On a warm August evening, several hundred people descended on the La Crosse County Fairgrounds for an ear of grilled corn and one last chance to partake in what has been a summertime tradition for U.S. Rep. Ron Kind .
After representing the state’s 3rd congressional district for more than 25 years, Kind, a 59-year-old Democrat from La Crosse, is not seeking reelection this year. Its headquarters covering western and central Wisconsin has a long history of being a swing neighborhood. But Kind has remained popular with voters for the past two decades.
The longtime congressman thanked his supporters with his old-fashioned corn roast on Tuesday, an annual event for his campaign since 2003 that has been suspended for the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
French Island’s Dorothy Stroschein was one of the campaign volunteers shucking the hundreds of corn cobs served that evening. She’s been a volunteer since Kind’s first corn peeling, and she said it’s always been a success.
“It was never empty, if I remember correctly,” Stroschein said. “It’s always been really nice. Lots of speakers and good bands and lots of nice people.”
Standing outside as the polka band performed, Kind admitted he was going to miss the event. He said the election season had changed during his tenure, becoming increasingly polarized and partisan in his view. But Kind thinks Wisconsin’s 3rd District is still the same.
“There will always be change and movement, but people at heart are always decent, hard-working, honest people. And I just encourage them to focus on the individual and not get caught up in party labels. or how hyper partisan things have become,” he said.
Joe Heim, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, said it’s not entirely true to say the district hasn’t changed. Heim said the 2011 redistricting made the 3rd Congressional District safer for Democrats by adding the town of Stevens Point. But over the past decade, rural areas of Wisconsin have become more Republican.
“It presents a challenge for anyone representing large areas,” he said. “It’s a very rural district. We have a few big cities, and they tend to vote Democratic, but rural areas are increasingly voting Republican.”
Heim said Kind’s ability to win elections, even when the district backed former President Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020, proves the congressman was well-liked by voters on both sides of the aisle.
“You have to say being in Congress that long, 25 years, is an indication that he was doing something right. And what he was doing was representing the district as best he could, and that pissed off some people. people,” Heim said. “I think the very strong progressives, the very liberal Democrats weren’t particularly happy about it.”
Heim said Kind maintains its image as a moderate by sometimes breaking with the Democratic majority in votes. And he said the congressman was sometimes criticized by his own party for standing up against traditionally Democratic supporters, like the unions.
With Kind’s departure, this year’s election is hotly contested. Four Democratic candidates face off in the Aug. 9 primary: small-business owner Rebecca Cooke, former CIA agent Deb McGrath, La Crosse City Councilman Mark Neumann and state senator Brad Pfaff, D-Onalaska.
Even if Kind doesn’t run, he hasn’t been afraid to use his remaining time in office to lend his support to other Democrats on the ballot. Kind used the corn roast event to talk about Pfaff, his former staffer and the candidate he endorsed for the 3rd District, as well as Governor Tony Evers and U.S. Senate candidate Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes.
Kind also fired multiple shots at his former opponent and current Republican candidate in the 3rd Precinct, Derrick Van Orden. Kind referred to his attendance at the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021 and called it “part of the problem” in politics. In an email, Van Orden said Kind was “the poster boy for what’s wrong with DC” and a career politician, adding “it’s time for a change.”
As Kind reflected on his final months in Congress, he said he still hoped to make progress on legislation to diversify the country’s energy industry and a new export ban on Russia. He said the thought of his term ending was bittersweet.
“I wish I could have accomplished more for the people here. But after 26 years, Tawni (Kind’s wife) and I are looking forward to the next chapter,” he said.
Kind said he and his wife haven’t determined exactly what the next chapter will contain. He said they were looking forward to traveling and checking experiences off their to-do list. But he said they were determined to stay involved in western Wisconsin.
Halfway through the corn roast, Kind took the stage with his wife to thank their supporters and staff for the past two decades. He left the crowd with a call to get involved this election season as he hands over the baton in the 3rd Congressional District.
“Never lose faith in the goodness of this country and in our neighbors and in the strength of our democracy,” he told the crowd. “But it takes a renewal of that faith and hard work in every generation. And it’s time for us to stand up and do what we can to protect it.”