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If you think you enjoy attending the State Fair, try being one of Minnesota’s senators

On the first day of the Great Minnesota Get-Together, fairgoers were full of gratitude for their elected representatives.

Sen. Al Franken speaks with fairgoers at the DFL’s booth.
Courtesy of Sen. Al Franken

It couldn’t have been a more beautiful day to open the Minnesota State Fair: clear skies, light breeze, temperatures hovering in the 70s. Sen. Amy Klobuchar was walking down Underwood Street on Thursday afternoon, taking in the delightful weather.

A U.S. Senator walking through a crowded corridor of the Great Minnesota Get-Together, however, doesn’t get a whole lot of time to stop and smell the flowers in the Horticulture Building.

Klobuchar, staffers in tow, made her way through a stream of people, greeting and being greeted, stopping for a former intern, an elderly woman, so on and so forth. At one point, a group of fair-goers sipping craft beer on the sidewalk burst into applause as Klobuchar walked past. “Amy!” they cheered.

A middle-aged woman made a bee line for Klobuchar. “Please be our president!” she exclaimed to the senator as they walked past each other. Klobuchar smiled, laughed, and kept walking — remarking to the well-wisher, and also no one in particular, what a beautiful day at the fair it was.

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For Klobuchar and Sen. Al Franken, every day might be a beautiful day at the fair, rain or shine. Following the two Minnesota Democrats around the fair in 2017 is to be in the wake of sustained earnestness from fairgoers — thanking them for their “service” and “work” in this age of Trump — with nary a heckle in earshot.

‘You’ve got a hell of a job’

In this age of political turmoil and anxiety, Minnesota’s two Democratic U.S. senators have both labored to position themselves as voices of reason in Washington, D.C., pushing back against the chaos coming out of Donald Trump’s White House. Both have generated national buzz — presidential buzz — since the 2016 election.

They have not attempted to act as senatorial spear tips of the anti-Trump “resistance.” Though both have criticized the president and his administration, sometimes harshly, neither has been in the “hell no” caucus of Senate Democrats who’ve voted against even Trump’s non-controversial appointments.

These days, as before, Klobuchar talks about the importance of finding common ground and working with Republicans where possible. Franken’s sharp questionings of Trump’s Cabinet appointments were popular among those thirsting for some kind of blow against the president, but he too continues to talk mostly about ways where Democrats and Republicans can work together, on things like infrastructure.

In the eyes of some fair-goers, however, Democratic senators might as well be political warriors returning from the front. “Thank you for your service to our country,” a middle-aged man told Franken on Thursday morning. Outside the Dairy Building, Klobuchar was stopped by several people thanking her for her “hard work.”

Klobuchar said that Republicans have come to her to express their dismay at what’s going on in Washington. An elderly couple waited in line at Klobuchar’s booth, clutching a copies of her 2015 memoir, “The Senator Next Door,” for her to sign. She later said they were self-identified Republicans.

“A lot of people have said things, like, they’re tired of the drama, the tweets in the morning,” Klobuchar said, enjoying a chai-flavored ice cream popsicle at the Minnesota Farmers’ Union booth. “People want to see some more even-keeled governing. They want us to get to work.”

In navigating huge events like the fair, Klobuchar says she encounters four groups of Republicans. “There’s ones I don’t know because they don’t say anything. Then there’s the ones with the hat. Then there’s the, ‘give him a chance, he’s our president,’ and we talk on things we can work on. The fourth group is business people who say this is getting to be a mess, but say we all own this.”

On this last point, Klobuchar laughs. “It’s really interesting.”

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Both senators say that they’ve sensed more engagement and interest in D.C. happenings since Trump became president — perhaps fueling the stream of hellos and thank yous that came their way on the fair’s opening day.

“I feel like there is much more interest in the Senate,” Klobuchar said. “People are really focused. They are tuned in and know what’s going on.”

“This year, of course, I think there’s a lot of concern about this president,” Franken said, sitting at a table outside the Minnesota Wine Country building on Underwood Street. (He did not partake of the local Minnesota wines, unlike other fair-goers, in the morning hours.) “We have an unusual situation, a guy who dominates news coverage for whatever reason, because he’s always airing his grievances and showing hostility for people.”

“I haven’t heard any ‘impeach him’ kind of things,” he said of the stream of people lined up to take photos with him outside his stout, blue-and-yellow turret of a booth. “I’ve heard more, just, ‘oh boy, you’ve got a hell of a job.’”

A happy place

Even sea changes in American politics can’t change the immutable dynamic of politicking at the state fair: the unpredictability, the sheer scale of it, the candidness — at least from constituents.

Any given day, the elected officials who attend the fair are surrounded by thousands of people, who can, and often do, approach them to say whatever’s on their mind.

Some might have something specific they want to communicate — whether it’s a policy idea or a comment on a local issue or a personal issue with a government agency. (Both senators attend the fair with a constituent services representative from their office in tow.)

A middle-aged man in sunglasses and gray athletic wear came up to Franken to pitch an idea near a stand for foot-long hot dogs. “Would you introduce a bill to make it mandatory for cell phone companies to make phones inoperable while cars move?” he asked.

Franken’s brow furrowed; he replied that texting while driving was a serious problem. The man insisted that Congress should go further. “The technology is there, I believe it,” he urged Franken. (“Usually, the policy ideas I get are either very general, like ‘keep our health care, or,” Franken deadpanned later, “very specific.”)

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The fair can be a place where a politician can bask in the hard-earned rewards for work on behalf of a specific group. At one point, a woman stopped Klobuchar and identified herself as an employee of Delta Air Lines. Last week, Klobuchar and Rep. Tom Emmer joined Delta executives and employees at Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport to advocate for a forceful federal response to counter foreign airlines that receive generous subsidies from their governments. 

“Thank you for fighting for our jobs,” the woman told Klobuchar.

As noon neared outside the grandstand, Franken made his way through an area set up with booths highlighting science, technology, engineering and math education. He took pictures with high school students and picked up a “Girls in STEM” button.

Happy shouts of “Al!” came from the adults staffing the booths, while the kids were more interested in the robot demonstration he was walking through.

Minutes before, Franken had talked about the “uncharted” area that American politics is now in, the North Korea nuclear threat, Trump’s response to white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, the Republican plans to repeal and replace Obamacare. A month full of critical budget fights and debt ceiling battles awaits members of Congress upon their return to Washington, when the fair is over.

But that is later. For now, the weather remained beautiful, Franken said. “The mood is actually pretty good… the fair is always kind of a happy place.”