Before a New York billionaire rolled into a soybean farm south of my hometown this week, the last time a politician of any stature drove into Wells, Minn., came when Jesse “The Body” Ventura — then a suburban football coach and mayor of Brooklyn Park — arrived in a gas-guzzling RV outfitted with action figures and festooned green banners.
I actually think Ventura made a better show of the trip, though. Why? Because he showed up downtown.
What a politician discovers by appearing at a farm with towering grain bins rivaling the City of Oz and standing beside a six-figure Case IH tractor is something he certainly can’t get in lower Manhattan. Wells is, after all, in the heart of farm country, a place depended on by Trump for his first election and all but ground into with sharp elbows from the top rope by the professional wrestler of a president in his trade wars with China, Europe, Mexico and Canada. They deserve attention.
But Minnesota farmers also enjoyed record-breaking profits just under a decade ago, and what’s been on a steady decline ever since I can remember is our small-town downtowns.
I grew up the son of the band director and an English teacher a block from downtown. When I was home for Christmas I could tick off on two hands the institutions that have left our home since the early 1990s: the hospital, the bank, Gunther’s grocery store. The latest disappearance? The drugstore was sold to Thrifty White and has now stopped using the soda bar where concrete workers and the small-town attorney would munch on 25-cent toast and sip cheap coffee and talk about the weather and which billionaire politicians were flying to town next. What replaces it is now a Casey’s gas station, a Dollar General and a Subway — but nothing downtown. And the heart of our town — the school — has now moved south of town. Grass covers the giant crater where the school sat across from St. Casimir’s Catholic church.
And while the “2,200 [people] or so” in Wells talked about in the New York Times story that carried my hometown as a dateline may sound big by remoter standards, I winced remembering when that population barked at the heels of 3,000 people. Sure, the farm crisis threatens, but it’s just one more blow in a series of body blows that has seen my town slowly retracting since I was born in 1984.
Which all goes back to Bloomberg’s visit.
Yes, he echoed a billboard in a farmer’s field off Interstate 90 calling farming the “backbone” of America. He shook the hand of the farmer’s daughter who shared her excitement with the local television reporter. But watching the footage and swelling with pride at seeing my hometown listed — along with Chicago and Akron, Ohio — as one of Bloomberg’s “campaign stops,” I also felt cheated that he didn’t actually reach town, or stop into the school and talk about economic development, or chat with members of the Rifle & Pistol Club, or even pose for an awkward photograph with my neighbor Chuck, who works countless jobs and sells horseradish sauce out of his basement and has an opinion on robocalls and maybe even Ukraine, just ask him.
No, we don’t want to forget the farmer, who holds these towns up no doubt, but the problems that galvanized rural Americans to vote in the last election are something bigger than just crop prices.
Maybe next time Bloomberg can take some questions from the media, too? The town’s newspaper (the Wells Mirror) recently consolidated with the paper in neighboring Kiester (the Courier-Sentinel). But they might still want to hear from a future president? Or even a guy worth $60 billion?
The oddest feeling was that watching the thing felt like time travel. That a man worth $58 billion and my hometown even exist in the same country in the same decade feels mind-boggling. And that’s sad. It shouldn’t feel estranged when a man seeking the vote of the common man and woman shows up to our town, seeking their votes. It certainly shouldn’t feel like a different planet, let alone a country.
Christopher Vondracek, education and religion reporter for the Washington Times in Washington D.C., is a native of Wells, Minn. He is at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @ChrisVondracek.