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Capitol Chatter: Rural guy in big cities for a reason

ST. PAUL—Almost every morning when I come to work, part of the trip is on a 10-lane-wide stretch of freeway.

It is a long ways from my 4,000-population hometown in southern Iowa's rolling hills in many ways.

A lot has happened to this journalist who graduated from Albia Community High School, such as flying in an Air Force F-16 Thunderbird to visiting Honduras with National Guard troops, from covering national political conventions to taking a rare tour inside the U.S. Capitol dome and walking around a narrow and slick outdoor walkway at the top of the dome after a snow.

Professionally, my best tenure has been with Forum Communications Co. But it is time to leave the business, at least as a full-time profession. Retirement has arrived.

My time with the company, most recently working under the Forum News Service umbrella, brought me to the big city.

Nearly 40 years ago, I was offered a job editing weekly newspapers in the western Twin Cities. But after staring at a Vikings poster in the publisher's office, I decided then was not the time to leave small-town life for a metropolitan area, even one with professional sports teams.

However, I was ready by the time I started as state Capitol reporter with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead on Sept. 10, 2001 (yes, the next day started a really busy time for journalists).

Big-city folks were not as difficult to deal with as I had heard growing up and it was not really that hard getting around the cities.

Now that I have retired (although, who knows, you may see my byline now and then), it occurs to me that not only did I have the best job I could imagine, I was unique in the Capitol press corps. Other reporters have rural backgrounds, but for the most part, their audiences are in the Twin Cities.

Audiences of most newspapers I serve are in greater Minnesota. So I work to help those readers understand ramifications of state and federal government actions, which frequently are different than what happens in the Twin Cities.

I spent the last 20 years of my career asking questions like: "What does this mean for greater Minnesota?" And writing about the responses.

While many politicians like to say there is one Minnesota, each area has its own needs. Greater Minnesota is not just farms, it includes everything from mines to tourism.

Areas outside the Twin Cities have different needs than those in urban and suburban areas. For instance, some communities have booming industries, but cannot provide enough housing for workers, so they are forced to bus employees from areas beyond decent driving distance.

Health care also can be far different than in the Twin Cities.

A year ago, other Forum Communications Co. reporters joined me in writing about specific rural health care problems. And we found many of them, with too few solutions.

When I started covering Minnesota government for the Post-Bulletin of Rochester 20 years ago, I never imagined that my job soon would revolve around greater Minnesota issues. In fact, I may not even have known what "greater Minnesota" meant when I moved to the state.

After two decades, I feel comfortable covering politics here. But countering that comfort is the frustration with many of today's political antics. People making political decisions often come from the extreme left or right, making compromises difficult.

Candidates and elected officials from city councils on up often do not answer questions reporters ask. Instead, they deliver their talking points, regardless of journalists' questions.

Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, explained that last April: "My job isn't to answer your questions, it's to be on my message."

Politics has become more important than public service for too many elected officials. Getting re-elected trumps the public good all too often.

One of the more unexpected roles I have played is to test lieutenant governor candidates' agriculture knowledge; at least a little bit of it.

In the 2006 election, Judi Dutcher (running with governor candidate Mike Hatch) fumbled a reporter's question about E-85 when campaigning in Alexandria. When my colleague sought an interview with her, Hatch refused and called the reporter a "Republican whore."

The Hatch-Dutcher ticket lost the election, and most insiders say Hatch's blow-up at our reporter was a big reason why.

Since then, I usually have asked running mates to define E-85. Rep. Erin Murphy's running mate this year, Rep. Erin Maye Quade, stumbled when I asked her.

In case you are a future running mate, the answer would be something like: a fuel with up to 85 percent ethanol (usually made from corn) and the rest common gasoline.

Perhaps my replacement can ask that question of future running mates.

And while I am suggesting things for the new reporter, be sure to ask at every chance: "How does this affect greater Minnesota?"

It is a question that needs asking.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.