FALCON HEIGHTS, Minn. — Tens of thousands of people from across the state of Minnesota converged upon the State Fairgrounds Thursday on opening day, creating an attraction no major politician could resist.
The conversations weren’t always about politics, but they were one-on-one exchanges that required candidates to listen and made them seem more tangible to prospective voters.
“I’d have to go all over the state for weeks, even months, to meet as many people who walk up to me here, and have something to say or talk about,” Gov. Mark Dayton, the DFL incumbent seeking a second term in November, told KARE.
His Republican opponent, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, agreed the State Fair is essential. He was planning to be at the “great get together” ten of the 12 days.
“I mean this is the place where you truly meet Minnesotans from all over the state, every age, every race, every political persuasion,” Johnson told reporters.
Johnson has challenged Dayton to two debates at the fair, as part of a package of 13 gubernatorial debates.
“I think everybody is ready to hear where we differ and what our visions are for the state of Minnesota, so now is the time to do it rather than waiting another two or three weeks,” Johnson explained.
Dayton said he’d agree to doing six debates total, but all after the State Fair ends. He pointed out that the last incumbent to run, Republican Tim Pawlenty in 2006, did not agree to a State Fair debate.
“Governor Pawlenty didn’t debate Mike Hatch in 2006 at the Fair, so this is a contrived issue,” Dayton said, when pressed by reporters.
In another closely watched statewide race, the one for U.S. Senate, both candidates spent time at the State Fair.
Incumbent Democrat Al Franken greeted early birds and said he looked forward to spend time in his booth hearing from constituents.
“You gain so much from hearing people talk,” Franken told KARE. “They form a line and for couple hours and I hear what everyone is thinking. Sometimes I hear thank-you’s, and other times I hear from people who have issues they need resolved.”
Franken’s Republican opponent Mike McFadden said he’s accustomed to visiting the Fair over the years with his wife and six children, so he looked forward to being there as a candidate for the first time.
“We’ll hit all the 4H booths and the different livestock judgings and have some milk shakes while we’re here,” McFadden told reporters Thursday morning. “It’s absolutely critical to be here. This is such a quintessential Minnesota event.”
It’s also critical for third party candidates who don’t have big names or deep pockets.
Paula Overby, the Independence Party candidate for Congress in the 2nd District, greeted voters in the party’s building at the Fair.
“Quite honestly I’m offering people a different voice, a different choice. It takes time to do build that movement,” Overby said, noting that incumbent John Kline had name recognition and plenty of campaign cash reserves.
“I think it’s important for people to run even if the odds are stacked against them because it’s about creating a new dialogue in American politics,” Oberby added.
Drama at the GOP Building
The Republican Party building has always been home to political shtick on a stick, and 2014 is no exception. The MN GOP booth featured a volunteer dressed up as chicken, holding a sign that read, “Franken is too chicken to debate,” a reference to the fact that there are no debate dates nailed down yet in the Senate race.
But the GOP also attracted some unwanted media attention Thursday, when Michelle MacDonald, the Republican candidate for Minnesota Supreme Court was told she was unwelcome in the Republican building.
MacDonald won the party endorsement before media reports surfaced that she would be fighting a D.W.I. case in court at the same time she was running for office.
Dan Seman, a long-time security consultant and contractor who was volunteering at the GOP booth, asked MacDonald to go to the public sidewalk or risk being cited for trespassing.
“This is private property, and it’s been requested you step on the sidewalk or the boulevard,” Seman told MacDonald.
“Requested by whom? By what mindless directive? I was endorsed by thousands of delegates,” MacDonald replied.
By then bloggers, reporters, political trackers and TV photographers had closed and were recording the conversation.
“This isn’t going anywhere, Michelle,” Seman replied calmly, “This is a standoff. I’m kindly asking you to step to the sidewalk, or the street. I’m not authorized to let you come in the building.”
Eventually MacDonald walked quickly past Seman to the tables where campaign literature is available to fair guests. She placed her own literature on a table.
“I plan to come here and do this everyday,” MacDonald told reporters, “And I call on (GOP Chair) Keith Downey to support my candidacy.”
A few minutes later a uniformed State Patrol officer and a State Fair Police officer arrived, but by then MacDonald was back out on the street neutral territory. Seman and MacDonald exchanged some friendly words away from the media spotlight, and the situation was diffused for the time being.