What happened in Pepin County?

Photo: StockholmWisconsin.com

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.