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At the Minnesota State Fair, the buzz of presidential politics is more like a low hum

Sen. Bernie Sanders was at the fair Saturday, and Andrew Yang’s campaign will also have a presence. But only three of the Democrats running for president have separate booths on the fairgrounds.

Buttigieg fair booth
Local volunteers Stephanie Johnson and Jeff Peltola talked with fair goers about the Pete Buttigieg for President campaign.
MinnPost photo by Joe Kimball

On Thursday, a tall man wearing a white shirt and lei of blue flowers stood in front of the “Tulsi 2020” booth at the Minnesota State Fair. 

“Aloha. How are you doing?” said Robert Rodriguez, offering a flier that highlighted the presidential aspirations of U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. 

There weren’t many takers that morning, as people hurried past the booth on Cosgrove Street near the 4-H building. It’s one of the least traveled sections of the fairgrounds, on what was once Machinery Hill but is now home to displays of lawn mowers and snowplows.

On the first day of the fair, the Tulsi 2020 booth looked a bit unfinished and bare bones. Built quickly of four-by-fours and plywood sheets, there was no door into the opening. That would soon be fixed, Rodriguez said. In the meantime, he and fellow Gabbard volunteer Jessica Zumeta stood outside the booth to offer their low-key pitch.

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Rodriguez said the local campaign hopes to spread word of Gabbard’s platform of ending ongoing wars, and using the savings to pay for health care and infrastructure. “She wants to take those wasted resources and put them to work,” Rodriguez said.

“I really like that she served in the military,” said Zumeta. “That’s a strong background for being president.”

So many candidates. Not so many candidate booths

Though this is something of an off-year in politics, there’s always some political action at the fair. The Independence and Libertarian Parties have booths, and President Trump is front and center at the Republican Party booth. 

At the DFL booth, the focus is on Sen. Tina Smith, who is running to be elected to a full term in the U.S. Senate after winning a special election in 2016.

Yet most of the political buzz these days is coming out the Democrats’ presidential primary scramble. T-shirts are on sale at the DFL booth for the presidential candidates who have already qualified for the third round of debates next month. Gabbard’s shirt isn’t there. There are also buttons available featuring the various contenders, including Gabbard, for $3 each.

Gabbard fair booth
MinnPost photo by Joe Kimball
Robert Rodriguez and Jessica Zumeta worked the Tulsi Gabbardpresidential campaign booth on the first day of the fair.
Sen. Bernie Sanders was at the fair Saturday, and his campaign reserved space in the DFL booth for five days. Andrew Yang’s campaign will also have a table in the DFL booth for two days.

But only three of the Democrats running for president have separate booths on the fairgrounds. Not surprisingly, Sen. Amy Klobuchar is one of them, with a booth across from the Dairy Building, where Klobuchar has had a booth every year since she was first elected to the Senate in 2006. 

In addition to Gabbard, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg has a fair presence, a booth on the always-busy Underwood Street in front of the butterfly building. The daily parade passes by about 2 p.m. bringing big crowds of watchers, who may or may not care yet about presidential politics, but will see Mayor Pete’s name spelled out in big letters.

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On Thursday, a woman rushed up during the parade and said: “I’ve been looking all over for you.” She got a Mayor Pete flier and signed up for the candidate’s e-mail list. 

Stephanie Johnson, a teacher from Orono, helped organize the Buttigieg presence at the fair. In addition to greeting walk-ups with her Pete pitch, she showed them an array of tubs, each labeled with a policy issue: health care, gun safety, rural America, climate change, etc. Each person could put a bean into the tub of their choice. Climate change and gun safety had the most beans as of midafternoon.

Johnson had been there until 11 p.m. the night before, putting up curtains on the booth. 

May Yang of Edina came up to the booth, excited about the candidate: “Every time he opens his mouth, I like what he says,” she said. “If he’s not going to be the guy, maybe he’ll be VP.”

Grass-roots booths

Both the Tulsi and Mayor Pete booths came together late in the summer as local supporters, using social media, decided that a State Fair presence was a good Minnesota way to get name recognition for their candidate.

Organizers said the national campaigns paid the fees for the space — about $800 to $1,200. But volunteers covered other costs and the construction work.

“We got a permit from the fair in late July,” Johnson said. “They said we needed professional design and construction, so we found an architect in Ohio through the Architects for Pete site and he sent us plans, pro bono,” Johnson said. “We found a local construction manager to volunteer to oversee the building work. 

“Two days before the fair, I realized we didn’t have a big sign on the top, so I rushed around and had one made. I want people to see the Mayor Pete sign all the way from Dan Patch Avenue.”

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Both groups used Facebook and Google forms to arrange for volunteers to staff the booths. Johnson said there are 60 people working three-hour shifts during the 12 days of the fair.

Later on Thursday, there still wasn’t a door on the Tulsi 2020 booth (by Sunday, a makeshift door had been cut into the plywood so volunteers could go inside the booth), but Zumeta said they’d handed out all of their fliers, except for one. 

How many did they start with? 

“Maybe 50,” she said.

If you build it, will they come?

A big question at both booths was: Will the candidate show up at the fair in person? 

Gabbard is currently on active duty with the Hawaiian National Guard, participating in exercises in Indonesia, the volunteers said. They said there’s always a chance she’ll show up, but the big push now is to get a 2 percent rating in two more DNC-approved polls.

So, probably not.

Buttigieg has been in Iowa a lot lately, and that’s not so far from Falcon Heights, Johnson noted. Will he come? “The jury’s out. We’re hoping. He does know about this,” she said.