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Twin Cities: homespun and cosmopolitan

The GOP National Convention opens in a place reflecting the nation’s enduring agrarian myth ... with skyscrapers.

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It’s the reason Minnesota typically leads the nation in voter turnout. People believe their votes matter.

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“We believe in progress and the idea that we can improve our situation,” Smith said. “We are not waiting for the market or a second coming to improve our lot.”

That is not to say that Twin Citians are necessarily liberal. Instead, they came up with a “distinctive progressive brand of Republicanism,” Smith said. During the convention, he will host a conference on that tradition.

Pawlenty is more conservative and more committed to values defined by evangelicals than other Republicans who have carried the tradition over the years. He is steadfast in his refusal to raise taxes even after Interstate 35W Bridge collapsed into the Mississippi last year and other bridges needed repair. The upshot is constant tension between him and the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

Pawlenty’s success lies in part in his understanding of the culture, Smith said. He offers positive solutions to problems even while holding the line on taxes that could pay for the remedies.

Mitch Pearlstein uses the State Fair for an unscientific study of the Twin Cities’ character. He is president and founder of the Center of the American Experiment, a conservative think tank in Minneapolis.

Mr. Pearlstein once wrote in a column that outside of mega areas like New York, America had three distinctive cities: Salt Lake City, New Orleans and the Twin Cities. When he moved here from New York in 1974, he “just adored being surrounded by all of these Nordic folks.”

But the distinction is fading. When Pearlstein watches crowds at the fair he sees “permutations and combinations” of people who make the Twin Cities look much more like the rest of America.

Stroll the fair grounds, and you hear people speaking Hmong, Spanish, Somali, and other languages.

One of them, Sy Vang Lo, tends the Hmong Folk Art booth in the fair’s International Bazaar. After she fled the communist takeover of Laos, she spent five years in a refugee camp in Thailand before making it to the Twin Cities.

It has not been easy learning English and earning respect for Hmong people and their culture. But she’s not complaining.

“This government helped us come to the United States,” said Ms. Lo, now 56. “I didn’t know how to speak your language, but I did know how to sew.”

Now her exquisite needlework is a fixture in local art displays. Among other places, Hmong tapestries adorn the State Capitol.

Without doubt, immigrants changed the “Nordic folks” character. Many argue they improved the food: more spice. They also brought problems with gangs and leftover trauma from war in their homelands.

But, in classic Twin Cities form, immigrants are punching their way onto school boards and city councils.

Pearlstein predicts something of the old character will endure.

“One of the traditions here is that people band together,” Pearlstein said. “We are this cold outpost between Chicago and Seattle, and we take care of ourselves.”

Back at the fair’s barns, Travis Wulf, 17, is no quitter either. It was his bull that broke loose last year and ended up in a rendering plant. Mr. Wulf plans to show three bulls this year. For insurance, he said, he “walked them around outside” so they wouldn’t spook so easily.

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