In Minnesota Suburbs, They Love a Parade

Posted September 9, 2008 at 6:29pm

OSSEO, Minn. — First was the Tater Daze parade in Brooklyn Park, followed by the Rockin’ Rogers Days parade and then the Cokato Corn Carnival parade.

Minnesota campaign operatives describe these summer rituals as essential for politicians in the state. And in the affluent suburban 3rd Congressional district west of the Twin Cities, candidates don’t let a parade pass them by.

Running to replace moderate Republican Rep. Jim Ramstad in the tossup district, state Rep. Erik Paulsen (R) estimated on Saturday that he was walking in his 14th parade of the summer — with three more to go.

“He doesn’t walk, he runs,” said Laurie Esau, Paulsen’s campaign manager.

Just a few floats ahead of him, Iraq War veteran Ashwin Madia (D) worked the crowd in what he called one of a dozen marches he’s been in this summer.

The 3rd district represents one of House Democrats’ best pickup opportunities of the election cycle. But Republicans aren’t about to let it go without a fight — or what passes for a fight in traditionally nice territory.

On this sunny Saturday afternoon, a lanky Paulsen ran in the Osseo Lions Roar parade. One of his four daughters and her friend flanked the banner in front of the crowd of supporters as her father greeted the crowd in the tree-lined neighborhood.

“Nice day for a parade, huh?” Paulsen said to a middle-aged woman sitting back in a lawn chair.

One fit supporter, Miles Voehl, followed Paulsen carrying a sign that read “Erik,” which pointed to the lawmaker with an arrow.

“Most of the people know who he is,” Voehl said. “He’s been House Majority Leader in the state House for four years. They understand who he is, they understand who Jim Ramstad was, and who is taking over for Ramstad’s position.”

In his seven winning state House bids, Paulsen said he wore an “I am Erik” T-shirt instead of using the sign. The T-shirt, however, was ditched for a more Congressional- looking button-down long-sleeve shirt.

“I say Erik, you say Paulsen: Erik, Paulsen, Erik, Paulsen,” yelled Paulsen’s daughter, leading the crowd behind her in unison. “I say U.S., you say Congress: U.S. Congress, U.S. Congress.”

These types of grass-roots events are so vital to campaigning in the district that Paulsen recalled the time he finished a parade with a bleeding hand. Halfway through the march, a small dog bit his hand as he reached to greet its owner. With bleeding fingers, Paulsen said he continuously wiped off the red stain from his hand as he continued down the street.

Marching Orders

On the very next day, Madia jogged through the crowd at the James J. Hill Days parade in Wayzata, leading a sea of supporters in blue T-shirts capped off with a motorcycle covered in bumper stickers for local Democratic candidates.

“Hey, folks, this is Ashwin Madia: Marine Corps, Iraq War vet running for Congress,” called out a supporter running alongside him.

Thousands of families lined the streets of the affluent lakeside suburb, watching floats for local churches, Cub Scouts troops and a high school steel-drum band pass them by.

“Ashwin Madia, running for U.S. Congress,” Madia said as he shook the hand of someone sitting on the curb.

“I went to University of Minnesota myself,” Madia commented to another parade-goer wearing his alma mater’s baseball cap.

A handful of state Representatives, a couple of state Senators and Franni Franken, wife of U.S. Senate candidate Al Franken (D), marched together down the picturesque street with Madia. And about 35 floats behind Madia — or 45 minutes in parade time — Paulsen marched with his supporters.

Joyce Anderson, a Madia supporter and retiree from nearby Minnetonka, said this year is the best she’s seen for Democrats at the annual event. Just six years ago, Anderson said, there were only 10 people total marching for all the Democratic candidates in the Wayzata parade.

“Every year it’s been the same until this year,” said Anderson, 65, munching on pizza in a local restaurant after the parade. “And this year, it’s been a remarkable sea change. You know, every group had a large group with them. They were all energized, screaming and waving. It used to be very quiet — a nice little walk in the sunshine on a Sunday afternoon.”

Across the table, Melanie Fry, a fellow Madia supporter from Plymouth, said she first noticed a change when more people showed up at the local caucus meeting.

At the relatively young age of 30, Madia won his party’s endorsement after participating in those growing caucuses against a popular state Senator. Campaign spokesman Dan Pollock recalled how Madia came to him in the fall of 2007 to informally solicit his advice on running for Ramstad’s seat.

“I think it’s a great idea for you to run,” Pollock recalled telling Madia at the time. “And if you do really well, if you raise somewhere in the range of $25,000 to $50,000, then you might get a state House seat out of it.”

Madia raised $161,000 in that first quarter of his campaign in late 2007. And while some local Democrats have described the former president of the University of Minnesota student body as ambitious, Madia maintains that a Congressional bid was never part of his plan.

“I don’t look at myself as ambitious,” Madia said. “I’m just a pretty simple guy. … I may not be a political mastermind or whatever, but I think I’m honest, I think I’m pretty sharp and hard-working. And I think we could use a few more people like that in Washington.”

Minnesota Nice

On a suburban cul-de-sac, Paulsen directed two of his four young daughters to their targeted houses for campaign literature dropping and door-knocking. The pair of wavy-haired blondes, wearing “Vote for My Dad” T-shirts, marched down the quiet neighborhood street.

An efficient door-knocker himself, Paulsen looked for shortcuts across the expansive front lawns, jumping over flower beds and across freshly manicured shrubs.

“Hi, I’m Erik Paulsen and I’m running for Jim Ramstad’s seat for Congress,” he greeted one resident, Richard Dunn, who was standing with his wife in the driveway.

Holding a pair of gardening shears, Dunn said that after 40 years of voting Republican, he and his wife are switching their party registration to Democrat or independent. Dunn said, however, they remain “big supporters” of Ramstad.

“I used to work for him,” Paulsen said.

“I know you did,” Dunn responded.

“And now he’s the chair of my campaign, actually,” Paulsen added.

Nonetheless, Dunn said he doubts he’ll vote for any Republicans this fall after the Bush administration.

Down the street, another woman emerged from her ranch house to greet Paulsen, but she expressed hesitancy about voting Republican. She said that while she respected Ramstad — Paulsen again interjected that he used to work for him — she was hesitant about the GOP’s position on health care.

“I don’t want the people running Katrina taking care of health care,” Paulsen told her.

Bleeding Red

Meanwhile, less than 30 miles away, the Republican National Convention was closing up shop at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Paulsen had a prime-time speaking slot on the last night of this year’s GOP convention — his first ever.

“I’m one of a new generation of Republican reformers, ready to transform our founding principles into sound public policy,” an animated Paulsen said to distracted claps and cheers.

It’s small wonder that instead of “Republican,” Paulsen prefers to emphasize another more popular “R” word in the district: “Ramstad.” Like Ramstad and his predecessor, former Rep. Bill Frenzel (R), Paulsen’s campaign signs are bright orange.

“Well, I’ve never put Republican on my signs,” Paulsen said while briskly walking between houses. “But then I’ve always taken the viewpoint that, sure, I’m endorsed by the party, but I just really think people should vote for the person, not the party. So I never put it, even on my state legislative signs.”

Madia also is quick to highlight the retiring Congressman’s legacy in the district — a fact that Paulsen said angers Ramstad.

“Ramstad is so popular because he sort of kept the mentality to work with everyone to get things done,” Madia said in an interview. “I’m not sure Paulsen comes from that same place or that same school of thought.”

In a phone interview Monday, Ramstad said there’s no question the district has become more Democratic since he took office in 1990. He pointed out that the GOP candidate for Senate in 2006, then-Rep. Mark Kennedy (R), only received 40 percent of the vote in the district en route to a 20-point statewide loss.

“Well, Erik is not George Bush,” Ramstad said. “He can distance himself from President Bush on any number of issues, and that’s the challenge of this campaign for all Republicans.”

Still, Ramstad was optimistic because he said his district has one of the highest percentages of ticket splitters in the country.

“I think if Erik is able to present his case to the voters, he will win,” Ramstad said. “On the merits, he certainly should win. His opponent virtually has no experience and Erik has experience working for 13 years as a House Member, including his service as Majority Leader.”

And in this Minnesota nice suburb, that’s about as negative a comment as the candidates will say. Ramstad said that in his nine Congressional campaigns, neither he nor his opponent issued negative personal attacks. Madia and Paulsen said separately that they had no plans to run negative advertisements.

“Minnesota nice prevails in most election contests here in Minnesota,” Ramstad said.