Witnessing the turbulent waters of current politics, Kevin Hendricks voiced a common plea: Can't we do better than this? He got a resounding "yes" — 35 times. Hendricks, a West St. Paul editor and blogger, is author of the self-published "Better Politics, Please: 35 Stories of Politicians Who Value Hope Over Hate." The book, with illustrations by West St. Paul artist Carolyn Swiszcz, features people from diverse backgrounds and parties, political veterans and first-time activists, who share a desire for common ground. Hendricks grew up in Michigan and moved to St. Paul to attend Bethel University. The married father of two funded the project through a Kickstarter campaign. He shares more below.
Q: When did you know you had to compile these profiles?
A: I'd been thinking about it since the 2016 presidential election. We're so divided and so divisive. Any sense of reaching across the aisle and you get shot down for it. I was looking for stories of hope in politics, people who are doing good things. A lot of it was trying to find something to celebrate in people even if you don't agree with them.
Q: You sure found them, including three Minnesotans: Jeff Lunde, former mayor of Brooklyn Park and now a Hennepin County commissioner, former DFL state Sen. Matt Little and former U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson. But the one who stuck with me is Tulsa's Republican Mayor G.T. Bynum, who got into hot water over President Donald Trump's visit there for a rally during COVID. You share a story about the mayor out to breakfast with his family when a constituent came up to his table and laid into him in front of his kids. Instead of deflecting or asking the person to leave, he listened respectfully, then later told his kids, "Doing the right thing is not always popular." It makes me wonder why we don't hear more about people like him.
A: People in the middle get lost. Too often, it's my side is right; anything my side does is OK as long as we win.
Q: Another takeaway is that people are complex. You include Charlie Baker, the Republican governor of Massachusetts who supports transgender rights, a $15 per hour minimum wage and the Affordable Care Act, and also Democrat Regina Romero, the Latina mayor of blue Tucson who opposed a sanctuary city initiative. Yet we live in a sound bite culture. What's the cure?
A: Taking things with a grain of salt, slowing down, not jumping to be offended, giving people a little bit of slack — being fair with people.
Q: What kind of news do you cover for your West St. Paul Reader?
A: City Council meetings, restaurant reviews, a history piece on a former ski hill in a local park. The Perkins restaurant closed so we reported on what's going into that space. We get about 10,000 hits a month but when the neighborhood Granny Donuts closed, the number soared to 24,000.
Q: You also champion getting involved in local politics. Why the grassroots approach?
A: That's where you can make a real difference. We have school board and City Council races decided by tens of votes. You can have an impact, you can talk to your neighbors about that pothole in the street. That strengthens our democracy.
Q: What led you to explore local government?
A: After the 2016 election, I wanted to do something. National politics felt too poisoned so I started attending (now virtual) City Council meetings and got involved in a project to get an underpass trail project moving forward in West St. Paul. But it took nearly 10 years from start to finish. That gave me a dose of reality. Yes, we absolutely can make change but you've got to be patient.
Q: Would you ever run for office?
A: No. No way. I say that because one of the first things I did when I attended a council meeting was stand up and speak during citizen comments. I came home and my stomach hurt so bad as I was debriefing with my wife, Abby. I don't like conflict. But I often tell other people, you should run.
Q: You've added a most unusual disclaimer to the book: That some of the people you highlight as exemplars will go on to disappoint us later. Why did you do that?
A: I'm featuring flawed, imperfect people. We make mistakes and have bad days. The solution isn't to rip them out of the book. The solution is to realize they're human.
Q: You dedicate the book to your grandmother, who I have a hunch does not share your political views. Tell us about her.
A: My extended family is mostly in Kansas. My grandma is a woman of deep faith; she has pro-life and conservative leanings. She likes to ask me about politics. If 10 of us are sitting around the table at Perkins, she'll look over at me and ask, "So, who are you voting for?" She's not the kind of person to throw a bomb. She's not going to pick a fight. She cares about me and what I think.
Q: You included stories by several very young people. Does that give you hope in future leadership?
A: I included two 17-year-olds who ran for governor of Kansas in 2018, as well as the youngest and first Black mayor of Ithaca, N.Y., who turned his parking space into the city's smallest park for his constituents to talk with him. Most of these people are my age (41) or a few years younger. My 14-year-old daughter was shocked to hear that Hillary Clinton, had she won, would have been the first female president. She said, "How has that happened?" That whole generation is saying, "It's our turn." I was really encouraged.