WINONA, MINN. – Scott Sherman said he does not want to create more division.
Last year's presidential election saw Joe Biden beat Donald Trump by 106 votes in this southeastern Minnesota county where a mix of resignation, relief and anger remains. After convincing victories here by Barack Obama, Trump managed to win the county in 2016.
Sherman, the first-term mayor of the largest city in Winona County, is adamant about not disclosing who he cast a ballot for in the 2020 presidential race.
"I don't need to throw that in there because as soon as I do, then all of a sudden I've alienated half my constituency," Sherman said.
More than half a year into Biden's presidency, Winona County offers a vivid rendering of the nation's political divide. Trump's repeated false claims about the election being stolen, a fragile economic recovery and a global pandemic continue testing Biden's administration.
At a community celebration in Rollingstone, the polarization was not hard to find.
"Can't stand him," Andrea Dornbusch, a Trump voter and a clinic assistant who described herself as "very pro-life," said of Biden. "He wouldn't be able to get in my good graces for doing anything," she added.
Elsewhere in the county, Marcia Schultz, a retired Biden voter, said she's feeling "a lot more relaxed."
"I feel he is taking care of us, not looking for himself," Schultz said.
Since 2000, the Democratic presidential candidate has carried Winona County in every election aside from 2016, when prominent third-party candidates also earned a key number of votes, according to data from the Minnesota Secretary of State's Office. The county has roughly 50,000 people and three higher education institutions.
"Here, people like others to be decent," said Karin Worthley, a member of the Winona County DFL executive committee. "That's a big word. And that's an important thing. Even if you disagree with someone, you're decent when you talk to them. And I think, who's more decent than Joe Biden?"
Others disagree with the president, raising concerns about policies or issues. Some stray into baseless conspiracies.
"He's the enemy of the people," Roger Koenig, a Trump voter said of Biden from his perch in a St. Charles restaurant.
While Trump voters were quick to dismiss Biden, Democrats' views on the president are also influenced by his predecessor.
"We were starting to go backwards in this country," said Eric Schulz, president of the Winona State University college Democrats. "I think that having the Biden administration is moving us forward again. It may not be in the steps as big as I would hope, but they are still steps."
A $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package the president signed into law in March represented a major legislative effort in the early days of the Democrat's tenure and resulted in stimulus payments for many people across the United States, along with other policies touted by Democrats. No Republicans in Congress voted for the bill.
Winona's county government will get $9.8 million from the local government aid portion of the package, while the city of Winona is estimated to separately receive about $2.8 million, according to its finance director. The county money could be spent on improving water quality, expanding broadband, covering revenue losses, helping businesses and meeting other impacts of the pandemic, County Administrator Ken Fritz said.
Biden has also put his political force behind a bipartisan infrastructure bill that is projected to bring billions to the state. The package passed the Senate earlier this month but awaits action in the House.
Early impressions of Biden's time in office, however, show some voters far from Washington are skeptical of him and his administration.
"I think in terms of the Biden administration specifically, half of them love it, half of them hate it," Sherman, the mayor of Winona, said when asked about his city. "That's in general kind of the way things are happening on a national level right now, and that has trickled down to local elections, I would say, and local issues in general."
Long viewed as the front-runner during the Democrats' 2020 presidential primaries, Biden struggled in the initial contests. Although he went on to win his party's nomination after a strong showing in the South Carolina primary, the race reflected the difficulties of trying to please both moderates and progressives in his party.
Those tensions have continued during Biden's presidency.
Craig Subra feels like the president is letting him down. As the father and self-described progressive watched his young daughter cheerfully explore Winona, concerns about how Biden is handling the pandemic, climate change and the economy came tumbling out.
His thoughts are complicated, Subra said, because of the low bar he feels Trump set.
"I'll vote for him again," Subra said about Biden. "But I'll hold my nose."
Talking about politics in Winona County, asking about the president or the former one, can cause people to hesitate. Some are cautious at a time when sharing their views could alienate their neighbors, co-workers or friends. And a few take a measured approach.
"Nobody's awful, nobody's trying to do things that are bad for the country," said Chris Harrison, who said he works in finance and voted for Trump in last year's election. "Everybody's doing what they think is best for the country. We just happen to disagree. So it's not a reason to get all worked up and to hate each other."
Staff researcher John Wareham contributed to this report.
Hunter Woodall • 612-673-4559