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The Faribault Falcons softball team celebrates its first-ever state championship on Friday. (Jacob Swanson/Faribault Daily News)

For Minnesota's third parties, election season promises best of times and worst of times

As the 2020 election season gets under way, the COVID-19 pandemic has ensured that this will be a campaign like no other. That presents new opportunities and formidable challenges to the state’s third parties, including two with Rice County ties.

While the Presidential race may be garnering the most attention, Minnesotans will have plenty of other races to decide in 2020. The state’s entire legislature and congressional delegation are on the ballot along with the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Tina Smith. Voters dissatisfied with the two major parties will have a third option to vote for. That’s because two pro-marijuana parties managed to secure ballot access for 2020 and 2022, thanks to unexpectedly strong performances in 2018.

For the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party, 29-year old Minneapolis lawyer Noah Johnson won 5.7% of the vote in the race for attorney general, even though he endorsed DFLer Keith Ellison shortly before the election. As the only third-party candidate running against a pair of controversial major party nominees, Johnson was expected to do relatively well. More surprising perhaps was the strong showing of Legal Marijuana Now candidate Michael Ford, who won 5.3% in the state auditor’s race.

Public support for marijuana legalization is now at historic highs, with a recent poll from Minnesota Public Radio and the Star-Tribune finding that 51% of Minnesotans support recreational marijuana legalization, with just 37% opposed.

That marked a huge shift from 2014, when the MPR News/Star-Tribune poll showed just 30% of Minnesotans in favor of recreational marijuana legalization. In 2018, both pro-marijuana parties were able to ride this growing wave of support into unprecedented results.

Under Minnesota law, candidates for parties which secure at least 5% of the vote in at least one statewide election are given automatic ballot access. That means that their candidates can get on the ballot by paying a simple filing fee, rather than gathering signatures on a petition.

The two parties, the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party and the Legal Marijuana Now Party, enjoy a close relationship. Founded in 1986, the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party is the older of the two. In 1998, a small group broke away from the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party to form the Legal Marijuana Party. Still, the parties enjoy warm relations, and it’s rare for both parties to field a candidate in the same race.

Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party Chairman Chris Wright, who co-founded the party in 1986, is a familiar presence on Minnesota ballots. He’s run for governor four times and is running this year for a state legislative seat in Minneapolis.

Since its founding, the major issue uniting Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party has been support for legalizing cannabis, as well as pardons for people convicted of marijuana possession or distribution.

Wright said that most of the party’s membership goes much further, preferring to see the “War on Drugs” dismantled and replaced with a drug policy of regulation and treatment for those who need it, comparable to the way the state approaches the sale and distribution of alcohol.

In addition to arguing that the “War on Drugs” and laws against marijuana specifically have violated the civil liberties of Minnesota and inflicted particular pain on communities of color, Wright and the Grassroots Party have long held that laws prohibiting Marijuana run afoul of Article 13, Section 7 of the state Constitution, which states:

“Any person may sell or peddle the products of the farm or garden occupied and cultivated by him without obtaining a license therefor.”

That provision was added to the Constitution in 1906, to protect small and family farmers to sell their goods at local markets. Prior to the Amendment’s passage, some local units of government had hit these farmers with peddler’s fees that they deemed obtrusive and excessive.

After being arrested for growing 41 marijuana plants in his home in 1996, Wright asked the court to dismiss the case on the grounds that the state’s anti-marijuana laws run afoul of that section of the Constitution.

However, the court upheld the law, arguing that the amendment creates a “privilege” for farmers to bring their products to market, but does not rise to the level of creating a “fundamental liberty” for farmers to sell products.

Wright said that the Legal Marijuana Now Party was created to see whether a party which explicitly referenced marijuana in its name would poll better. It indeed did so, after which the Grassroots Party added the “Legalize Cannabis” portion to its name.

Both parties are set to get another boost because under state law, major party candidates are ordered on the ballot based on their performance at the previous election, with worst-performing parties at the top and the best-performing at the bottom. That means that Legal Marijuana Now and Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis candidates will not only be on the ballot, but will be placed at the top of the ballot. Carleton College Political Science Professor Melanie Freeze said that research suggests that could help boost their vote share.

“It can make a difference for less well-known candidate,” she said. “If you walk into the polling booth and don’t have any preference, maybe you’ll just mark them off.”

While the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis and Legal Marijuana Now parties fell far short of running a full slate of candidates across the state, they will field more candidates than many third parties have in recent years. Local candidates include a pair of State Senate hopefuls, Jason Hoschette, of Northfield, and David Pulkrabek, of Blue Earth, and Congressional candidates, Bill Rood, of Rochester, and Adam Weeks, of Goodhue.

According to the Minnesota Secretary of State’s website, Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Now fielded six candidates for state Senate, five for U.S. Congress (two in the same district, forcing a primary), one for state house and one for Tina Smith’s U.S. Senate seat

Legalize Marijuana Now is running a similar total, with seven candidates on the ballot for state Senate, five for state House, three for U.S. Congress and a candidate for Smith’s seat. Only three races will have candidates for both pro-Marijuana parties.

Not all of those candidates are focused on the issue of cannabis legalization. Many bring with them long backgrounds in other parties, such as the Libertarians and Greens, which have struggled to get on the ballot by petition this year.

Much loved Concerts in the Park series resumes June 18

While the Faribault Aquatic Center may be closed for the summer, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department is preparing to revive one classic summer tradition.

Parks and Rec Director Paul Peanasky announced at Tuesday night’s Council meeting that the Concerts in the Park outdoor concert series would begin this year on June 18. With 10 concerts scheduled from then through August, this year’s season will be nearly as long as normal.

The concert series, supported by the Southeast Minnesota Arts Council, traces its origins back to the 1800s. In 2018, the city added a special 11th concert at River Bend to help the park commemorate its 40th anniversary — and that quickly became a hit, too.

The city’s outdoor movie program, Movies in the Park is also set to make a comeback though dates are yet to be decided. For both programs, attendance will be strictly limited to 250 people, with masks highly recommended but not mandatory.

Patrons will also be expected to adhere to social distancing guidelines. One band had to cancel because they were unable to commit to maintaining social distancing. To ensure a full schedule, the Lakelanders Barbershop concert previously scheduled for June 11 was moved to July 2.

With Lakelanders now third in the concert series, Gold Star Band is now set to kick off the series on the 18th. The Mankato-area band is traditionally a fan favorite, offering a mix of classic country, rock music and timeless hits from the 1950s and 1960s.

In total, the band has more than 200 years of musical experience, with Brenda Kopischke and Lynda Kiesler on vocals, Howard Mock, Gary Pfeiffer and Frank Howard on guitar, and Brian Jentges on drums.

The band even features two members of the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame. Mock was inducted for his work with “Sandra Lee and the Velvets,” a classic country and rock band, while Jentges was inducted as a member of the Shaw Band, a ballroom band that dates back to 1969.

Mock, who has also served as owner and operator of Rhapsody Music in Mankato since opening it in 1985 said that in a normal year, the band would have played a number of events throughout the region by this time, from weddings to fairs to festivals.

Due to restrictions imposed by COVID-19, this will be the band’s first concert of the season. Mock said it will make an enjoyable opener for the band, which always appreciates the atmosphere at Central Park.

“The people in Faribault are lucky to have a park like that,” he said. “Mankato is three times bigger than Faribault, and they don’t have a good setup to host bands in a park.”

Mock said that the band’s crowd-pleasing hits are often accompanied with plenty of audience interaction. This year’s concert will be much different, but Mock said audience interaction will continue — just from a distance.

To help calm the nerves of residents shaken by the global pandemic, accompanying economic slowdown and outbreak of protests, Mock said the band will feature several patriotic tunes alongside its traditional repertoire.

Most of all, Mock said he hopes the band’s music will help city residents to enjoy a little bit of mirth amid a difficult and chaotic time. After the concert is over, he said the band plans to continue its tradition of enjoying the simple treat of a root beer float at Faribault’s A&W.

“I think the people need something to help them lighten up a bit, to provide some moments of happiness,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to relieve some of the tension.”

Teachers, staff begin summer preparing for unpredictable months ahead

The 2019-20 school year for Faribault Public Schools wrapped up June 4, but while students have a break from distance learning, teachers and staff are preparing for the unknown.

It’s not yet certain if distance learning will continue right away when school resumes in the fall; the Minnesota Department of Education and the state will make that decision mid-July, according to the district’s Director of Teaching and Learning Ryan Krominga. In the meantime, teachers and staff need to prepare for that possibility.

Krominga delivered an update on professional development as well as distance learning during the School Board’s Monday meeting.

According to Krominga, staff participated in a series of meetings in preparation for academic year 2020-21. Teachers’ responses to distance learning are varied, he reported. Some didn’t feel confident teaching in an online mode and dealt with stress over that as well as the state of the country. Others were on the other end of the spectrum, and ready to continue with distance learning.

During the sessions, teachers and staff reflected on distance learning and brainstormed ways to build relationships with students during periods of separation. The advantage of planning at the beginning of the summer is that teachers have more time to prepare for possible distance learning in the fall instead of quickly reacting to COVID-19 as they had to in the spring.

Looking ahead to fall, Krominga’s team is considering what a hybrid model might look like, or how class will be conducted if students do return to the classroom, even if only on a part-time basis. The district is also exploring the costs of ensuring each student has their own device and figuring out how to cover those expenses.

Another piece to consider is how to accommodate learning for students who can’t return to school in the fall, even if buildings open. Krominga pointed out that some students may have fragile immune systems, or live with immunocompromised family members.Being back in school could put them or their family at risk.

Still another factor Superintendent Todd Sesker mentioned is the increased screen time that comes with distance learning. The district has partnered with LiveMore, a research-based platform that promotes digital wellbeing for children, workers and families. Data indicates children are more prone to depression and decreased learning after a certain amount of screen time, Sesker said.

On its website, LiveMore ScreenLess shared the top three ways Minnesota high school students who were surveyed are negatively impacted by screen time: they become more distracted, put off important tasks and find it more difficult to reach their goals and establish healthy routines.

“So the tricky part is being careful of how that whole delivery [of distance learning] works,” said Sesker. “We are taking that into consideration too, to make sure we are looking at a balance [of screen time].”

After learning more about the plans for the year ahead from Sesker as well as Krominga, Board member Carolyn Treadway asked if distance learning might be called something different to reflect what it’s becoming. Since the teaching responsibility wouldn’t be on the parents as much as it was before, she predicted the updated format “would be received far more openly by parents.”