Colors on maps don’t tell whole story

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Reflections from my Notebook

One of the more shocking revelations in the aftermath of last week’s election was the concession speech of Jeff Johnson, the Hennepin County commissioner running for Minnesota governor.

“I gave Tim Walz a call a few minutes ago to congratulate him for his victory and I told him, and I meant it, that I don’t just wish him luck, but I wish him success,” Johnson said. “Because I want to retire in this state, and I want to raise grandchildren in this state.”

That sentiment may not have been shocking a decade or more ago, but it is in our hyper-partisan environment today. Negativity, such as what local residents saw in the First Congressional District race, is all too common, so it is a surprise to see someone genuinely hope for the best after an opponent wins a race.

Johnson and Walz kept a civil tone in the campaign, another oddity today, as they focused on the real issues, not the wedge social issues, character assassinations and outright lies that have become a staple of politics.

To his credit, Walz, who now represents District 1 in Congress, also went out of his way in his victory speech to say that Johnson “loves this state dearly,” but just had a different vision for the future. Walz, who ran a campaign of “One Minnesota,” promised to bridge those gaps.

The One Minnesota theme doesn’t fit into the modern political narrative that focuses on the divides. Elections have become sporting events, emphasizing teams, not issues. Politicians will do whatever it takes to win one for the team, whether it is the blue team or the red team.

That happens even after elections when politicians often make decisions based on ramifications for the team rather than what is best for the constituents they represent.

It doesn’t help when visual aids easily identify differences. Election maps created with designations of blue or red geographic areas make it easy to label an entire city, county, district or state one way or another. Yet, the reality is much more complex.

For example, Minnesota’s First Congressional District is painted red now that Jim Hagedorn unofficially won the race to replace Walz. Yet, only 1,315 votes, or 0.45 percent of the voters, pushed Hagedorn over the top.

The district has been blue since Walz won the election in 2016.  Yet, just 2,548 votes, or 0.76 percent of the voters, gave him the victory two years ago.

Closer to home in District 28B, which is all of Fillmore and Houston counties, the preference for governor was separated by just 43 votes, or 0.24 percent, with Johnson getting the slight nod by local voters.

Although the district favors Republicans, it doesn’t always support one team as Democrat Sen. Amy Klobuchar had a definite advantage in the district in 2018 as she did in 2012. In past elections, District 28B voters have supported former Sen. Al Franken, Attorney General Lori Swanson and former President Barack Obama, all Democrats.

The labels also don’t always hold up across that nation, even in more partisan states. Massachusetts, one of the bluest states in the nation with all nine congressional representatives and both senators Democrats, has a Republican governor. Kansas, always seen as a red state with three of its four congressional districts and both senators represented by Republicans, elected a Democratic governor last week.

And, ballot initiatives also had some surprises last week as voters in Nebraska, Idaho and Utah, all painted red on the electoral map, approved measures to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, an optional part of the law that many Republican leaders have rejected.

The media tends to cover elections as a horse race or sporting event with sides that score points. The media aren’t the enemy of the people or pedaling fake news, as the president claims, but they don’t always get it right, either.

Politicians also buy into this narrative as decisions, even considerations of when to take votes, are often based on how they may affect the next election for their team.

Walz, a veteran, teacher and coach, seems different. Perhaps it is from his years serving in a congressional district that shifts based on the person, not the party.

We’ll never truly see a “One Minnesota” but what binds the people in the state is closer than what divides them. Those easily identified blue and red maps of Minnesota are more complex than they appear as the shifting colors over time show ideologies aren’t hardened.

So far, Walz seems to have gotten it right. Perhaps he can provide another shock and bring some unity to Minnesota even if the colors on our electoral map would indicate an impossible task.