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For the mayor of Bemidji, Trump visit is ‘monumental’ — but complicated

Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht is helping facilitate the president’s campaign stop, a highly anticipated event for the city of 15,000 people. At the same time, she’s running as a Democrat for a seat in the Minnesota Senate. 

Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht, who is running as a DFLer in Senate District 5, chatting with supporters in downtown Grand Rapids.
Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht, who is running as a DFLer in Senate District 5, chatting with supporters in downtown Grand Rapids.
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein

Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht learned about the president’s historic visit to her city from a report in the Star Tribune.

Though Donald Trump announced plans last week to hold an outdoor rally at a Bemidji airport hangar — which Albrecht said will be the first-ever presidential stop in the city —  the mayor said the airport’s manager had to ask the private aircraft company hosting the president to actually confirm the Friday visit. That way Bemidji could plan for an event that may draw thousands of people to the city of 15,000 during a pandemic.

“It’s been somewhat of a moving target for the city to get a handle on what’s going to actually happen and what our role is,” Albrecht said.

It’s been a complicated week for Albrecht, who currently sits at the heart of Greater Minnesota’s political crossroads. 

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The mayor is scrambling to facilitate the president’s campaign stop, a highly anticipated event in a timber-rich region that was once considered a DFL stronghold but has voted mostly for Republicans since Trump’s 2016 run. At the same time, she’s running as a Democrat for a seat in the Minnesota Senate in a closely-watched race against Republican state Sen. Justin Eichorn. Eichorn pried the district away from the long-serving DFLer Tom Saxhaug in 2016 by just 553 votes.

State Sen. Justin Eichorn
State Sen. Justin Eichorn
Eichorn said on Facebook he looked forward to welcoming the president to “Trump Country Bemidji, MN.”

“He’s not a normal politician,” Eichorn said in a video released Thursday. “He’s helped our mining jobs, he’s helped our forestry industry. Union people are back to work here because of President Trump.”

Jennifer Carnahan, chairwoman of the state GOP, said last week of Trump’s visit: “What Joe Biden took for granted, President Trump is making a priority.” 

In an interview Wednesday from a campaign stop in Grand Rapids, Albrecht said she’s tried to separate her run for office from her nonpartisan job as mayor. One issue she’s had to attend to this week has been to help coordinate a police response with the Secret Service. While the feds are in charge of security at the private event, Bemidji has to handle everything else.

President Donald Trump
REUTERS/Leah Millis
President Donald Trump
(Former Vice President Joe Biden publicly announced the location of his Friday visit to Minnesota — he plans to tour a union training center in Hermantown — with two days notice Wednesday.)

Albrecht said Bemidji has only 34 cops, forcing her police chief to seek help from other law enforcement agencies in Minnesota. While Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have visited Duluth, Minneapolis and Mankato, Bemidji will be by far the smallest place the president has stopped in Minnesota this year. 

Pro-Trump groups and anti-Trump protesters are expected in town, though Albrecht said they have no guess on how many people might arrive for the event. A certain amount of Trump supporters will get transported by shuttle to the hangar, Albrecht said, but anyone can apply for a ticket. And it’s unclear how many will be allowed in to see the president.

Mayor Rita Albrecht
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Mayor Rita Albrecht
“I don’t know what that number is,” Albrecht said. “We recommend that they follow the [COVID-19] guidance that is in place right now. So we’ll see how that goes.” 

(The state has reported just 362 cases in Bemidji’s Beltrami County, though that is the highest in the area outside of Clay County, which is home to Moorhead, and St. Louis County, which includes Duluth.)

Another task for the city was contacting local businesses. The airport is in a commercial district and nearby businesses that may have views of Air Force One will likely draw visitors. “We notified them that you’re probably going to have people in your parking lots,” she said with a laugh.

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Will it be hard to convince voters to pick the DFL after Trump comes to town?

“I think when you have an event like this that is monumental for your community and people are excited about seeing Air Force One, whether they’re supporters or not, it demands that you wear that mayor’s hat and are going to welcome the president to your community,” Albrecht said. “On the other hand, on Friday I’m not going to go to the event. I plan to be phone-banking and contacting voters to make sure they know about the campaign and about me.”