Politics

On a frozen Minnesota lake, political antagonisms melt away

In my years wandering the upper heartland, I’ve found that when you want to hear what people think, there are few more target-rich environments than an ice-fishing lake. Ninety-five percent of the sport involves sitting, drinking and talking. On a good day, you catch more new friends than fish.

But these have not been good days. In the 30 years since I covered sturgeon spearing for a tiny TV station in Minnesota, the United States has become is a lot less united. Covering the presidential election and inauguration in neighboring Wisconsin included more ply-wooded windows, body armor and “no comments” than I ever thought possible in my home state.

Walking out on Lake Minnetonka, I was worried. But it wasn’t 25 paces before a friendly couple walking huge dogs walked over and melted the worry with Midwestern warmth.

“Everybody should be loving each other,” Leah Beamish told me as she played tug-o-war with Huxley. “There doesn’t need to be this …” she shook her head at the ice. “So divided. So divided.”

But as I walked from hole to hole, Northern pike to bluegill, Democrat to Republican, they all seemed united against disunity. “There’s no common ground anymore,” Tim Delaney said. “And everyone’s so angry about it. I think we’re just tired.”

‘People are a lot more optimistic’

Minnesota is understandably tense these days. Up north, they are bracing for a Standing Rock-sized standoff over the controversial Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline. Down in the Twin Cities, concertina wire winds around civic buildings as they brace for the start of the George Floyd murder trial. And in every town in between, the Covid-19 pandemic is met with varying degrees of fear, loathing and pent-up frustration.

In this blue suburb of Minneapolis however, where families perched on buckets fish in front of the frozen front yards of million-dollar homes, there is some cautious relief. “I’m really happy with our new President,” said Cindy Garin, a 63-year-old health care worker, said as she described her first vaccination and plans for a Florida escape. “I think things are getting better … and I think people are a lot more optimistic.”

But Ben Calvert, 27 and at college to become a wrestling coach, is fast losing faith with Democrats given that they are in charge in the White House, the Senate and the House. “A lot of my friends are really frustrated because they were like, ‘We’ve got to elect these two senators in Georgia! We’ve got to get Joe Biden in office and then everything’s going to be better! It’s not a $1,400 dollar check, it’s $2,000 checks,'” Ben said, making gloved air quotes.

“But now, they’re putting that stimulus check and minimum wage hike on the back burner while they’re dropping bombs in Syria. And those bombs are kind of expensive for a dude who owes me $2,000.”

Calmer criticism

Ben’s father, Valdo, has more patience for the new President but told me, “I don’t see it smooth sailing for Biden. I see it always going to be about obstructionism, but at least it’s more calm.” And like so many others on the lake frustrated by American disunity, the retired Forest Service emergency manager wonders how to unite with true believers of conspiracy theories like QAnon.
Valdo and Ben Calvert say there are some people they can't be with any more, even with the bonhomie on the lake.

His son nods in agreement. “I grew up wrestling and playing sports. You get liberal people, you get conservative people, but we all got along. Now those guys aren’t my friends anymore because I know what they really think,” Ben told me. “Maybe it’s not who they are in their heart, but can you hang out with someone who’s like, ‘I think it would be a good thing to assassinate the sitting [Speaker of the House.]'”

But just a short, fragrant stroll away, barbecue smoke master Tim Delaney described his desire to replace Nancy Pelosi with Donald Trump.

Tim Delaney wants Trump back in power, even if he hesitates to say so among his friends of a different political persuasion.

“What if Trump ran for Congress, right?” Tim said, waving a silver tallboy. “And then we took the House and we took the Senate and then he could impeach the President and Vice President. He would be president for the next two years plus then he would be reelected for another four. Good idea?”

Laughter overcomes politics

None of his friends thought it was a good idea. As far as I could tell, they were all Democrats who obviously believed in the peacekeeping mantra repeated to me by Leah’s husband Kevin Beamish as we walked on to the lake. “It’s the old story,” he smiled. “Don’t talk politics or religion with friends and family.”

I don’t have that luxury, and the energy shifted noticeably when I strolled over with camera and asked, “How’s everybody feeling after the election?”

His friends may not agree with the politics of Tim Delaney, left, but they're still happy to break bread with him.

“We don’t go there,” Tim said before going there. And while he joked that his burst of MAGA honesty might spoil the barbecue brotherhood, the laughs proved the opposite.

I walked out onto Lake Minnetonka braced for icy suspicion and dread, but I walked off with a stomach full of barbecue and hope. I’ll take it.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the first name of Leah Beamish’s husband. His name is Kevin.

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