North America: Casting a vote for Minnesota

By Carroll du Chateau

Ahead of the US election Carroll du Chateau visits her daughter in democratic Minnesota and marvels at its progressive ways.

Minnesota's skyline. Minnesota is home to the Mall of America - the largest mall in the world. Photo / Bloomberg
Minnesota's skyline. Minnesota is home to the Mall of America - the largest mall in the world. Photo / Bloomberg

From the moment I step off the plane, I sense I'm in Obama country. The airport officer welcomes me, at 1am, with a cheery "Howdy Doody".

My fellow commuters heave my suitcase off the carousel without being asked, and the woman who has spent the past three hours telling me about the mould that's killing her - "crushing her lungs" - gives me a watery wave. She's come home for treatment at Minnesota's famed Mayo Clinic.

"If anyone can save me, they can."

This is Minnesota, the state that turns my preconceptions about mid-west America on its head. Indeed, the Scandinavians, Northern Europeans and Irish who founded the twin cities of Minneapolis and St Paul around 1860, set the blueprint for what may well be the world's first eco-city.

They founded their new country on grain farming, and since 1932, voted solidly democratic with only one blip when they joined the landslide and voted for Nixon in 1972.

Molly Culligan, who's lived here all her life, explains that Minnesota's strong DFL Party stands for Democratic Farmer Labor Party.

"This is traditionally a progressive, pragmatic state. All the medical stuff that Obama's proposing, Minnesota did years ago. Charter schools started here. Pre-paid medical plans started in Minnesota. As Clinton said, 'Minnesota's way out in front on progressive ideas'."

This time though, support is not as strong as in 2008 when Obama defeated McCain by 10 per cent. Three weeks out from the election the four big polling companies give Obama between 49 and 53 per cent of the Minnesota vote to Romney's 43. Says Culligan confidently: "We're not considered a swing state in this election." Perhaps even more so, after Obama's swift reaction to Hurricane Sandy.

Those early Minnesotans were ecologically ahead too. Successive generations planted playgrounds and community centres every few blocks, annexed the land fringing the city's bracelet of lakes for walking and cycling paths. Later they tore up the tram tracks and designed a series of "greenways" so everyone, including commuters can walk or bike to work from 20-odd kilometres out of town.

Which is probably why there are a good number of slim exercise fanatics. My daughter's (who was living in Minnesota at the time and who we were there to visit) local store is a Co-Op bigger than your average Countdown. Alongside the organic tinned tomatoes and bread, there's an entire section devoted to natural medicines (with an expert in attendance to advise you), another section for wooden toys and hemp and cotton baby clothes, a kitchen serving organic soups and fresh-made sandwiches, a lunch-room for members, play-space for kids and a little old lady sitting near the exit to help you exchange goods. Small and energetic, she has been on the Co-Op for decades and knows every product in the store.

Yet despite treading lightly on the earth, Minnesotans firmly maintain the capitalist system. Though eco-tourists come to study the greenways and co-ops, shoppers come for the Mall of America, the biggest in the entire United States, bigger than 78 football fields or 9.5 million square feet. There's no tax on clothing in Minnesota, and the mall, sited conveniently by the airport, is stuffed with stores like Nordstrom, Bloomingdales, Gap and the rest. Plus there's a Disney-style fun park and roller coaster for the kids, and hotels - some connected by covered walkways - so tourists never have to set a foot outside, let alone head into the city.

Out in the suburbs people recycle fervently and mow their verges. Families, including kids, rake leaves into council-provided bags - or risk frowns of disapproval from street guardian and eco-warrior Dan, who lives across the road from my daughter.

Dan's verge is a bowling green, his recycling a joy to behold - and he and June stage massive dinners of ribs and roasts and blueberry pie for family and neighbours (and run care packages over the road to my daughter - she'd broken her foot) every Sunday night.

This is the kind of neighbourhood where cars keep to the speed limit - or slower if a dog veers near in case it runs out. One night the guys replanting a nearby garden leave a couple of newish shovels, a cellphone and some tree-loppers down by the sidewalk. And, hard to believe, they're still there in the morning.

A block away a woman walks her cats on 15-metre-long strings. "I trained them as kittens" she says. "This way they find it hard to kill the birds, though they try, they try!"

And when the yellow School Bus creaks to a halt in the middle of a crossroads to disgorge its cargo of kids, out slides a built-in barrier arm on the road side of the bus plus stop signs front and back. On flash the bus's red hazard lights and beeper. Out jump the kids, blithely running across the roads in all directions while the motorists sit there, waiting.

Can any place be too green and too safe? I think it's great. If New Zealand adopted this system and put kids first, perhaps parents would trust our school buses - and no children would be run over.

Birthplace of the mighty Mississippi, with Great Lakes Superior and Michigan on one side, Dakota on the other and Canada to the north, Minnesota with its 5.3 million people and 13,000 lakes is about as flat, watery and cold as it gets. But there are upsides. The seasons explode with a speed and glory we seldom see in New Zealand. For the vast majority life is good.

Garrison Keiller of A Prairie Home Companion and Minnesota local, describes it deadpan. Remember Lake Wobegon, "where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average"?

Like all good send-ups, the joke's more than half-true. Eighty per cent of citizens have high school diplomas, 70 per cent own their own homes and more have health insurance than anywhere else in the US. Back in 2004, Minnesotans earned 20 per cent more than the US average.

Which, sadly, doesn't add-up to a buzzy city centre. AA Gill could have been talking about Minneapolis when he described Los Angeles as "a suburb in search of a city". Probably because there's snow on the ground from November till April, the ingenious Minnesotans devised a central city skyway system of covered walkways one floor up, so people can get around without having to face the weather. It sure didn't do much for street life.

But just when you thought Minneapolis must be clean, green and boring as hell, it's worth remembering that this is the hometown of F Scott Fitzgerald, Prince and Bob Dylan, Purple Rain was shot here, and 1st Ave, where it was set, is one of the most important live music venues in America.

Youngsters from smaller midwest towns gravitate here to study and join bands. The Current, 89.3FM plays non-stop original music.

"I've been waiting for you to come back since you left Minneapolis. Snow cones the streetlamps and the windowsills," croons Lucinda Williams. ..."Never got used to this bitter winter."

And the people are great. One morning Nick, our neighbour, takes me across the Mississippi to Dinkytown, St Pauls, for a typical Minnesota breakfast. The University of Minnesota is playing Penn State, and dozens of fans are attempting to squash into Al's 16-seat diner. I take a swifty inside. There are the lucky 16, hoeing into hash browns and pancakes while the next in line stand behind them, one at each stool, waiting politely, as only Minnesotans can.

After buying some surprisingly good coffees and chatting to our fellow diners, we finally make it into Al's and on to our stools.

And was it worth it? The hash browns were fabulous as were the hotcakes. And nothing could compete with the Keiller-style jokes from the sweating cooks as they flick out the eggs, sunny side up, down, any way you want 'em.

"It's a great place to live if you're not poor," says Nick.

Back to Molly Culligan who makes her living by selling Minneapolis to the world's bright young Madmen.

As she explains, the international advertising whizzes, art directors and writers that Minneapolis ad agencies and multinationals want, don't like three-metre winter snowdrifts.

"There's New York, London, Paris, Sydney - nice places. If you've a choice between Paris and Minneapolis it's not that tough to turn Minneapolis down," she drawls, standing there in her skinny black tights, fitted jacket, blonde hair and blusher. "What I do is assist companies with their recruiting."

How does she convince them? Easy! Accentuate the positive.

"We're on the good side of global warming here," she says.

"Sure, by the end of November we could have a snow flurry. And by Christmas it's cold enough so the snow stays on the ground. But it doesn't go slushy. It's beautiful. We have clear blue days through winter. By April it's spring and gorgeous and 70 degrees again. It's over!"

"And Bob Dylan has already proven that if you're determined to surprise the world, Minneapolis is as good a place as any to raise your voice."


Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily to Los Angeles and to San Francisco five days a week, with through fares to Minneapolis/St Paul.

Carroll du Chateau travelled to Minneapolis with help from Air New Zealand.

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