Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series of Community Voices essays related to the urban-rural divide ahead of Lisa Pruitt’s speech at the Westminster Town Hall Forum on Tuesday, Oct. 25. Want to weigh in on the discussion? You can submit a Community Voices piece (instructions here) or fill out our form asking both Greater Minnesota and Twin Cities residents to share what’s driving their votes this election.
Earlier this month, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon made the trek to Winona and presented Winona State University with the 2020 Democracy Cup for the most voter turnout of all four-year public state universities in Minnesota.
It’s the fourth election in which Winona State University has received this distinction, and this episodic and celebratory event helps illustrate a complex narrative of civic and political life in southeastern Minnesota.
Considered a rural area in Greater Minnesota, Winona is not immune to the dysfunctional partisan polarization, the culture wars, and the disinformation campaigns. Indeed, there is growing distrust in public institutions and public servants and a fallen faith in the American Dream. There are growing disparities in wealth, distrust in elected officials and science, and COVID exacerbated a healthy skepticism of the public good.
However, Winona is more complicated and more nuanced than the typical political soundbite. In a truly purple county where Republican Donald Trump won by almost 3 percentage points (2016) and Biden flipped the same county by less than ½ of a point (2020), it has experienced its share of divided government. In the same U.S. Congressional District (MN-1), which was formerly held by DFL Gov. Tim Walz, and now Republican Congressman Brad Finstad, the city of Winona is represented in the state Legislature by Republican Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller and DFL Rep. Gene Pelowski, where both experience favorable public approval. It seems voters in Winona regularly split-ticket vote and are rewarded by healthy disagreement and good governance.
But political participation and civic engagement in Winona run deeper than party lines. In a county with a population of a little over 50,000, it is about relationships, family, and community. These healthy relationships determine robust civic associations and build social capital for successful political outcomes.
For example, the county attorney’s daughter played soccer with my daughter. The partner of the Chair of the Winona County Board was another daughter’s talented-and-gifted teacher. Our school board representative is one of my close colleagues on the American Democracy Project at Winona State University, and the city manager used to be the parks and rec guy. Local government and our elected officials are our neighbors and our friends. I sometimes email them, and they always reply. This seems like healthy democratic representation and responsiveness.
In 2017, I was asked by CIRCLE, a national research center focused on increasing and strengthening youth civic engagement, to participate in a discussion on civic deserts at the annual Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement conference in Baltimore. Because Winona is considered a rural area with potentially limited access to civic resources for young people, I was asked to respond to this categorization of rural areas like Winona.
Then, and now, I think this is a gross overgeneralization and stereotype of places like Winona, which are hardly barren deserts void of culture, expertise, and good people. With three institutions of higher education and sound public schools, the quality of life may be simple, but it is strong, resilient, and educated. Greater Minnesotans, or Winonans, do not live with a deficit mindset. Rather, they value their access to quality education, pristine public lands, and a vibrant arts culture and community.
I was recently asked by a public official from one of the local governments in the metro area, “Why are you in Winona? No one stays in Winona.” I have pondered such a strange, and perhaps rude, question several times.
Dare I mention we just celebrated our Democracy Cup? Enough said.
Kara Lindaman is a professor of political science and public administration at Winona State University.