Populism Is Alive and Well in Southern Minnesota

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“Southwestern Minnesota politics is based on populism,” said the dinner guest at the 11th annual Dan and Ronnie Burton dinner held in the ballroom of the student union at Minnesota State University, Mankato, Saturday night. The folks in St. Paul think of the area as solidly conservative, he continued, but that’s not true. Some of those farmers may be rock-ribbed Republicans, others life-long progressives, but they all had one thing in common: They voted for Wellstone.

Whether rural Minnesota politics is populist-based or not, another trend has become apparent for all of southern Minnesota. This once solidly conservative, Republican-dominated part of the state is turning more and more blue with each election.

At one time the Mankato-St. Peter area was a mixed political bag, represented by both Republicans and Democrats. But since 2004 it’s been solidly Democrat, mirroring similar changes that have occurred in Rochester 80 miles to the east.

Evidence of DFL strength in he area can be seen in the growth in attendance at the annual Burton dinner, named after DFL stalwarts Dan and Ronnie Burton, who over a lifetime have managed, sometimes almost single-handedly, to keep the local party alive even in the bleakest of times. Dan passed away ten years ago, but Ronnie, whose real name is Verona, is still active in DFL affairs, and despite all the firepower at the dinner in her name, she was still the guest of honor.

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Leigh Pomeroy :: Populism Is Alive and Well in Southern Minnesota
Less than a handful of years ago, the dinner crowd would fit comfortably into the Eagles Club banquet hall in downtown Mankato, and any number above 100 was deemed a success. Last night, for the second year in a row, the guest list topped 220.

Recognized names attending the confab Saturday night included Brian Melendez and Donna Cassutt, chair and vice-chair of the DFL; Secretary of State Mark Ritchie; local freshmen legislators Sen. Kathy Sheran and Reps. Kathy Brynaert and Terry Morrow; announced U.S. Senate candidates Mike Ciresi, Jim Cohen, Al Franken and Bob Olson; and Congressman Tim Walz.

Several common themes graced nearly every speech. Paramount was the call for Minnesota to invest in its future — its schools, workforce, transportation, environment and energy needs. Universal health care was often mentioned, as was the imperative for moving toward sustainability and independence in the energy supply.

When Walz came to the podium to deliver the final address, the crowd, which had earlier been restive, quietly slipped back into its seats. Speaking without notes, Walz held up his congressional voting card and emphasized how proud he was to use it to vote on legislation that helped the people of his district — issues like increased funding for veterans, ending the U.S. involvement in Iraq and fully funding Head Start.

One recent vote that made him particularly proud was when he voted in favor of the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007, which adds to existing hate crime legislation crimes based on sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and disability.

“I remember looking at some of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle prior to the vote,” he said. Their message was clear: A vote for this measure just might guarantee that this will be your only term in Congress.

“But you know what?” Walz said. “I’d rather be happily teaching back here in Mankato and able to look at myself in the mirror each morning than being in Congress knowing I didn’t do the right thing.”

After the event, several people approached master of ceremonies Scott Urban, who teaches at Mankato West High School in the room next door to where Walz used to teach. He keeps getting better and better, they said, referring to Walz’s speech.

“You know why?” said Urban. “He never uses notes when he teaches. He often instructs using nothing more than the newspaper.”

From the mood of the crowd following the event, it was apparent that populism is alive and well in southern Minnesota.