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Herald Journal | DC Enterprise-Dispatch | Delano Herald Journal
Living liberally in a conservative community
Nov. 28, 2016

By Gabe Licht, Editor

It’s been three weeks since Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. While 46.41 percent of Minnesotans voted for Hillary Clinton, compared to 44.95 percent who voted for Trump, the numbers were quite different in Delano and Wright County at large.

In Delano, 56.12 percent voted for Trump, while just 33.7 percent voted for Clinton, with the margin even wider at the county level: 62.16 percent voted for Trump, compared to just 29.21 percent who voted for Clinton.

Those numbers make one thing clear: individuals who identify as liberal or a member of the Democratic Farmer Labor Party are in the minority.

Some of those individuals – Janice Holter Kittok, Chris Brazelton, Amy Johnson, and John Dietering – are sharing their views on what it means to be a Democrat, and what it’s like to be in the political minority.

Political involvement

While Clinton was challenging Trump, Kittok was challenging District 29 Sen. Bruce Anderson. Kittok received 33.89 percent of the votes, compared to 66 percent for Anderson.

Kittok, of Delano, knew going into the race that she was an underdog.

“It’s a challenge to get people who might vote Democrat to get energized about a campaign,” Kittok said. “The long-standing record of Republican wins discourages involvement. Several people told me they would not put up lawn signs because they have been harassed and vandalized in the past.”

Regardless, Kittok was not afraid of that challenge.

“I embrace the challenge,” Kittok said. “ . . . The odds are against the probability of a Democrat getting elected in this area. However, I choose to believe in the possibility of it happening.”

Kittok said she was concerned about how voters got information to make their decisions. While the Delano Area Chamber of Commerce hosted a candidate forum that included Kittok and Anderson, no other forums or debates took place throughout the district.

“This leaves the random chance that a voter is home when a candidate knocks on the door or calls,” Kittok said. “Other than that, the only information available is a postcard mailing or a short news article. That’s not for making informed decisions. Are voters seeking information, or just voting party lines without comparing solutions to issues and candidate qualifications?”

Brazelton, of Delano, can relate, saying she has become more politically involved since being in the political minority, compared to when she was in the majority.

“I moved to Delano from Minneapolis in 2001,” Brazelton said. “I was involved there, but did not run for office as we had many great candidates. I ended up running for state rep after moving to Delano because so few people are interested in running a campaign as a Democrat when winning is so difficult. I would probably not have gotten involved at that level had I not moved to a ‘red’ district.”

Johnson, of Delano, takes a different approach.

“It is a challenge I embrace,” Johnson said of being in the political minority. “I served on the Delano Planning Commission for six years, and I am also very active in our local chamber of commerce, but I don’t think I’d go any further into politics. I feel that anything I would say would fall on deaf ears and/or I’d be run out of town.”

Johnson also wonders if her political views could hurt her livelihood.

“As a small business owner, I have concerns that people won’t conduct business with me because of my political leanings,” Johnson said. “I’m sitting here wondering if I’ll lose any customers after they read this story. I’m all for having a conversation about the issues, but it seems nearly impossible to have a civil discussion these days.”

Johnson said she does not hide that she is a Democrat but does sometimes hold her tongue when she hears others get vocal about issues she disagrees with.

Dietering, who lives in Rockford Township and serves as vice-chair for the Senate District 29 DFL, also addressed the political disparity in Wright County.

“Being in the political minority in our area is difficult, but the state of Minnesota is reliably Democrat, so we take comfort in looking at the larger picture,” Dietering said.

Political backgrounds

While these four individuals identify as Democrat, their stories of how they came to that conclusion vary.

Johnson grew up on the Iron Range as one of four children raised by a single mom who worked as a public health nurse. She saw the benefits of the welfare system and the detriments of cuts to the system, which helped shape her political identity.

“Mom says, ‘If you are a real liberal, you are for the working people, and you need to lift them up. It is about taking care of God’s people,’” Johnson said. “I strongly believe that, too.”

Brazelton echoed that sentiment.

“We are all God’s children, and government has a duty to protect the civil liberties of all its citizens, regardless of income, race, religion, etc.,” Brazelton said.

Unlike Johnson, she was born into a suburban, Catholic, Republican family, “and I voted that way into my 20s.”

As a young adult living in St. Paul, her viewpoints began to change as she said she saw many people who were not born onto as level a playing field as others.

“The legacy of slavery, then peonage, then red-lining, and other discriminatory policies denied housing in safer areas to racial minorities, created obstacles to good employment; and Department of Justice policies resulting in minorities being jailed for things that whites got away with led to my change of heart, mind, and political party,” Brazelton said.

When asked to give a brief background as to why he identified as liberal, Dietering said, “To the public, I am happy to be known as a Democrat. Inside the party, I prefer to be known as a ‘progressive,’ which is a more liberal wing of the party.”

He provided Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Keith Ellison as examples of progressives, and shared some progressive ideals.

“Progressives generally agree that there’s too much money in politics, that college should be debt-free, the minimum wage should be $15, healthcare should be single-payer, and income inequality threatens democracy,” Dietering said.

Kittok also identifies as a progressive and a moderate.

“I am neither liberal nor conservative, more of a moderate,” Kittok said. “If I had to choose one word to describe myself, I would say progressive. I believe in the democratic process to keep us moving progressively into the future.”

She would like that future to be characterized by inclusion of all people.

“Our government is designed to be inclusive of all people, by all people, and for all people,” Kittok said. “We work together to meet our collective needs while maintaining civil liberties.”

Dietering believes those liberties should be protected.

“My core political principle is social and economic justice,” Dietering said. “ . . . While Democrats prize tolerance, we will not tolerate discrimination of any kind to any segment of our society.”

Johnson also shared her principles.

“I am an advocate for universal health care, strong public education system, marriage equality, reproductive rights and family planning, and student loan debt relief,” Johnson said.

Responding to the elections

Many people have expressed fear since Trump was elected. Brazelton believes some of that fear may be warranted.

“If President-elect Trump follows through on all he promised, many people have reason to be afraid,” Brazelton said. “Friends and family are already afraid of law enforcement officers who are afraid of people of color, shooting them more readily than they do white suspects. Mr. Trump’s rhetoric seems to have given hateful elements of our society license to be more open. I pray they are a small minority, and that other good people stand up and speak out.”

Kittok shared her concerns.

“I am concerned at learning the large number of people willing to accept and participate in the hatred and bigotry that was the core of the Trump campaign,” Kittok said. “False statements, stereotyping, and scapegoating so many groups of people has become the new normal . . . We are not great again. We have returned back to the pre-Civil Rights era again. We are not the nation I thought we had become.”

Dietering expressed similar sentiment.

“I see a Trump presidency as a threat to minorities, especially Muslims and Hispanics,” Dietering said. “Another great threat is the environment. Climate change is a clear and present danger; we cannot afford to wait four years to face this threat.”

Johnson spoke out against fear.

“I wouldn’t say we should be afraid of Trump,” Johnson said. “I am more afraid of the hatred and anger toward each other that I’ve seen during the last year . . . Fear is what got us here, and fear is what is dividing the country. So, rather than sitting around being afraid of the “what if?” I plan to get involved, help people, and have open, honest conversations with my conservative friends and colleagues.”

Why not leave?

These individuals were asked if they would rather live in a more liberal area.

“I have friends in Minneapolis who are represented by Democrat Keith Ellison,” Dietering said. “I would love to have him as my congressman, but not so much that I would move. I will stay here and fight.”

Kittok also sees no reason to leave.

“I love living in Wright County,” Kittok said. “My family and life are here. Our farm is here. The area is filled with good people. I focus on continuing to bridge the communication gap.”

Brazelton has no plans to leave, either.

“I love the people of Delano,” Brazelton said. “While I have the ability to live elsewhere, I have no plans to move.”

Johnson said she often feels like she is all by herself on a deserted island, but that doesn’t mean she is looking for an escape route.

“I love my community and the people around me,” Johnson said. “It would be easy to live in a bubble with people who agree with me politically, but it would be boring.”

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