How a Democrat in Suburban Minneapolis Made His District Blue
A look back at how the suburban Minneapolis district represented by Rep. Paul Benson (D) transformed the color of its politics.
When Paul Benson entered Congress, he looked for an area with a progressive tradition to give voice to. In 1984, Benson’s district included the North St. Paul area and parts of Plymouth, St. Cloud, and Appleton, all of which were rural and heavily white. But Benson was the first Democrat to win the seat in 20 years.
To make it a blue district, Benson was willing to move into the suburbs, which were still largely Republican and heavily white, and find a new kind of voice. A number of Democratic leaders in Congress would be willing to follow Benson’s example: New York Senator Sherrod Brown, for example, who is now the incoming Democratic majority leader in the Senate.
But Benson had an idea for the future of his seat in the suburbs.
“It was clear that he had the ability to go to the heart and soul of the district,” says Ed Riddleberger, Benson’s chief of staff and congressional aide until 1992. “It wasn’t going to be easy.”
Benson chose to focus on two areas: a black middle class in Minneapolis and a white working class in the nearby suburbs of St. Cloud and Appleton. Benson made the choice to run against Bill Bradbury, the former state senator who now represents the same suburban area. But he would also have to work to find Democrats who shared his vision for change, and to make the race a referendum on race.
He came up with the name “Minnesota Blue,” and got the campaign slogan from an old Minneapolis television commercial: “Let’s go Minnesota Blue.” Benson and other progressives saw a chance to create a new party to address problems they saw as deeply intertwined in the post-civil rights, post-racial era.
Benson’s approach to reaching out to Democrats was to talk to people about what he called “the Democratic middle class,” a demographic more than $1 million in income above the poverty line. Benson would talk about the middle class and the problems that were most common in that