It’s worth noting (and about time!) that Republican U.S. Senate candidate Karin Housley is the first woman the Minnesota Republican Party has endorsed for that office. Likewise, that before she became a state senator in 2013, she was a real estate agent and local radio show host, although perhaps better known as the wife of NHL Hall of Famer and Buffalo Sabres head coach Phil Housley.
But the thing that caught my eye in Housley’s biography is that she grew up in South St. Paul.
So did another big name on this year’s GOP ballot, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Harold Stassen, a future Republican governor, and Elmer Ryan, a future Democratic congressman, founded a law firm in South St. Paul in 1929. They hired Harold LeVander, who went on to be Minnesota’s governor in the 1960s. LeVander in turn hired Dave Durenberger, a future U.S. senator; Paul Magnuson, a future federal district court chief judge; and Fallon Kelly and Paul Anderson, future Minnesota Supreme Court associate justices. The late Gov. Wendell Anderson worked at another South St. Paul firm early in his career, hired by its founder, Paul Thuet Jr., then a state Senate minority leader.
“It’s about time somebody noticed that South St. Paul is the center of the political universe,” DFL Rep. Rick Hansen quipped about the city, part of which is situated in the state House district he’s served for 14 years.
I won’t go that far. But South St. Paul is a place with the unusual political distinction of producing a long line of Republican leaders (all but Wendell Anderson, Ryan and Thuet on the list above) while voting mostly for Democrats through many decades. And it’s a place whose political behavior is worth watching this year. As a case study of a formerly blue-collar American community in transition to an economically uncertain and more diverse future, it’ll do.
Loyalty, Hansen told me, is a much-prized quality in South St. Paul. Maybe that’s a vestige of the solidarity that was sung and preached by union organizers to the ethnic mix that was drawn to the riverside town more than a century ago to work in the meat industry. Unions claimed as members the lion’s share of the workers at the stockyards that dominated the town for more than 100 years and the large meatpacking plants — Swift and Armour chief among them — that once operated there.
Loyalty may have been what sustained people when Swift closed in 1969 and Armour in 1979. Not everybody stayed. South St. Paul’s population in 2016 — 20,033 — is nearly 4,000 smaller than it was in 1970. State Rep. Keith Franke, R-St. Paul Park, represents a corner of the city. He spent his early years there, but his family was among many who moved after his dad lost his packing plant job.
Many who stayed struggled, even though the stockyards didn’t finally close until 2008. But devotion to the city’s strong public schools and their sports teams — especially hockey — anchored the population.
“The support for education was unbelievable. South St. Paul people knew that education was the way out of the packing plants for their kids,” said David Metzen, a South St. Paul native who became its public school superintendent and, during the Pawlenty administration, state commissioner of higher education. His late brother Jim, a DFLer, represented the city in the Legislature for 31 years.
As a teenager, Metzen recalls, he was hired to hand out DFL sample ballots in packing plant parking lots. Workers took them willingly and, by and large, voted accordingly.
Being a DFL voter in South St. Paul then was a part of one’s identity, Housley says. “We were told we were Democrats in South St. Paul,” she said. She didn’t switch parties until, as a young adult, she took an online quiz and discovered that her thinking on issues aligned more nearly with the Republican platform. She thinks many of her former neighbors (she now lives in St. Marys Point) would find a similar affinity with the Republican Party today.
“They stand for what I stand for,” she said. “They are blue-collar folks. They believe in getting up and going to work every day and working hard. They’re fiscally responsible. The pocketbook is the number-one issue they have. Religion is still very important, too. There are tons of Catholics there.”
That bent plus loyalty to the daughter of Pete Locke, South St. Paul High’s basketball coach for 10 seasons in the 1970s and 1980s, could help her claim South St. Paul in her race for the seat now occupied by Democratic U.S. Sen. Tina Smith. At least, Housley said, “I’m certainly going to try” for that outcome.
But hometown loyalty doesn’t always seal the deal with South St. Paul voters. Being a native son helped Republican Pawlenty carry South St. Paul in 2002, topping DFLer Roger Moe in the city by 261 votes. But after Pawlenty’s first term, the city’s voters weren’t as enamored of the truck driver’s son. DFLer Mike Hatch bested Pawlenty in 2006 by 577 votes.
“Education matters here. That’s what tripped up Pawlenty the second time he ran,” state Rep. Hansen said. Pawlenty’s “no new taxes” approach to balancing the state budget through recessions was hard on K-12 schools and even harder on higher education. South St. Paul values both. Its 34-year-old South St. Paul Educational Foundation this year awarded an impressive $445,000 in higher-education scholarships to more than 160 local students.
But Hansen acknowledges that South St. Paul is changing. Racial demographics tell the story: In 1970, just 1 percent of the city’s residents were nonwhite. In 2016, it’s 16 percent. Metzen estimates that 40 percent of South St. Paul public school students today are children of color, compared with 2 or 3 percent when he started his teaching career there.
Today, young couples are buying and fixing old houses. Many neighborhoods now house a mix of senior citizens and millennials. “I used to give out state highway maps” at gatherings of constituents, Hansen said. “Now I give out stickers for the kids.”
State Sen. Karla Bigham, DFL-Cottage Grove, hails from a family with deep South St. Paul roots. Her district includes two of the city’s five precincts. She netted more than 60 percent of the vote in both of them in a Feb. 12 special election. Though a low-turnout affair, it was the most recent test of whether South St. Paul is turning red. For DFLers, it was reassuring.
“Look at the proposals that have come down from the Republicans in Washington, things like block grants for Medicare and cuts in Social Security,” Bigham said. “The people in South St. Paul will feel that. They understand that when tax breaks are given to corporations and big businesses, costs get pushed onto local governments and homeowners. That’s what’s been happening.
“I think South St. Paul is staying blue this year,” Bigham said.
Hansen agrees. All the same, he’d advise Sen. Smith (provided she wins the Aug. 14 DFL U.S. Senate primary) to show up at the town’s annual booya competition the first weekend in October. Loyalty matters in South St. Paul, Hansen stressed. And this year, Democratic candidates are well-advised to demonstrate their loyalty to voters they once took for granted.
Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at firstname.lastname@example.org.