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Campaign volunteers, an appreciation: Grassroots efforts key to upcoming election

Henry Korpela of Mountain Iron is a dedicated volunteer for the Pete Stauber campaign. "I would do anything for Pete," said Korpela during a recent visit to Stauber's Hermantown campaign headquarters. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service1 / 3
Joan Peterson, a volunteer for the Joe Radinovich campaign, works the phone bank at the local DFL Hearquarters on Grand Avenue Wednesday, Oct. 31. Bob King / Forum News Service2 / 3
Sheila Coughlin talks about the importance of clean water while sitting on a rock along Lake Superior at Brighton Beach Wednesday, Oct. 31. Coughlin is a volunteer for the Ray "Skip" Sandman campaign. Bob King / Forum News Service3 / 3

DULUTH — On the Sunday before the 2018 midterm elections, Forum News Service chose to profile volunteers from each of the 8th Congressional District campaigns.

Retiring Rep. Rick Nolan, DFL-Crosby, framed the importance of campaign volunteer work. Nolan will complete a lawmaking career at the end of this year which began in 1969, serving Little Falls and Morrison County in the state legislature. In the ensuing years, he’s won eight out of the 10 elections he’s been involved in, including six of seven for Congress. He’s relied on volunteers throughout his career and was happy to share a word on their importance.

Here’s what Nolan had to say:

“My theory is that all the radio, television and newspapers notwithstanding, grassroots is the single most important element of success in a campaign. I’ve always said the opposition can maybe outspend us, and for the most part they have, but they can’t outwork us. When I say grassroots, it really takes a team effort.

“It helps to get the community to know the candidate on a personal, politically speaking, intimate level — what are your core beliefs and where do you want to take us? Since it’s not possible for the candidate to get everywhere, the people who embrace you and support you are the most important element.

“You need volunteers who know you and believe in you and are willing to go out and share that. Joel Heller, a disabled veteran from Duluth, in my last election contest he knocked on doors and a talked to 3,000 people on my behalf. I had people like that all over the district. They knew me. They’d stand up for me and say, ‘No-no, Rick’s with us; he’s one of us.’

“Otherwise, if you judge based on negative ads and based on what the opposition is running against you, nobody would vote for anybody. At some point you present yourself and you have other people who present you in an authentic and positive way. That’s the key as far as I’m concerned.”

Stauber parade leader has volunteered since day one

Henry Korpela has driven in more than 30 parades this election season.

At the helm of the lead car guiding the Pete Stauber campaign in this year’s parades, he drives the first car because his lack of hearing isn’t affected by the loud sound system sitting on the back of the vehicle.

“He’s deaf anyways,” said his wife, Lyndah.

Korpela has been volunteering for the Republican candidate since day one of his campaign. It may only be his second election he’s volunteered for, but his interest in politics was sparked decades prior to 2016.

In the early 1980s, Korpela had a co-worker who traveled to the nation’s capital to watch how politicians ran things. He said she was excited to see the inner workings of Washington, D.C. But when she returned on vacation, her pre-emptive glee had faded to despondency.

He said she was a different person.

“She was crestfallen,” Korpela said. “She said ‘Henry, they don’t care about us, they could care less. They were just happy to spend our money, our tax money.’”

Memories like that have resonated with the 74-year-old. But when he encountered then-candidate Donald Trump’s message “drain the swamp,” he found an outlet for his frustration. It’s why his political activism was catalyzed in 2016 and it’s why that commitment has continued into the 8th Congressional District race.

“The Democrats come with a lot of sweet talk, but Pete Stauber, he’s done so much,” said the ex-miner. “He’s been on all sides. He’s owned businesses, he was a police officer, president of the police union, county commissioner. He’s done it all.”

It’s the experiences, and lack thereof, outside of politics that matter to Korpela. He doesn’t like that DFL candidate Joe Radinovich has only worked in politics. “He’s never lived the real life, never tried to start a business,” he said.

Korpela lives in Mountain Iron but he’s originally from Markham, a little community south of Aurora. A miner since 1966, he was promoted to supervisor in 1969. Years later he found himself working for an engineering company, training and consulting workers at mines around the world. His job took him to Peru, the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia and India. Despite those world travels, he’s remained tied to his roots in northern Minnesota, where he retired in 2010.

Since then, him and his wife have been tethered to the hip in their volunteering, which includes both political and charity work. His service as president of the Hibbing Toastmasters Club, which assists in communication and leadership development, has trained his eye to watch out for honest speakers.

“He (Pete) is so easy to talk to. He knows the right things to do and say,” Korpela said. “He remembers things have happened. He’s super in that way.”

Korpela said he’d do “anything for Pete” to help him win. He’s driven many miles, not just in parades, in campaigning for Stauber. Those miles have led him to fundraising events, meet-and-greets and door-knocking.

During those events, he’s had many voters show him a thumbs up, implying which direction they plan on leaning on the ballot this year. But between those public expressions, he also hears shameful whispers of commitment to the Republican as well. He said people have told him their families would be disappointed in their vote.

“Don’t be ashamed of what you’re doing, let people know who and why you’re doing it,” said Korpela. “If you’re voting Republican, you should be proud of it. You should be proud of whoever you’re voting for.”

Faithful volunteer urged Radinovich to share tragic history

It’s easy for Joan Peterson to trace her origins in political activism.

She lost a sister to a domestic shooting 26 years ago.

“That’s why I’m active,” said the 71-year-old Peterson, who feels a kinship with the Democratic-Farmer-Labor candidate in the 8th Congressional District race. “One of the reasons I like Joe Radinovich is because we share something. His mother was shot and killed and his brother tried to kill himself with a gun.”

Those weren’t stories Radinovich was roundly sharing early on in the campaign. He didn’t tell them during the primary.

Gun violence is a sticky wicket politically, Peterson said, “because there’s a misperception if you talk about gun violence or preventing it you’re against the Second Amendment and going to take people’s guns away.”

Still, it didn’t stop her from appealing to Radinovich to share his story — which he’s done regularly now.

“I talked to Joe about telling his story; he’s done a very good job with it — it’s very compelling,” said Peterson, who is a regular at DFL headquarters in West Duluth.  

Earlier this week, Peterson gave a tour of the facility where others were operating phone banks and going over neighborhood maps for door-knocking efforts.

Some of the calls were strategized to have women targeting women and seniors talking to seniors. Peterson has made calls to women over 50.

“Part of it is persuasion and part of it is getting people to the polls,” she said.

Peterson is on the board of the Domestic Abuse Intervention Program in Duluth. She lobbies at the state capitol for the prevention of gun violence, and since 2008 she’s been especially active in DFL candidates’ campaigns.

During that campaign, she formed a local women’s group for Barack Obama within the DFL and every Thursday they held campaign signs on the corner of Lake Avenue and Superior Street. Peterson held a lifesize cutout of Obama, and because campaigns like numbers, they kept track of the number of honks and thumbs up they received.

Her resistance to Trump is strong. Around his inauguration, she helped organize local buses to the 2017 Women’s March. Peterson said she views Trump as a bully.

“I don’t like bullies,” she said.

Peterson likes volunteering because it allows for more creativity in campaigning — whereas paid staffers are dedicated to phone banks and door-knocking, volunteers are the ones found sign-waving on pedestrian walkways over the highway or treating friends to partisan house parties.

“There are a lot of people who are active in lots of different things and when election time comes around we kind of come together and help with campaigns,” Peterson said.

Earlier this month, Peterson trekked with Radinovich to the Minnesota State Veterans Home in Silver Bay.

“Our veterans have a range of concerns,” Radinovich said at the time, “and I was glad to hear from them.”

It was a meaningful visit for Peterson, whose brother is a Vietnam veteran who lives in the home.

“I was so impressed with Joe’s ability to speak with the veterans,” Peterson said. “He got down on his knees and talked to my brother face-to-face.”

Sandman volunteer gives ‘all the time I have’

Sheila Coughlin has lived her whole life in Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District — growing up along the Pine River chain of lakes north of Brainerd, where her grandmother ran a resort, before 10 years spent in Duluth, and now raising her 8-year-old child in Kettle River.

“I know about tourism,” said Coughlin, who runs a blog spot dedicated to nature writing called “And I know what threats can come if we aren’t careful.”

The 37-year-old Coughlin, never too political before, found herself rejecting what she called the “lies” and direction of modern politics. She couldn’t stay on the sidelines any longer.

She chose to support a candidate who she’s known for years and described as a sage who has been helpful to her and many others: Independence Party candidate Ray “Skip” Sandman.

The high-profile campaign has filtered through millions of dollars in campaign advertising — only a fraction of it for Sandman.

“Skip’s not part of that two-party system — entrenched in that money,” Coughlin said. “He brings leadership we need right now.”

Coughlin started out volunteering by collecting petition signatures to help land Sandman on Tuesday’s ballot. After that, she’s been researching positions, writing and posting materials, publishing campaign videos and more — putting her university skills and curiosity to work. Like a lot of volunteers, she found how easily a campaign can come to consume a person.

“When I got involved I was giving half my available time,” Coughlin said. “At some point, it became all of the time I have.”

When asked where she would like to have a portrait taken, Coughlin wanted to meet by Lake Superior. It was a symbolic choice.

“Water is a big issue in this election,” she said, describing how motherhood made her think generationally and about what’s left for the future.

After Coughlin sat atop a rock on Brighton Beach, she uncorked what amounted to a stump speech about the influence of big corporate money in politics, and how it’s affecting nearly every issue in the campaign.

“I felt pulled to get involved,” she said. “We all have a voice.”

She rejects the whispered notion that a vote for the third-party Sandman is a thrown-away vote. She believes he can win.

“Of course, I do,” she said. “I have a lot of faith people will put aside their fears on election day.”

When told the Sandman camp had chosen her to be profiled, Coughlin was humbled.

“I feel very honored to be recognized by them,” she said. “I didn’t get involved for recognition. I got involved to help. Skip is a voice for the people.”