What happened in Pepin County?

To find out about America, Politico senior writer Michael Kruse headed for the banks of the Mississippi River in Wisconsin.

Pepin County — Stockholm, Pepin, Durand etc. — voted for a Democrat in every election since 1972.

Any visit to the area — Stockholm, for example — screamed “progressive”, where businesses once placed “No Frack Sand Mining” signs on their property without fear that it would hurt business.

Those days are gone, as Kruse’s article, “What Do You Do If a Red States Moves to You,” makes clear.

Sixty percent of Pepin County voted for Donald Trump, one of the biggest flips in the country.

“I said to myself, ‘I don’t know my own neighbors,’” Terry Mesch, who oversees the historical society, told Kruse.

People who’ve ever moved into a small town might recognize the dynamic of the area. It’s people who’ve lived there all their lives vs. the “newcomers”, in this case: the people from the Twin Cities and Minnesota.

The withering of old Pepin County has coincided with the influx of the move-ins. Minneapolis and St. Paul are an hour-and-a-half drive and a world away, and the people who have come from “the Cities,” as the people here call them, are typically retirees or close to it, and often well-off enough to restore old houses or build big new ones.

The economy around them, geared more toward their wallets and tastes as well as those of tourists, relies on wineries, galleries, bed and breakfasts, seasonal art festivals—and a pie shop run by the husband-and-husband team of Steve Grams and Alan Nugent.

“It feels like somebody is coming from the outside and changing their world,” said the area’s state senator, Kathleen Vinehout, a Democrat, tells Politico.

It feels that way because it is that way, according to Kruse.

And what I heard in Pepin County, again and again, is that they’ve had it. In conversation after conversation with people who have lived here forever and who voted for Trump, some people were more measured and diplomatic than others—but the same blunt, base feelings kept coming up.

“Where’s the richest place to live?” said Gerald Bauer, 74, born and raised on a local dairy farm, who now is the vice chairperson of the county board of supervisors. “The area around Washington, D.C.—that’s wrong.”

And here these city people have come, with their money and their politics, right to Pepin County, which now has its very own liberal left coast. “The ones that move in try to change everything,” said Gary Samuelson, 72, “and the people who’ve been here a long time don’t care too much for change.”

“They don’t share our views on anything,” Vic Komisar, 41, the president of the ATV club, said of the people from Minnesota. “They got this picture that we’re all country bumpkins, the locals are, that we’re not educated. The people who move in talk down to the natives. I don’t know how you want to word that, but that’s the persona given off.”

The new reality has created a new friction as people try to avoid talking about politics. But unlike a city, in small towns and counties, you can’t just ignore people.

“Here, the person with whom you have strenuous political differences is also the person who drives the ambulance or the fire truck or teaches your kids at school,” one resident says. “You have to engage with people with whom you disagree. We have to figure that out—if America is going to survive as a democracy. It sounds dramatic to say, but that’s really where we are.”

But several “newcomers” say they’re hearing pushback from the “oldtimers.” The Minnesota ex-pats are the new immigrants.

“‘Why are you in office? You’re not from here. How long have you lived here? I’ve lived here all my life’—that sentiment is definitely here,” Dwight Jelle, 56, who moved to Pepin County from Minneapolis in 2010. “One of the things that drives us crazy, is that we can’t be part of the Pepin County original culture. It’s just: ‘We’re not from here, we’re from the Cities.’ So that’s where that cultural divide is.”

We are more divided than anyone thought.

  • Rob

    I’ve spent a fair amount of time motorcycling in Pepin County, as it’s totally scenic, and the Stockholm area is fun and funky. As I get closer to retirement, that area will definitely be on my relocation radar. And if enough Twin Citians move to Pepin County, election outcomes will start to tip back the other way.
    ; )

  • Gary F

    Pepin County is nice country. I drive through it on the way to Nelson and Alma, Buffalo County. Yes, there are more folks from “the cities” moving to that area, my friends have. But in the soul searching that Dems are going thru I wouldn’t blame Minnesota, they just barely voted for Hillary. I’d reference back to the Colin Peterson Washington Post article to get some insight on why this happened. The Dems need fewer scapegoats and need to change their message.

    What happened to Pepin County? The leftward movement of the Democratic Party.

    • Rob

      I think a few years of T.Rump’s and Congressional Repubs’ shenanigans will obviate the need for any Dem scapegoats or the need to significantly change messages.

    • Jerry

      Of course it’s going to look like the democrats are moving left when republicans are rushing to the far right.

    • Will

      So true, I find it is odd that we rarely hear anyone on the left pointing out their rapid movement left might be the problem. Maybe long-time legislators like Tim Walz, Collin Peterson and even Rick Nolan should begin to hold leadership positions in the Democrat Party and educate others about being more moderate.

      • Gary F

        Walz is moving left because he’s got his eyes on the governorship.

        You wonder if Peterson, Walz and Nolan even have a say in room full of Democrats.

      • wjc

        The name is “Democratic Party”.

        • Will

          Yep and our president’s name is Trump and not T.Rump. On top of that I was a Democrat less than a decade ago, my parents are Democrats and I grew up referring to the Democrat Party as such, I wasn’t offended then and this a new concept that it’s suddenly “offensive” to use a term I heard and used all my life. I honestly think it makes it clearer to differentiate between Democrat as a political party vs democracy as the form of government.

          • DavidG

            Actually, no it’s not a new concept that it’s a slur. It actually goes back to the 1890s. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democrat_Party_(epithet)#History_of_usage

          • rover27

            It became a thing for the GOPers during the tragic W years.

          • Rob

            Every time I input “Trump,” my autocorrect says it’s “T.Rump.” : )
            If your folks were full-on Democrats, I have a high amount of dubiety about your claim that they referred to it as the Democrat Party.

          • It’s not new. It’s been accepted as a pejorative for at least 10 years. Also: Harold Stassen.

  • MrE85

    I’m already tired of the navel gazing. The future is Nov. 6, 2018. Look that direction, America.

    • When mostly Democratic Senate seats are up?

      • MrE85

        Yep. And all the House seats. We may not get a “re-do” election, but we do have the opportunity to make a response. That would be next November. Good luck, America.

        • Postal Customer

          It ain’t happening.

          • Bg_Rdish

            Depends how much of a disaster Trump is. If he’s still sitting at 40% in November ’18, things will get pretty ugly for the GOP.

      • jon

        But all of the house is up… and we’ve already seen what a majority in the house can do (or more realistically not do, and stop from happening)… just need to fix the gerrymandered districts…

    • Gary F
      • MrE85

        Wilderness? Woodshed, I would say, after a proper spanking. 😉

    • Mike

      I’d even be OK with some of the navel gazing if I thought it was productive. (And actually, I thought Bob’s post was pretty good in that it gets beyond the shallow partisanship.)

      Nonetheless, the Democratic Party still seems to be heavily invested in blaming the voters for their losses. That doesn’t bode well for 2018 if you consider yourself on the left side of the spectrum.

      • rover27

        No. Presidentially, blame goes 1)Comey letter, 2)Media 18 mo. saturation coverage of emails as if it was a crime, 3)Russian/WikiLeaks interference to help T Rump, 4)media treating Hillary like she was the only serious candidate and that Trump not given same serious coverage because they couldn’t believe the American voter would actually put a vile buffoon like that in office,5) some campaign errors that all campaigns make.

    • Postal Customer

      It is going to be an absolute bloodbath. You ain’t seen nothin yet.

  • Jay T. Berken

    I bet that the rest of rural America would like this problem since it is dying and people are moving out. You can’t have it both ways.

  • The larger story — yeah, go ahead and have the same old conservative v. liberal debate; that’s always insightful — is one of change. People don’t LIKE change. They don’t like their communities changing and become different from when they grew up.

    The question is whether it’s possible to forestall change in a community or a country and maintain — or return to — a previous way of life?

    The other big part of the story is how we relate to people who are different, be it political, racial, ethnically, socio economically etc? Because, as the piece said, in many places we don’t have the luxury of just ignoring people or turning them into enemies.

    Those are hard questions requiring introspection.

    Now, please continue with your throwing bricks back and forth. That’s way easier.

    • MikeB

      People will gladly accept change when it’s in their best interest. But the high paying manufacturing jobs are not coming back. Supporting a family at $13 per hour won’t cut it. It is not possible to return to a previous way of life. The new money coming into these rural ares foster a tourist economy and will not turn around what has already happened. Neither will blaming gay people, BLM, or The Other.

      • ec99

        Does the person marrying and having a family while making $13 an hour have any responsibility for his poor decisions?

        • MikeB

          People saw their parents and grandparents able to make a good living with a high school education. Perhaps have a boat or a small cabin. That doesn’t exist anymore, but people still want to have a family.

          Now, $13 may be a pipe dream. Tough to relocate across the country when you cannot save enough to cover a major car repair of health issue.

          • ec99

            Your key word is “want.” Want is what gives us a trillion dollars in consumer debt. It is what causes people to buy houses and cars they cant afford, and graduate from universities saddled with a bill it will take decades for them to pay off.

          • ec99

            And this is supposed to mean what, argumentum ad misericordiam? Perhaps I should have said whim instead. Now, care to address my points?

          • Michael

            Yes, “want” does give us the large debt, but that debt is needed by industry and industry has convinced us that we “want” all this stuff. I have read articles, and I apologize but I do not have a link right now, that talk about how to keep our economy moving and the “want” level high rather than increase salaries and available capital, since most of the capital is accruing towards the top 10%, we have moved to Loans and Debt (Credit Cards) to get together enough money to buy stuff that we are convinced we need and keep the economy moving.

            People want to be able to live a full life. To be able to fall in love, create a family, give their children good things and a good life. They do not like when they do “everything right”, “everything their parents did” and society is not providing enough means for them to live as their parents lived, as they remember their childhoods.

            I am not sure it is a poor decision to start a family when you are only making $13 an hour. Starting a family is a more complex question than just how much do I take in a year. They do bare some responsibility for starting their family, but they have also been told the American myth again and again. You CAN pull yourself up by your own boot straps, if you work hard you CAN make it and become rich. You will start your family now and things will get better and you will make more money. It is a core value of the Republican point of view, and why government needs to “stay out of my business” but that might not be true right now, we might not be able to do it alone anymore.

            As always there is more to the story.

            I apologize for not clearly answering your question, I am still exploring these issues myself.

          • Rob

            Last time I looked, consumerism is the engine of our economy. If we don’t exercise some of our wants, our economy goes down the toilet. Whether people are making prudent choices when it comes to satisfying their wants is a whole ‘nother question. To me, a 700-hp Dodge Hellcat is a perefectly justifiable “want.” : )

          • Heb Ienek

            It’s clear folks need seek council on appropriatly justifiable wants. It’s no less important than what they need.

          • rallysocks

            So, it’s okay for the well-off to want and buy everything they want and the poor people (who have clearly made poor choices or they wouldn’t be poor) just have to be happy with their lot in life and never dream of owning a boat, a cabin or any other thing that would perhaps bring them a little bit of relaxation or joy?

        • Jerry

          So poor people should not have families? That’s a slippery slope.

          • Khatti

            And economists who can justify not paying you more than $13 and hour can also justify you’re having a family so the economy has a future.

    • Rob

      The fact that people don’t like change isn’t much of a story; to quote R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, “‘Twas ever thus.” As to the question of whether change can be forestalled, the answer is clearly “No.” And for the most part, we don’t relate to/don’t choose to relate to people who are different; that’s not likely to change either. Do we make nice with people who are different when it’s necessary for economic/transactional reasons? Sure. But if we’re seeking kumbaya in our fractured politucal and social landscape, I think it’ll be a pretty fruitless search.

      • // isn’t much of a story

        It’s THE story of our time.

        • Rob

          The fact that people don’t like change is one of the main, constant realities of our time, but it isn’t a new development, so in that sense it isn’t news. The fact that people don’t like change is more magnified now, but that still doesn’t make it the story of our time. I think the bigger story is people voting against their own interests, and trying to figure out as a society how, if at all, this phenomenon can be ameliorated.

          • Khatti

            Have a question for you, one you might want to think about at length in case someone a lot angrier than me ever asks it: To what extant is voting my economic interests a plan, and to what extent is it a bribe?

          • Rob

            Who are you bribing?

          • Khatti

            The poor and deluded who are not voting the way you are. Just sayin.

          • Rob

            So it’s //the poor and deluded// who are being bribed? By the politicians they vote for, is that what you mean? What are you just sayin’?

          • X.A. Smith

            And to what extent is it a fantasy?

          • Heb Ienek

            “…people voting against their own interests.”

            That one never gets old, does it?

            You all just keep lecturing, and scolding and they just keep ignoring all that free enlightenment and wisdom, again and again and probably, in 2018, yet again.

            Well, what are ya gonna do, right?

          • Rob

            Who’s lecturing or scolding? I’m just noting that lots of people vote against their own interests; this phenomenon was on clear display in the Prez election. If you’re one of those people who votes against his/her own interests, I ain’t trying to stop you; go ahead on.

          • Heb Ienek

            Oh, I’m sorry. There I go again.

            I don’t know what in the world leads me to think anyone not smart enough know what’s good for him would fail to mistake not-a-lecture for a lecture, especially from people so smart they know what’s good for everyone else.

            You’ll have to spot me one. I’m just over here rubbing together the two brain synapses God gave me, hoping to get a spark.

          • Rob

            Maybe it’s me that’s slow; what part of noting that lots of people vote against their own interests strikes you as lecturing ? Nowhere in my comments did I state or infer that I have any occult knowledge as to what’s good for you. Whether you voted against your own interests or not is between you and your gods.

          • Move along, now, fellas.

    • Will

      Everyone lives there, being there longer is irrelevant. They should talk to one another and work things out.

      • Rob

        I’m ready to hold hands.

      • Michael

        Boy you do ask the hard things don’t you.

        If I have been there all my life and I KNOW the way things are suppose to happen, have always happened, should always happen for my kids why are you coming in and messing everything up for my children and grand children. You do not know our history and why/how things are done. You aren’t even asking. Where is your respect for the town.

        If I am just moving in and see the town with new eyes, and love the town — else why would I move there — but some things should change to make it better for everyone, in my opinion, how you can you not see that I am trying to make it better for me, my children, my grandchildren and yes, even you. History is in the past we need to look to the future, not the “golden days of yesteryear” when I was not here.

        It isn’t as easy to get together as I would like, and listen to each other, and acknowledge that we all have valid points and real reasons, not just “It has always been done this way” and “Where I come from” and try to find compromise. It is hard to reach outside ourselves.

        • Will

          That’s the same argument Trump voters were making. We were here first, therefore our ideas about America are more correct. That simply doesn’t add up…new legal immigrants have just as much right to speak up and have their voices heard even if the people there “first” disagree.

          • Rob

            When you say first people, do you mean Native Americans?

          • Michael

            Yes, it is some of the same arguments that they were making, that’s the point. They are feeling that the new immigrants who have the right to speak up are not hearing what the old timers have to say, not listening to their needs.

            This is not about what should be happening, what rights people should have, but how people feel, what their perceptions of the situation are and how we are not looking to understand the other side to try and find places where we can share, can communicate, can compromise.

            Your comment speaks to the needs of the new people, but does not seem to leave much room for the old people.

    • jon

      How do we relate, When we have “alternative facts” how do we find a common ground to start from?

      We don’t believe a word the other side is saying…
      We find articles that support our pre-existing beliefs and use them to argue our points rather than digging for flaws in the articles that dispute our believes…

      We don’t value a well rationed argument, sometimes we even despise them.
      Where does the conversation start when people have a firm belief directly opposed to your own, and sometimes directly opposed to documented reality?

  • Jerry

    I still don’t understand, how does this all add up to voting for Trump? If the residents of Pepin County dislike rich city dwellers with big egos so much, then what can possibly be the appeal of Donald Trump?

    • Will

      I’m sort of confused too, higher income, older people tend to lean right not left…

      • Rob

        Not moi.

      • wjc

        Nor moi! I started out pretty liberal, and have gotten more so. I have realized that we are only going to solve our problems as a country not through unfettered competition and a dog-eat-dog attitude.

      • Ralphy

        My mother was a Republican Party activist and convention delegate in the 50’s and 60’s.
        By the mid-70’s she became a Democrat. A 6 term county commissioner in Wisconsin that became more progressive with each passing year.
        My dad was a far left socialist. After his experience in WW2, was very involved in the anti-war movement in the 60’s.
        Many interesting conversations during the dinner hour as a kid.
        I am in my 60’s, and on some issues I am to the left of Wellstone, on some to the right of Amy K.

      • Tim

        Not higher income, older people from the Twin Cities, though.

    • MikeB

      Resentment and grievance overcame pocketbook issues. People were receptive to the perception of their lives being overrun by crime and immigration, so when a Strongman comes along and promises to fix it, it had an appeal.

  • Anna

    When change occurred after WWII, it wasn’t at lightning speed the way is is today. Welcome to the Digital Age.

    People need time to adjust to change and when it occurs too quickly, they dig their heels in and try to slow it down.

    Digital communication has nearly eliminated face-to-face
    communication. It has invaded every aspect of society. E-mail,
    texting, Twitter, Facebook are all fine and good but you can’t smell
    them, you can’t touch them and you can’t physically talk to them and you
    can’t see the subtle body language in them.

    You still need those
    soft skills to succeed in the business world and employers are finding
    it increasingly difficult to find younger workers who have them to any
    great degree. It’s the number one complaint of employers today.

    And you need those soft skills to become socially integrated in a small town. You need to talk with your new neighbors. Offer to meet for a cup of coffee. Invite them over for dinner.

    Talk to the established residents. Let them reminisce about the things they remember and learn their history. Once you have their trust and respect, they will treat you as an equal.

    But be prepared. It will take a lot longer than you think. This can’t be done at digital speed. It has to be done at human speed.

    Until the rise of the Tea Party Republicans and the recent election, we seemed to have a healthy respect for opinions different than our own. We could agree to disagree. We had a well developed listening skill.

    We have to start listening and talking and you can’t do that with a computer.

  • Mike Worcester

    Alright, I’ll take a run at this.

    As someone who grew up in a very rural, and poor, county in north central Minnesota, my family saw this wave first-hand. Four years ago my home county voted for Mitt Romney, barely. In 2016 like many rural counties they swung hard to Trump. They swung so hard that all three of of the Democratic state legislators who represented their county in St. Paul got cast aside. U.S. Rep Richard Nolan would have lost had it been up to my home county. It of course made me wonder what happened?

    Like many other commenters have noted, there was a confluence of fear, resistance to change, and I have to say it, a measure sexist attitudes towards Sec. Clinton. My parents noted to me how many of their long-time friends, all good people in their minds, would spout amazingly nasty comments about Clinton and how a women has no business being in the White House.

    When I was a kid up there, we used to make snide comments about the seasonal home owners who wanted all the amenities they had in their primary homes (read – the big city) yet howled when their property taxes went up to pay for them. Thirty years ago those part-timers were not a majority of property in the area. Now they are and the long-time residents are resentful

    They are also resentful of newcomers who try to participate in local politics. Reminds me of a comment made by a family member (half in jest) — “you haven’t lived here long enough to get to have an opinion.”

    They are resentful of people they see as sponging off the government, never mind that as the fifth poorest county in the state, my home school district has 65% of its student population on free or reduced price lunch. To them, all those “other” people — and you can about imagine to whom they are referring — are the reason why their taxes are so high, because of all the benefits they get that they do not deserve. And they are resentful that the world seems to have moved past them, leaving them behind.

    Are all these attitudes fair to hold? To them, absolutely, facts be damned.

    As someone who has lived in a fair share of communities in my life, I’ve seen those attitudes everywhere I have been. The 2016 election seemed to magnify those attitudes and convert them into votes. To me, they are scary attitudes. To others, they are perfectly logical.

    The key question, I suppose, is how to we try to begin to bridge those divides? I’m open to suggestion.

    • Same experience when I lived in a town that was settled during the Revolution, where streets were named after families and if there wasn’t a family plot in the cemetery, you were a newcomer.

      We were a tourist area and, man, we hated 212ers. They were obnoxiou and loud, they thought they owned the place, they drove up property prices with their second homes, they clogged the streets on the weekend. It was awful.

      Then Wall St. crashed and suddenly they weren’t coming anymore, or buying up homes.

      A recession soon followed because the economy of the area collapsed.

      And that’s how I ended up in Minnesota.

      We’re in a global world, even in our little tiny towns. We don’t have the luxury of being insular or to think we don’t depend on each other to sustain our lives.

      • Mike Worcester

        I look at many of the rural counties in Minnesota and think that were it not for the “newcomers”, no matter from where they hail or what color they are, their population drain would have been even more severe. And that loss of importance/relevance is terrifying to the fourth and fifth generation residents.

  • You don’t indicate what those percentages are.

    • Mike Worcester

      I would presume they are overall changes in population. Ex – 1980 to 1990, loss of 370 total residents, equaling 4.9% of population. Then gaining 106 through 2000, 1.5% uptick.

  • Jerry

    I am curious if people in these small towns ever contemplate that the reason they often lose their young people is because of the “small town values” they are fighting to keep.

  • From the article on the state of the county:

    “It’s been a steady decline for years—probably since the mid-’80s,” Sue Wolf told me.”

    The story paints a familiar story of rural America… kids going off to college and never coming back.

    • Veronica

      And the comment above speaks to this: for those of us who grew up in small towns and went to college–why would we want to go back? Back to few opportunities, town gossip, and Perkins as the only real restaurant option?

      Small towns are the real death spiral: the kids that can leave, do. As the decent-paying jobs that don’t require a college degree leave, the people left in town start to leave town to buy groceries, shoes, clothes, medication. Within 5-10 years the shoe store downtown closes, the men’s clothing store that had been open for 120 closes, the coffee shop that was “charming” closes…

      And soon, you have a ghost town that only those without the means to escape are still living in.

      20 years after leaving the small town I grew up in, never once have I ever thought my life would be better if I still lived there. Blech.

      • tboom

        And now what happens to us in the “big cities” as robotic industries claims our jobs? Hint: don’t say “run the robots”, those jobs are highly skilled, take a certain mindset and are not plentiful enough to employ the displaced. Where do we go when big cities become ghost towns?

        One of the biggest problems I see is the stratification of income. Rural resent “rich city folk”, poor unemployed and under-employed resent well off employed. “I want what he/she has”. As robotics continues to take over jobs we fracture into classes and those that fall into the lower economic strata become susceptible to the snake-oil salesman that claims he has a magic potion that will fix everything.

        I believe this country needs to have a discussion about its social contract.

        • Veronica

          And that’s where a minimum universal income becomes necessary.

          Robots will never replace some jobs, like education, childcare, plumbing, electrical, hvac, any level of decent cooking, even healthcare.

          Oh, and the arts. 🙂

  • I’m not seeing anything there to hang a hat on for that conclusion.

    As near as I can tell, the Politico story doesn’t suggest a big influx of new older residents. I can older to be 60, but perhaps you’re using a different number.

    Anyway, net migration doesn’t much interest me (in-migration +/- out migration).

  • And it’s not just rural areas.


    that was three years ago, by the way, when I told people what the November election also told them.

  • Rob

    Well said.

  • Tyler

    Gee, it sure is disruptive to have your bubble popped.

  • You should distrust all journalism. But rather than just decide you don’t believe it, consider it an opportunity to investigate, #1.

    #2, the Census tables you provide, don’t really say what you say they say.

    It’s true, the people of Pepin County who talked to the reporter are primarily revealing their personal thoughts and perspective. That ain’t necessarily worth nothing.

  • Right. The data shows only the population trends. It doesn’t show in-migration or out-migration. It only shows that the total number of people has stayed the same. That doesn’t mean they’re the same people.

  • Credit Warrior

    I am 73 and I like change.Many in our area flipped their vote from Democrat to Trump as there was frustration in stagnate wages and high cost of health care. As far as change goes, I think Alexander Graham Bell said “When one door closes another door opens; but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.” Change is good and can bring new idea’s from unexpected sources.

  • Heidi Jeannine Krause

    I moved to Stockholm 2 years ago, because I love the beauty of the area and fell in love with our property. I’m not sure what category Politico would have me fall into, but I am sure that how I voted had nothing to do with people from the Twin Cities. I have voted in every election since turning 18, but this election was the worst. People no longer can agree to disagree. There is a lot of hatred towards people that didn’t vote the same. Enough. I did vote for Trump. I do believe change is needed. And as a woman, there was no way that I could vote for Hillary to have the title of 1st female president. In his 1st week, it appears as though he has hit the ground running. I look forward to seeing what happens in this coming year.