Jim Read has walked many miles since last winter and, at least figuratively, it’s mostly been uphill. He’s running as a Democrat for a seat in the state House of Representatives in the deeply red District 13A.
He intends to knock on the doors of at least two-thirds of the district’s 13,000 households with registered voters by election day. So far, he’s visited about 6,000.
Last week, his door-knocking campaign found him in Lynden Township in the district’s east end.
While other candidates hold rallies, send out volunteers armed with brochures, fill their voters’ mailboxes with mailings, jangle their phones with robot calls and spam them with email, Read prefers the time-consuming one-on one-approach.
“You’re showing you are going to make the effort to meet them and listen to them and hear what their concerns are,” Read said.
“I’ve had many people say you’re the first candidate who has been out to talk to me. A lot of people don’t feel like they’ve been listened to.”
Read works from a list of registered voters. On this Thursday afternoon with the temperature in the upper 80s, he saunters from house to house.
If someone answers the door, he’ll talk with them for five to 10 minutes. As he walks to the next house, he makes notes for a follow-up postcard.
If there’s no one home, he leaves a card about his campaign.
During two hours, he visits 24 houses and speaks with 18 potential voters.
Read engages people with a casual, conversational tone honed after decades coaxing opinions from college students in the classroom.
He wants to know what concerns each citizen has.
“I’ve learned how many are struggling with health-care costs,” Read said. Other frequently mentioned issues are education funding, affordable housing and in this portion of the district with limited internet service, people mention how much their kids need fast, reliable internet access to do homework.
Democrat or Republican, many voters ask why both parties can’t work together to produce results.
Many of the issues are the same ones Read encountered when he ran for the Legislature in 1992 with one exception.
“I was unpleasantly surprised at how much anti-Somali sentiment is out there. It’s a very vocal minority. They have fears and misconceptions about Somalis and immigrants,” he said.
Read says when he faces the immigration issue, he talks about his own experiences with Somalis and other immigrants as co-workers, friends and neighbors.
District 13A covers most of southern Stearns County. It stretches from Paynesville, northeast to Avon and St. Joseph, then south to Kimball and Lynden Township.
In 2016, the Republican House candidate bested the Democrat by more than 30 percentage points. This year, the incumbent, Jeff Howe, decided to run in the special election for the Senate District 13 seat. Read’s opponent is Republican Lisa Demuth.
Lynden Township is Trump Country with the president winning 67 percent of the votes.
That red wave doesn’t deter Read from visiting every house.
Read met one of those Trump voters who was working in his yard. He asked Read if he supported Trump and when he found out Read didn’t, he said the conversation was over and added “Get off my grass.”
But not all voters who might not totally agree with Read are as abrupt.
He told this story about a recent conversation:
“We talked about gun rights, abortion, we partly agreed, partly disagreed. His major concern is political honesty. He said I passed the test by giving him straight answers. ‘If you’re elected I’m not going to cry about it,’ the man said. He may not vote for me, but he doesn’t see me as the enemy. He sees me as somebody who has listened and is at least fair. We’ve become so politically divided many people have trouble seeing someone as a fellow citizen. I always feel good when there is respect across political lines.”
Unlike door-knocking in the city, Lynden Township’s homes are spread out. In this slice of the township between Interstate Highway 94 and the Mississippi River, the homes are surrounded by large lawns that are more like parks, with neatly trimmed grass, flower gardens and playsets.
Behind the house, there’s usually a large garage that doubles as a workshop and many places have dogs.
Read hasn’t been bitten yet and he laughs when he says dogs are louder than doorbells to let residents know he’s at the door.
Some campaigns target a small slice of voters who are their most likely supporters.
“If I just ignore the people who are unlikely to vote for me, how can I represent that district?” Read asks.
“(If I’m elected) I don’t only represent the people who voted for me, I have to be accountable to everybody. A piece of mail doesn’t have to be accountable to anybody,” Read said. “I try to give everyone a chance and don’t write them off ahead of time.”
Lynden Township is only 65 miles from St. Paul but it seems like a million miles. Read surely has an uphill walk to get there, but if he does, his constituents will know he’s heard their voices…one at a time.