Photo by Caitlin Abrams
Bloomington Mayor Gene Winstead at Ike’s.
Few adjectives are more fraught in Minnesota than “nice.” There are those who understand that description to be our cri de coeur. As Paris is to beautiful, as New York is to brusque, as Singapore is to clean—we are to nice. Would you like a 67th heater on that coffee? Then there’s the opposition. Those who say it’s really Minnesota ice. What strangers see as nice is actually a frozen wall of politesse, as formal, rigid, and impermeable as the Iron Curtain. Ask a Minnesotan anything—except to come over.
Minnesota-born comic Lizz Winstead, a co-founder of The Daily Show, put it succinctly. The “curse of Minnesota Nice,” she wrote in her memoir, Lizz Free or Die, is that “we swallow our resentment . . . become passive aggressive, eat slop troughs of fried food and drink to excess to mask our anger about it, and die of clogged arteries and unfinished business.”
So, the question becomes: Is “Minnesota Nice” our greatest strength or our greatest weakness? To find out, it seemed appropriate to investigate as Lizz might for The Daily Show: To identify the nicest guy in Minnesota. It just so happens we needn’t look any further than Lizz’s own family, to her brother, Gene.
A prime candidate for Mr. Nice Guy Minnesota, Gene Winstead is the longtime mayor of Bloomington. Appropriately, Gene was also one of the founders of Ike’s Food & Cocktails, known for the extra-nice slogan: “I like Ike’s.” Not many people know that Lizz has the mayor of Bloomington for her big brother. And that’s not all you don’t know about Bloomington, adds Gene, with a smile, his blue eyes twinkling.
It’s widely known that Bloomington is home to Mall of America—where mall security outnumbers the city police force—but here are a few facts that might surprise you. Bloomington is the state’s fourth-largest city, just behind Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Rochester. (It surpassed Duluth after the last census.) While 86,000 people live in Bloomington, the city’s work force is more than 90,000. Since 2000, Gene has governed Bloomington, weathering mall expansion, light rail construction, and the entire hotel boom. (Bloomington now has 38 hotels, with two more in the works, giving it more hotel rooms than all of Minneapolis.) “Bloomington’s not just bedrooms anymore,” Gene says.
Now for the biggest mystery: How is it that a nice, moderate, business-first Republican came from the same south Minneapolis house that birthed one of the country’s most outspoken liberal firebrands? A visit to Lizz and Gene’s childhood home—at 51st and York— and nearby Pershing Park where the siblings played revealed some clues.
“We made what we called ‘pushies,’” Gene remembers. “They were basically anything we could find that we could use to bolt wheels on the side of. You can imagine how that went: lots of fun, some crashes. We’d play baseball in the street, ride bikes to the lake. Minneapolis was a great place to grow up.”
Gene and Lizz’s parents were Catholics who met in Washington, D.C., during World War II; he was a marine from the rural south, she was a Minneapolis-born navy WAVE. Between the two of them, they raised their kids to be acutely aware that not everyone has the same advantages they had.
“We saw families with a lot of turmoil; dads with all kinds of problems, moms who fell apart. I don’t know how we knew so much, but there was a small-town feeling,” in Minneapolis at the time, Gene remembers. “I was a paperboy, so I saw a lot. But what was really different about us—I’ve thought about it—was the dinner table. We had dinner together every night. Pretty traditional stuff, nothing too fancy, but we always talked. Dad was strong-willed, outspoken—he had a view on everything. There was always conversation, everyone piped in; it was lively.”
“Lizz and dad would many times be on opposite ends of an issue, and they’d just sit and jab at each other,” he says. “They both used humor for everything, but we all got our two cents in. What I remember is that there was always a sense that there was a fair, reasonable place you would end up. That fair is fair; right is right.”
Gene credits his own success in business and politics to those lively south Minneapolis conversations. Between his childhood dinner table and becoming mayor, Gene worked for many years in the coin-operated machine business, making deals with bar owners and arcade kingpins for jukeboxes, pinball machines, Pac-Man, and darts machines.
“In my day, you walk into a bar on Lake Street to work out a deal on a pinball machine, you’d better be nice and fair and be able to hold your ground, too,” he recalls.
Gene’s first foray into politics was his attempt to convince the government to stop using the dollar bill and switch to coin dollars. After years of effort, with visits to senators John McCain and Ted Kennedy’s offices, the effort failed. Gene puts the blame on Kennedy, citing the fact that Crane & Co., which makes the paper for dollar bills, was in Kennedy’s district.
“Practically, there should be no penny, and no dollar bill,” Gene says with conviction. “They cost more than they’re worth. That’s always where I come out: I’m for a general fairness. What’s right is right. That’s where I always try to come in as mayor: what’s reasonable and fair. If that’s what’s in your mind as you approach decision making, that’s what will come out. Everything we saw as kids, as an example, was reasonable and fair, and then if that’s what you see as an adult, it’s natural to keep working in that direction.”
Maybe that’s the real secret to Minnesota Nice—a deep-rooted belief in what’s fair and reasonable, which manifests in people as either an active and energized pleasant quality or a disappointed, repressed, and twisted anger. Alas, we’ll probably never know. “Minnesota Nice” is a mass of qualities, a personality profile, a story that continues to be written. But that “fair and reasonable” piece does seem to be part of it. Which is why in Minnesota, nice guys sometimes do finish first.