Following trails laid down by other pioneers, my wife and I arrived in Minnesota in early September. For the last year, we've been in London, England, while my wife completed training for her new job...it was a great experience with only one draw back: I've largely had to sit out the most exciting election of my life...watching, like our British friends, helplessly from the sidelines.
Back in the U.S. we've had to attend to the myriad of details associated with moving, house-hunting, and, for me, setting up a new branch of my business. So, I've had a few excuses NOT to rush right out and volunteer.
But I suppose, the truth was, I was a bit shy, too. I mean, all but a fraction of my adult life has been spent in the State of Vermont...I know who's who, or at least, I know who to ask about who's who.
But I just fell onto Minnesota's doorstep like the morning paper, and while I wanted to volunteer- I had a pretty sharp learning curve to face about the people, the positions, and the political history of this state.
Yesterday morning, however, I finally dived in head first. Al Franken (yes, that Al Franken)is the candidate for U.S. Senate here this year. He, and Tim Walz, who is now, and will be again, I hope, my Congressman from Minnesota's 1st District, were touring the county as part of their last minute efforts to get out the Vote.
So, yesterday, it was up early for a pancake breakfast with fellow Democrats and my first chance to meet and hear some of the people I was considering voting for.
And that was it, that was all I planned to do: Listen to some speeches and eat a couple of free pancakes.
But after all those years of listening to Garrison Keillor on Vermont Public Radio, I should have remembered that nobody in Minnesota gets stuff for free-- the good folks from Lake Wobegon's sister towns are happy to help- but you've got to be willing to show you can WORK!
Work, as it turned out, was pretty much the keynote of all the speeches and the day.
I arrived at the breakfast and was greeted with a warm smile and a sign-up sheet. Fair enough, I thought, I'll sign up to stuff a few envelopes, maybe make a few phone calls...no door knocking, however, I'm just a little to shy to go pounding on the doors of strangers and asking them to vote. I'll start in two days, that'll give me time to get used to the idea.
I was welcomed to a table by Jonathan and Dave. These two were great and very willing to answer my questions about Minnesota politics and help me start filling in the gaps of my local knowledge.
The first thing they were careful to remind me of was that, in Minnesota, I was not a member of the Democratic Party, but of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. Back in the 1940s, the two progressive political parties, Democrat and Farmer-Labor, merged to better take on Republicans. "And some of the old timers can still get pretty touchy if you leave off the 'Farmer-Labor' part", warned Jonathan. Good advice.
Because Franken is a national figure, I already felt comfortable offering him my vote ...but what about Tim Walz? I've not heard of him, yet...who is he?
So Jonathan told me his story. Walz spent 24 years in the National Guard and was a High School Social Studies teacher and Football coach in Mankato when he decided to run for Congress. The district has historically trended Republican, and was represented by the GOP for 12 years.
After watching Tim Walz speak, it was easy to see how he'd defeated a twelve year Republican Incumbant. A big guy, with a passing resemblance to General Norman Schwarzkopf, he knows how to hold a room...and his message was about work and it's value. After talking about valuing and helping Americans who work, and who are in trouble following the Bush years, Walz reminded us that it was time for Democrats to work now as well.
And, he reminded us of the rewards of work: "When you wake up on November 5th, you are going to realize that, over the next 5 days, the work that you do has transformed the world. That's an absolutely incredible feeling."
Next, it was Al Franken's turn. Franken arrived in the room to great applause and immediately went to work manning the griddle to cook pancakes for volunteers still in line. When he got up to speak, he also focused on the subject of work.
"Washington has not been working for Minnesota's working families. There are 400,040 Minnesotans who do not have health insurance. We have had 20,000 homes in this state foreclosed upon in the last year. And every Minnesota Homeowner has seen their home equity dissipate or disappear. There are 170,000 Minnesotans who are looking for jobs that they can't find. The highest unemployment rate in over 20 years. And now, with this financial meltdown in Wall Street, our savings, our jobs, our kids's future is at risk.
"But...Paul Wellstone said: The Future belongs to those who are Passionate and Work Hard. And I am so passionate about going to Washington and to work for the working families of this state and the middle class families of this state... Now, if we are to take back Paul's seat...if we are going to give Barak Obama the 60 Democratic Senators who share his values that he needs to bring the change to Washington that WE need...then we are going to have to work for the next 5 days...because this is the year we take our country back!"
It was a great speech and a rousing morning. I was firmly ready to volunteer...starting Saturday.
There was only one problem...I'd filled out my volunteer form, but forgot to make a note for myself of the dates and times for which I'd signed up. "No problem" said the staff. "They've got 'em across the way at DFL headquarters...you can look it up there."
And THAT is how they got me to pay for my pancakes!
The next thing I know, I'm sitting in a car with Anne, a nurse here in town, who was also fairly new to political volunteering. ( "But this was the year to do it!" she said.) We'd been loaded up to the gills with an armload of campaign literature and a list of about 140 registered voters and a push out the door!
And you know what...it wasn't that bad at all! It was a gorgeous day here in Southern Minnesota, and although there were a few folks who just flat out wouldn't talk, many more were at least open to a visit (although they can't wait for this election to be over), and a others were downright enthusiastic about the opportunity to vote for real change.
I got a chance to get to know about 14 square blocks of Rochester Minnesota neighborhoods in one afternoon. I got to talk to a 90 year old retired mechanic and WW2 vet who couldn't wait for Tuesday and his chance to vote for Barack Obama. I also met a young guy who, despite my having awoken him (he worked the night shift), was also ready to vote down the DFL ticket because we needed a change. And I got a chance to hear what my new neighbors were thinking.
I also got enjoy the fall weather and to get to know Anne, who, in addition to being a nurse, is working hard to get her musical act off the ground as well. They call themselves Brother Music, Sister Rhythm- and I'm looking forward to a chance to hear them play soon.
But probably the best moment of the day came after I'd finished my volunteer duties. After 5 hours on my feet, I realized that those two pancakes had LOOOOOONG since worn off. So, before walking the last 15 blocks to my apartment, I stopped at McDonald's. Behind the counter, a young girl looked shyly at my pin. "Are you voting for Obama?" She asked. "I sure am," I replied, "are you a voter?" "Yes I am," she answered, "this will be my first time. Do you know where I can get a pin like that?"
I thought for a moment. My pin was a gift from my good friends Steve and Kate, who had gone out of their way to get it for me after I'd lost my Obama lapel pin in London. But only for a moment.
"I sure do." I said, taking the button from my jacket. Her eyes lit up. Perhaps it doesn't matter much, but she was African American...and I couldn't help wondering if, as much as this election meant to me, if it mean even more to her. She smiled. "Oooh. Thank you!" she said. "Just make sure you remember to vote on Tuesday!" "Oh, I'm voting." She said.
I hope Steve and Kate don't mind, but I think that was where that pin was meant to be.
They have a term here in Minnesota- people are: "Minnesota Nice". And although they may occasionally employ it with a touch of self-deprecating humor (there is, after all, the concept of too much of a good thing!) they never use it with irony. Minnesota Nice. After a day on the streets, talking with total strangers about a subject many find stressful, I couldn't agree more...it's true. They are nice here.
Be careful, I may be knocking on your door next!