Politics and the State Fair bring voters to booths to meet candidates, lawmakers

By: - September 3, 2021 12:22 pm

Volunteer J.P. Barone takes a photo of Steve Bishop of Ramsey and his children, Julie and Isaac. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer

Volunteer J.P. Barone of White Bear Lake cheerfully greeted visitors who stopped by the Minnesota DFL gazebo at the State Fair, offering to snap pictures for them in front of cardboard cutouts of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. 

Barone, who has volunteered at the booth in past years, remarked on the light crowds this year, saying the pandemic has caused many to rethink attending one of the state’s most crowded annual events amid a surge in COVID-19 cases caused by the delta variant.

State Fair officials did not require proof of vaccination or implement a mask mandate, instead encouraging visitors to wear masks, especially indoors.

Despite volunteering to mingle with hundreds of people who might visit the booth, Barone is taking precautions and avoiding other attractions. “I am coming straight to my volunteer thing  … and I am heading straight out when I am done.”

DFL Party Chair Ken Martin said Democrats pressed ahead with staffing their booth in part because the gazebo makes the booth an outdoor facility, people have access to vaccines and can wear masks. 

While many come to the State Fair to enjoy the food, livestock competitions and rides, the politically inclined make sure to stop by the various political booths to shoehorn a lawmaker or meet a candidate. 

Some might say that politics and the Minnesota State Fair go together like … a cold glass of milk and a pail of Sweet Martha’s cookies. 

“We are like Pronto Pups in that we get a share of the number of people who come,” Barone said. “It’s part of the fair tradition.”

But this year, less-than-ideal weather conditions and pandemic fears have resulted in light crowds, meaning less traffic for many of the booths. On Wednesday, State Fair attendance was 88,027, down 38% from 2019. But overall, since Thursday through Wednesday, the most recent data available, attendance is down 35% from 2019.  

“Not as many conversations, not as many people coming to the booth,” said Martin, who has visited the fair twice since its Aug. 26 opening. “It’s much more fun when there’s tons of people there.”

At the Minnesota Republican Party booth, next to the Ye Old Mill attraction, masks were far scarcer and the conversations appeared much more lively at times.

Paula College and her husband Gary College of Apple Valley spent more than 10 minutes at the GOP booth grilling state Sen. Mark Koran, the North Branch Republican and one-time candidate for chair of the Minnesota Republican Party. 

The Colleges wanted to know why Minnesota didn’t have more combative and vocal fighters like controversial figures U.S. Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Matt Gaetz of Florida. 

“We are very disappointed in the party right now,” Paula College said. 

The couple, who are now retired, say they are this close to decamping to Florida, holding their index finger and thumb up together to show how close. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is a “fighter,” and Minnesota needs more Republicans like that, they told Koran.

They demanded to know what Republicans would do about what they call fraud in the 2020 election, despite no evidence showing widespread fraud occurred. As a result, they insisted their votes did not matter in Minnesota. 

“They’re frustrated,” Koran acknowledged after, saying Republicans are concerned those views might depress turnout among Republican voters. “That’s exactly what the Democrat messaging would like them to do,” he said.

Pressed on whether he believed there was widespread fraud in 2020, Koran pivoted to criticizing a consent decree in Minnesota that allowed ballots received up to seven days after election day to be counted. 

“When you have the secretary of state and attorney general colluding with their ‘non profiteers’ partners, to weaken our election laws, when there’s absolutely no need to do that, you’re only comfortable with allowing weak opportunities and areas for fraud,” Koran said. 

Is Biden duly elected? “He’s been inserted as the president,” Koran responded. 

In Minnesota, Biden beat former President Donald Trump by 7 percentage points, winning more than 52% of the vote. Nationally, Biden won by more than 7 million votes, winning 51.3% of the vote.

Aside from registering their views or discontent, the State Fair also serves as an opportunity for political candidates to hobnob with voters or make non-announcement announcements. 

Ahead of his State Fair visit, former Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka announced he’d step down from his post as Senate leader, preparing to soon announce a run for governor but still coyly saying he’s mulling the run during a press conference on the fairgrounds. State Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, spent her first day as candidate for governor meeting voters at the fair. And former state Sen. Scott Jensen of Chaska also met with voters at the great Minnesota Get-Together. 

Other politicians take a more low-key approach to the fair, avoiding staffing booths and instead enjoying the food and activities. 

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, enjoyed the beer garden at the fair on Thursday, after winning fifth place in a butter carving contest. Her sculpture was a shooting star. 

“Our decision to come to the fair is a little bit, ‘Politicians are people, too.’ ” Hortman said. “We have to have fun, and go out and do stuff.” 

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Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez

Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.

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