What is that crass billboard about Gov. Tim Walz? And what does “rocks and cows” mean?

By: - October 12, 2020 6:00 am

Minnesotans have been seeing a crass billboard directed at Gov. Tim Walz. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.

Twin Cities residents are going north in droves since the pandemic hit, with the latest wave traveling on I-35 to see the foliage. 

Amid the brilliant oranges and reds of the region’s deciduous trees, however, a billboard provides an unpleasant shock. 

The image: A man in an anatomically impossible position such that his head is up his kiester. 

The caption reads, “Governor Walz — Northern MN is trying to see things from your point of view.” 

This is the “Rocks and Cows of the North” campaign, the work of a small but passionate group of Minnesota Republicans whose loathing for Walz is unmatched. 

The campaign has all the markings of a grassroots campaign: In addition to the hokey billboard poking fun at the governor, there’s a Twitter hashtag where Republicans question his rural cred and perceived bias against rural Minnesotans, even though Walz hails from Mankato, not exactly a metropolis.

The “rocks and cows” reference stems from comments Walz made in 2017.

“You see those maps,” Walz said at a candidate roundtable on comedy show T2P2 early in his campaign for governor. “Red and blue and there’s all that red across there. And Democrats go into a depression over it. It’s mostly rocks and cows that are in that red area.” 

The fuller context was that he was trying to say rural Minnesotans feel unheard: “It doesn’t change the fact that moving toward an urban population left a lot of areas where they were wondering, ‘Where was the person speaking for them?'”

At the time, Walz represented the ruby red 1st Congressional District, which has a lot of aforementioned rocks and cows.

Still, rural Republicans seized on the comment as evidence of Walz’s disregard for the hinterlands, and have used it to mock him ever since.

One of the billboards near Fosston is locally famous and has attracted so much attention — and consternation — that Fosston Mayor James Offerdahl felt obliged to release a statement distancing the city from it, while adding he was equally frustrated by the governor’s handling of the pandemic.

As it turns out, however, this campaign against Walz did not spring from the grassroots, nor the rocks. It sprang from a billboard company. Specifically, Dan Franklin, director of operations of Franklin Outdoors in Clearwater. Franklin set up a gofundme.com campaign on July 27 to pay his own company for the billboards and yard signs. Dan Franklin did not return a phone call and message seeking comment.

According to the gofundme.com solicitation, the signs are a peaceful protest against Walz’s “disrespect of the Greater Minnesota population, which he called mostly rocks and cows,” his “poor handling of the riots,” and “the unnecessary lockdown” of businesses and the state.

The signs say they’re sponsored by Rocks & Cows of the North, but essentially, Franklin is raising money to pay himself and his company to put up the signs. As of Monday, he had raised more than $20,000 of his $100,000 goal.

Some of the donations are anonymous, which prompted some to question whether the signs are legal because political campaign donations have to be disclosed. Megan Engelhardt, assistant executive director of the Minnesota State Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, said the signs are legal since they don’t clearly oppose or support a candidate. (Which must seem like a curious claim of neutrality to anyone who has seen the signs.) In any case, Walz isn’t a candidate right now. And, she said it also wouldn’t qualify as lobbying since the viewers aren’t asked to do anything in support or opposition to Walz.

“If it said to call Gov. Walz at the bottom, that would be lobbying,” she said. “I would say it’s like writing a letter to the editor at a very expensive level.” 

The campaign board got a similar complaint in March 2009 about Franklin Outdoor Advertising billboards supporting then-Rep. Tom Emmer in the House District 19B race. Billboards supporting Emmer went up prior to the 2006 and 2008 general elections but weren’t reported in campaign finance reports and didn’t have disclaimers. Nothing much came of the complaint. Emmer is now a Republican congressman up for reelection in the 6th District.

The accusation that Walz is a traitor to his rural clan seems to grate on him. During a recent Reformer interview, he mentioned with pride how he’d gotten his 1979 International truck that he happened to be working on into a photo in a Politico piece about him

“That’s where I was givin’ ‘em hell. I said, ‘I can out-shoot ‘em, I coached football, I was in the Army, I took the damn clutch off my truck and fixed it.’” 

But as Walz noted, it’s never enough. 

“And they’re like, ‘Well he doesn’t know what Greater Minnesota is like.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh for cripes sake… I graduated with 24 kids, I shoveled crap in a barn for 10 years.’”

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs.