The midterm elections are in just a few weeks and, while national headlines are focused on a potential “blue wave” and whether Republicans can hold onto seats in the U.S. Congress, many people are also paying close attention to what’s happening on the local level, including here in central Minnesota. On October 8, Susan Sink sat down with Jim Read at The Local Blend, a coffeehouse just a few miles from the Collegeville Institute, to talk about his campaign. Read is a Democrat running in a mostly “red” district, where he has been going door-to-door to discuss issues that matter most to voters.
Jim Read is running for a House seat in the state of Minnesota legislature. A resident of Avon, Minnesota, he has taught political science at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University (CSB/SJU) for 29 years. The district includes the heart of rural and small town Stearns County, and also CSB/SJU students. He is the author of three books, including Doorstep Democracy: Face to Face Politics in the Heartland, his account of door-to-door campaigning for the Minnesota Legislature.
This is not your first time running for office. Tell me about your earlier experiences and how they compare with your current campaign.
I ran for office in 1992 because no other Democrat would run for that state seat. I lost by 98 votes, so I know that every vote matters. In 2014 I was motivated by the way Republicans in Congress were playing chicken with the debt ceiling and the government shutdown. At that time I ran for Michele Bachmann’s congressional seat, but another candidate won the party’s nomination.
The earlier races were adventures, they were exciting, but I didn’t feel like democracy was threatened then. I do now. The fabric of our democratic culture is being ripped by deep divisions and by the success of some, including the president, in exploiting those divisions and driving them even deeper. I believe that our political system is more polarized than at any time since the 1850s, a period I study that didn’t end well. I have felt a greater sense of urgency to run this election cycle than at any time in my political life.
Why are you running for a state office instead of a seat in the U.S. Congress?
You can have a conversation at the state level. Lots of people urged me to run for U.S. Congress. Besides the enormous logistics and challenges of fundraising for a congressional seat, I believe the only remedy for the particular pathology at work in our country is conversation. And I’m not sure we can have meaningful conversation at the national level right now.
Divisions in the state legislature are magnified versions of who and what we are as an electorate: the divisiveness of our politics needs to change, and that change needs to start with us before it can change at the national level. Political change has to start in our communities.
Take immigration, for example. The state doesn’t decide who comes to Minnesota or who is able to immigrate into the country. However, each member of a community has a say in how immigrant families are treated, whether they’re welcomed or treated as enemies. How Americans treat immigrants is a local issue as much as it is national. Unfortunately, what takes place locally frequently reflects the national tone.
You can’t visit a website or pick up a magazine without seeing an article that wonders if democracy is on the ropes. What’s your take on the current state, and future, of democracy?
Polarization is the great threat to democracy, to the point where we’re unable to have a conversation, and we stop trying. I can and have had conversations with my opponent. What keeps me up at night are trends and forces that are bigger than any of us and that are ripping us apart, including well-funded attack ads by outside groups. As I see it, my role as a candidate is to talk to everyone who is willing to talk to me. I’ve been door knocking since last November, and I’ve visited 8,000 homes and talked one-on-one to more than 4,000 people in the district.
Sometimes people slam the door as soon as they find out I’m a Democrat, but mostly not. Given how divided our current politics is, many people might think that only one person in ten would talk to me. The ratio has turned out to be more like 19 out of 20. I’ve had lots of conversations where the person is surprised to find I’m more reasonable than they thought I would be. I’ve had other conversations where I know the person won’t vote for me, but the conversation still accomplished something. Of course, what I’m doing is about winning votes, but it’s also about restoring ripped civic bonds. I’m making an effort to cross this gulf.
If elected, I will work with people from the other party. But working across the aisle after an election is difficult when campaigns are so divisive. Outside Political Action Committees (PACs) have a lot to answer for in creating such a level of negativity that democratic politics, which is about compromise, becomes impossible.
I vote in your district and I’ve seen my share of negative fliers, as well as negative radio and social media ads.
Yes, those ads aren’t sponsored by my opponent but by outside groups. On the one hand, I recognize they’re running the negative ads because they see I’m a threat to the seat. Their internal polling is probably telling them I can win. Going door to door as I do is the best thing candidates can do to combat the toxic money from outside, at least for the time being. If someone receives a negative ad about me from a nameless PAC, but then has a conversation with me and gets an idea of who I am and what I’m about, I believe they will support the person over the attack. I would like to find a legal way to require at least disclosures about negative ads, about who is running them and how they are funded, but right now what we have is the ability to meet people face to face.
The Republican in the race, Lisa Demuth, seems to be a decent person. We’re opponents and that’s how our system works to give people a choice. We both agreed to spending limits, but we have no control over outside money groups and their spending. I don’t believe Lisa was consulted on the ads against me. Personally, I’m respectful to her and she to me. I sent her a letter early in the campaign that said I “don’t want to add to the ugliness” and she agreed. The outside spending is more about consolidating power in a party than the particular candidates. The real aim of these ads is to make people so disgusted they stay home and don’t vote, which the PACs think will work in their favor. When campaigning, it just adds an extra degree of difficulty in trying to break through to people to counter the attacks and present myself and my positions truthfully and clearly.
As I said, I’m worried about our democracy. We have developed brutal ways of talking and acting in this country, and it’s not only PACs that are responsible. I was horrified to watch Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents separate children from families without keeping records, meaning that some of these families will be almost impossible to reunite. But maybe even more alarming is the number of people who are cheering at rallies celebrating that policy.
Crowds also cheered on the president as he mocked a victim of sexual assault. Whether or not Christine Blasey Ford’s recollection about Brett Kavanaugh is correct, she was clearly the victim of a sexual assault. Mocking and laughter is part of the injury done to a sexual assault victim, and ordinary people are joining in the mocking. Even two or three years ago I didn’t think we would sink to this level in our public discourse.
Crowds seem to be one thing, individuals another. What do you find hopeful in the face-to-face conversations you’re having?
First, that lots of people are willing to talk. After introducing myself, I ask what they think state government can do better. Many don’t have anything specific in mind, so I ask about an issue I think might apply to them, such as healthcare, education, or the environment.
Regarding education, some people tell me they support schools but property taxes to pay for education are killing them. Since 2003 the state has been giving a steadily lower percentage to schools: property taxes have to make up the gap. There aren’t pro-education and anti-education people out there. It’s not that simple. So, how do you solve this problem? I think the state needs to do a better job of equalizing funding between school districts by supplementing property taxes. That’s one part of the solution.
Immigration is a hot button issue and is almost always brought up from an anti-immigrant point of view, even when the conversation is about legal immigrants or refugees, not illegal immigration. Here in central Minnesota, it’s not unusual for a person to say things like: “All those Somalis coming here don’t want to work. They just want to live off public support. They don’t want to learn English.” I know I won’t get that person’s vote and can’t change their mind with statistics, so I talk about my own experience. I tell them my experience with Somali refugee and immigrant communities is different. I know them as students, colleagues, and friends. I see they work hard and would be glad to have them as my neighbor. It’s clear that most of the people I talk to don’t often hear others saying that kind of thing. A successful, hopeful, outcome of those conversations is when we agree there are good and bad people of all races, lazy and hard working people of all races. Less successful is when the person shakes his or her head and closes the door.
Many people express their dissatisfaction with politicians and politics. They ask, “Why can’t the politicians stop fighting and work together?” We had a crisis last year when the Republican majority decided to roll the entire state budget into an omnibus bill, where legislators had to vote for all or nothing. They believed the Democratic governor of Minnesota wouldn’t veto it because there were so many important spending proposals he supported in the bill. But he did veto it.
That kind of crisis makes ordinary people say the legislators are fighting like second graders, and I can’t disagree with that. The process is broken, and it’s a hopeful sign that most people recognize that. I will make a genuine effort to work across the aisle, and press for process changes so that items on which we have agreement are separated from more divisive issues and passed separately.
Religion obviously plays a large role in American politics. But the tradition of the separation of church and state is as old as the Republic. What role do you think religion should play in politics?
People get ideas of right and wrong, just and unjust, from their religious upbringing. That is not a violation of church and state. Where I think political arguments based on religious convictions are not appropriate, is when people make arguments that assume everyone shares, or should share, the same religious faith. For example, to say, “This is a Catholic community, so you must believe X,” or “This is a Christian country, where we believe Y.” Christianity is not an official state religion. You can be religious and support separation of church and state. To do so is to say you don’t want religion to be turned into an instrument of worldly power. That corrupts both government and religion.
James Madison is great on this topic. He says it is not the job of the government or laws to tell us what to think about God, the universe, the afterlife. Government doesn’t know anything about those things. Your thoughts about those matters are individual and not subject to public authority. Jefferson and Madison thought alike on this, borrowing from John Locke: public authority exists to protect your life, liberty, and property. Because your religious views are important, they should not be dictated by those in government.
People wrongly see the separation of church and state as hostility to religion, but it’s the opposite. Religious convictions exist on more than one side of an issue, take, for example, same sex marriage. There is an argument on that issue within Christianity. It is appropriate that people draw from their religious roots for what they say and think in the political sphere, but that is different from assuming that religious perspectives should automatically carry broad public authority on the grounds that the U.S. is a Christian country.