The battle for Pine County


In 2004, John Kerry won central Minnesota’s closely divided Pine County by fewer than a hundred votes. This time around, Barack Obama has his work cut out if he hopes to do as well.

John Jansen is not impressed with either of the major presidential candidates. “It’s a real hard choice,” says Jansen a 63-year-old retired electrician who lives in Pine City. “You’ve got the dumbkopf military clown, McCain. He’s too old.”

That sentiment, coupled with a belief that the No. 1 issue facing the country is providing every American with health insurance, would make Jansen seem like an ideal Barack Obama voter. But he’s actually ruled out voting for the Illinois senator. “Obama is real hard for an individual to vote for,” he says. “Why? Experience and race. I don’t want to sugarcoat it.”

Jansen is standing in the parking lot of the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Pine City on Monday afternoon. He wears blue jeans and a blue T-shirt with a pack of Pall Malls stuffed in the pocket. Asked if he’d be comfortable voting for a black candidate, Jansen doesn’t mince words. “Not really,” he says. A stint working in the Twin Cities during the ’70s and ’80s apparently left him with an unfavorable impression of African Americans. “I drove a cab in St. Paul,” he says. “I’ve seen things that should turn anybody’s belly.”

“The battle for Pine County” is part of “Battleground Zero,” a four-part series by Center for Independent Media sites that profiles key counties in swing states. See links to these dispatches at the end of this story.

Jansen says he’ll ultimately decide on one of the candidates. “I’ll vote,” he promises. “It’s just going to be a gut call.” Then he suggests that he’d be more comfortable with a former Democratic presidential candidate, John Edwards. “A girlfriend here and there,” he scoffs, “what the fuck?”

Pine County is one of the most closely contested regions in the state of Minnesota. In 2004 Democrat John Kerry eked out a 95-vote victory over President George W. Bush there. It’s swing counties like this one that will help to determine whether Obama can keep Minnesota in the Democratic column for the 12th consecutive presidential election.

Democrats swamped Republicans in caucus turnout in Pine County, with nearly twice as many participants. But while Obama trounced Hillary Clinton statewide, the rivals battled to a dead heat in the county, with each garnering support from 268 caucus attendees. “I scratched my head over it,” says Democratic state Sen. Tony Lourey, who represents the area. “There was a lot to be said for both of them. Obama has the ability to inspire, which is something I think this nation truly needs. But Hillary is a known quantity.”

Interviews around Pine County this week, just prior to the start of the Democratic and Republican conventions, suggest that the Obama campaign may have considerable work to do if it’s going to hold onto the region. Race, experience and the candidate’s unusual background make his presidential bid a tough sell for some voters.

Pine County is the local equivalent of flyover country for many Minnesotans, a flat, sparsely populated stretch of land that Twin Cities residents motor through via I-35 on their way to Duluth, the Boundary Waters and other points north. Its most notable attraction is Grand Casino in Hinckley, a football-field sized smorgasbord of slot machines operated by the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe that is also the county’s largest employer.

The population of just over 28,000 is overwhelmingly white (94 percent), with Native Americans comprising the largest minority group (3 percent). The median household income of $39,663 lags well behind both Minnesota as a whole ($51,202) and the entire United States ($44,334). Pine County consistently boasts some of the highest rates of gun ownership and deer-hunting licenses in the state.

As the Twin Cities suburbs have gravitated north over the last two decades, Pine County has experienced a modest population boom, with the number of residents ballooning by nearly a third since 1990. There has also been a civil war of sorts taking place in the region in recent years. In 2000 voters turned back a measure that would have split the county in half. Four years later a ballot initiative to move the county courthouse from Pine City to the more centrally located Hinckley was also rejected by voters. “The last couple presidential races we’ve had these huge issues that have drawn out people,” says Thom Peterson, director of government relations for the Minnesota Farmers Union and a Pine County resident for 16 years.

The county has traditionally skewed Democratic. In 2006 Amy Klobuchar carried the region by nearly 20 points in the U.S. Senate race, while Mike Hatch outpolled Gov. Tim Pawlenty by 6 percentage points. Ideologically as well as geographically, Pine County falls somewhere between the DFL-dominated precincts of the Iron Range and the Republican-leaning districts of the Twin Cities’s northern suburbs. But the suburban migration has started to shift those allegiances. “We’ve got a lot of people moving in who are commuting to the Cities and tend to be a little more conservative voters,” says Peterson, a veteran Democratic Party activist.

Peterson was an early Obama convert after a chance meeting with the Illinois senator on a trip to Washington in 2005. The Pine County resident was attending an event put on by the Farmers Union at the Longworth House Office Building and ran into Obama in the restroom. The newly elected senator was slated to attend the same event, but wasn’t sure how to find it. So Peterson escorted him over to the reception. “We walked into the room and you could just feel the energy,” he recalls. “Every since then I was like, this guy’s got something special.”

But Peterson has been perplexed by some of the resistance he’s encountered in advocating for Obama in Pine County. “It’s shocking, but I’ve been surprised at the number of people I’ve encountered around here who will say I’m not ready to vote for a black person,” Peterson says. “You think you’re beyond that, but apparently not.”

Strong reservations about Obama aren’t hard to find at the Wal-Mart in Pine City. John Dragicevich, a 61-year-old Army veteran, describes himself as an independent leaning towards voting for McCain. “I like his position on national security, primarily, and the fact that he’s pro-life,” he says, leaning on a pole outside the store on Tuesday afternoon wearing a black baseball cap emblazoned with the words “Vietnam Veteran.” Dragicevich doesn’t believe Obama has the resume for the job. “I think he’s an inexperienced guy trying to fill a position that he’s really not qualified for,” he says.

But Dragicevich’s misgivings about Obama go beyond simply his lack of experience. “The fact that his father was a Muslim and he was raised Muslim in his early childhood years, that plays a factor,” he says. “Any president I vote for has to be a Christian. I don’t think it’s a prejudice so much. It’s just that I think our values are different.”

Jim Ekbom, a 61-year-old Pine County resident, also cites Obama’s lack of experience in explaining his preference for McCain. “He’s already come to some opinions,” he says. “Obama I think still fluctuates because he’s on a learning curve.” Ekbom believes the war in Iraq was a mistake, but he doesn’t trust Obama to halt the occupation. “I think it’s a bad war,” he says. “But once you’re in it, you have to deal with the cards that you are dealt and I think McCain’s probably the best one to bring it to a reasonable ending.”

All is not lost for Obama with Wal-Mart shoppers, however. Nancy Olsen, a 44-year-old Cloverdale resident who drives 22 miles to shop at the supercenter, says gas prices are her No. 1 issue. “It’s all about greed,” she says. “That’s all it’s about.”

Loading groceries into her green Buick, Olsen says she was initially a Clinton supporter, but is fully committed to Obama. “I’d be good with either one of them,” she says. “I think they should both be on the ticket. I think we’d have the best of both worlds.”

She does, however, think race will be a liability in Pine County and across the country. “There’s a lot of prejudiced people in the world,” says Olsen. “If he doesn’t get in, that will be the only reason.”

Down the road at Cabin Coffees, Brad Mariska says he hasn’t decided which candidate to back yet. The 28-year-old band instructor and self-described “news junkie” was a Ron Paul supporter during the primary season. McCain appeals to Mariska on economic and social issues, but he has problems with the Republican’s bellicose foreign policy views. On the other hand, he doesn’t believe Obama is offering a concrete plan for how he intends to change the country. “He doesn’t really offer anything new or different,” says Mariska. “He’s just a new and a different face and people are sort of swooning.”

Ever since McCain became the presumptive Republican nominee, there have been questions raised about his ability to motivate the GOP base, particularly Christian conservatives. But if a recent meeting of the Pine County Republican Party is any indication, he seems to have assuaged most local conservatives.

Gathered at Tobies Restaurant & Bakery in Hinckley on a Monday evening, the meeting is a contentious affair. Many of the 18 local Republicans present are upset by criticism levied by the state GOP and U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman at state senate candidate Mark Olson. The former state representative was kicked out of the Republican caucus owing to an arrest for domestic abuse. But he scored a surprising comeback earlier this month by securing the local party’s endorsement for a state senate seat.

The criticism of a GOP-endorsed candidate by state Republican bigwigs has many at the meeting peeved. “There is no excuse for party elites who believe they have more power than the grassroots,” says Michael Monte, the group’s secretary. “If we allow that to continue our freedoms are taken away from us and we are ruled by a group of elitists.”

After much debate, the Pine County Republicans pass a resolution commending party officials in Olson’s senate district for their actions.

While local Republican activists may be at loggerheads with the state party, most local party activists seem to be in accord when it comes to McCain, even though many of them supported other candidates during the primary process. “At first I wasn’t completely enthusiastic about McCain,” says Carolyn Stivers, a veteran party activist who backed Mike Huckabee during the primary season. “I didn’t know exactly where he stood on some of the value issues.”

But the Senator’s recent performance at the Saddleback Church forum, in particular, seems to have allayed any concerns. “The way he answered those questions, it showed a depth of character to me that I hadn’t realized before,” says Stivers, who cites abortion and same-sex marriage as her two top issues. “He also answered them very straight forward, no hesitation as to what he believed.”

Not surprisingly she isn’t impressed with Obama. “I think he is very intelligent, a very moving speaker,” she says. “I think he believes in socialism and wants to move the country to become a socialist country.”

But Rudy Takala, chairman of the Pine County Republicans, says not everyone is convinced of McCain’s conservative bona fides, citing his recent flirtation with picking a pro-choice running mate. “There are still some concerns,” Takala says.

But if a few days in Pine Country are any indication, Barack Obama should have a few more concerns.

More Battleground Zero:

Iowa Independent: In swing state Iowa, Dallas County is key

Michigan Messenger: In Oakland County, ‘change’ is the word—and race and age are in the air
New Mexico Independent: Battleground Zero: Sandoval County