.

They talk about the cost of health care and college tuition. They talk about veterans benefits and Medicare.

They're bringing in a professor from the community college to talk about climate change and its effect on bird migration patterns. Last winter, there was so little insulating snow on the ground that water mains ruptured in nearby Winton and the water tower froze, leaving the town of 165 without running water for days.

The Minnesota Republican Party hasn't won a statewide election since Tim Pawlenty was on the ballot, and former GOP strongholds in the suburbs slipped away during the Trump years. No one knows this better than David Hann, the newly-elected chair of the state GOP and a former state Senate Republican leader who lost his suburban Hennepin County seat to a Democrat in 2016.

If Minnesota Republicans are planning their own outreach into the blue stretches of the political map, neither Hann nor his press office responded to questions about those plans.

Meanwhile, Martin has watched farmers and laborers in his own family walk away from the DFL. His brother, a union carpenter in Isanti, voted for Trump. So did his father-in-law, down on the family farm in Faribault County.

"When you cut to the chase of people like my father-in-law, he's 80-some-years-old and he's got a huge knot of anxiety in his stomach," Martin said. He worries that none of his children will return to work the land his family has farmed for 130 years or more. He watches local clinics and schools close and consolidate as young people move away and the population shrinks.

"He's feeling a loss of identity more than anything else," Martin said. "But when you really cut to the chase, the issues he's concerned about are the issues people in the metro are concerned about — that feeling of getting left behind."

Northwest of Ely, Leah Rogne rejects the idea that the state can be divided into blue or red, rural or urban.

"There's so much conversation that's about urban versus rural," said Rogne, a professor emeritus of sociology at Minnesota State University, Mankato and a member of the St. Louis County DFL.

"But how can you generalize about rural Minnesota? I live here, in the woods. Ninety acres of solid woods. More wolves than people in my neighborhood. My interests, and the interests of someone who lives up here, are different than someone who is a hog or corn farmer in Blue Earth County. So why do we talk about urban versus rural?"

The people she meets while canvassing are loggers, artists, descendants of Finnish subsistence farmers, back-to-the-land hippies, residents of the nearby Bois Forte reservation. She meets Trump voters when she's out canvassing. She also meets people who have given up on politics.

Why bother to vote, one neighbor told her. Just look at the roads. If they can't fix the potholes, how can they fix anything else?

"What we're looking for is people who share the values of the Democratic Party, and we're looking to have conversations with them, about what their concerns are," Rogne said. "About what keeps them up at night. What do they fear and what do they hope for."

She had a nice talk with the man who doesn't vote.

"The next time I'm out door knocking," Rogne said, "I'll go back and we'll have a conversation." • 612-673-4008

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