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Chippewa Valley voters split on presidential race
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EAU CLAIRE — With Election Day only four days away, the presidential campaign is in the home stretch.

Millions of Americans have already voted, in part due to safety concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic. A final wave of voters will show up at the polls Tuesday to cast their ballots.

When the counting is complete, no matter how long it takes, either Republican President Donald Trump will be reelected to another four-year term or Democratic former Vice President Joe Biden will get his turn to reside in the White House.

But in a divided nation, that may be just about all Democrats and Republicans can agree on regarding the presidential race.

In interviews this week with eight Chippewa Valley voters — four Democrats and four Republicans — the Leader-Telegram heard extraordinarily divergent views on the president’s performance in office and the prospects for America under either candidate’s leadership.

That split begins with voters’ expectations about the election itself.

Despite polls showing Biden with a steady lead over Trump in Wisconsin and nationwide, GOP voters expressed surprising confidence that their guy would somehow pull off an upset victory not unlike what happened four years ago when Trump defied the polls by defeating Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Reached while driving back to Wisconsin from a bow-hunting trip to Missouri, Republican Dustin Johnson of Bloomer said he was buoyed by what he characterized as the overwhelming majority of Trump signs he saw as he crossed the heartland.

“There’s some extreme support from people that I think are mostly silent,” Johnson said. “Judging by that visual evidence, I think there is support for Donald Trump’s side even more so now than in 2016. I feel very good about it.”

Trump supporter Denise Solberg of Colfax also expressed doubt about the accuracy of polls, suggesting “there’s a lot of people out there who do support Trump and they’re either not being polled correctly or they are just being private.”

Such sentiments, however, are a reminder for Eau Claire Democrat Linda Norton of what she considered the nightmare scenario of 2016 and why she has been volunteering to assist Democrats in making get-out-the-vote phone calls, doing literature drops and taking other steps to try to ensure it isn’t repeated in 2020.

“I feel like I can’t even think about victory because the result was so shocking to me in 2016,” Norton said. “Right up to the end I plan to do whatever I can do to help Joe Biden get elected. “After the election, I don’t want to feel like there is something else I could have done.”

UW-Eau Claire student Tate Williams, a Biden backer, said the polls have him feeling “cautiously optimistic” about the election but hopeful state Democrats would not get complacent considering Biden’s 5 percentage point lead over Trump among Wisconsin voters in the final preelection Marquette University Law School poll is actually 1 percentage point less than Clinton’s advantage at the same point four years ago.

Reflective of the candidates themselves, Chippewa Valley voters on both sides called this the most important election in memory, but for very different reasons.

Republicans said they feared a slide toward socialism and a lack of support for law and order under a Biden administration, while Democrats expressed concern that a second Trump term would bring more division, environmental harm and an unnecessary extension of death and economic fallout from the pandemic.

Democrats say Biden will seek to unite America at a time of division
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EAU CLAIRE — Chippewa Valley Democrats like a lot of things about the prospect of a Joe Biden administration, but it’s clear one of the main attractions is that it would mark the end of President Donald Trump’s volatile time in the Oval Office.

Democrats said the election of the former Democratic vice president would give the United States a chance to become more united again after four years of what they see as Trump’s divisive, combative style of governing.

As a result, Eau Claire Democrat Gloria Hochstein didn’t hesitate in calling Tuesday’s election the most important of the 13 presidential elections in which she has participated and going so far as to say the future of the American republic is in danger.

“I feel that we as Americans are facing two epidemics,” Hochstein said. “One is the pandemic of COVID-19, which is threatening our existence, but I think that even a greater danger to our republic is the epidemic of divisiveness, of extreme hatred of the other side and turning compromise into a dirty word.”

That hasn’t always been the case because even the U.S. Constitution required compromise to gain approval, she said.

“But we seem to have lost the ability as a nation to work together and to compromise,” Hochstein said, maintaining that Trump has fueled the epidemic of hatred, division and conspiracy theories embroiling the nation.

“We need a uniter at this time.”

Democrat Linda Norton of Eau Claire expressed some of the same fears, pointing to the rise of hate groups and heavily armed private militias under Trump as evidence of things spinning out of control.

“Our government, I think, is really in a scary place having Trump at the helm,” Norton said. “So many things are going in a destructive and wrong direction.”

For Eau Claire Democrat Stephanie Farrar, an associate professor of English at UW-Eau Claire who specializes in 19th century literature, today’s situation is eerily similar to the division and racial strife that marked the 1800s, including the Civil War and the rise of discriminatory Jim Crow laws.

“I say it every semester: The 21st century is so 19th century,” Farrar said, adding that many of the 19th century texts she reads sound like they are ripped from the headlines of today.

Farrar characterized the election of Trump after Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president, as a backlash against advances by a new group of people. She argued that Trump has stoked racial division for his own economic benefit.

By contrast, she said, “Joe Biden has the admirable ability to work with people who disagree with him and that is something that we need right now.”

Farrar reported that a neighbor, gesturing toward a Trump sign, recently called her husband, a naturalized U.S. citizen originally from El Salvador, an “illegal immigrant.”

With that personal connection, Farrar said she has been appalled by the Trump administration’s treatment of children at the southern border, saying, “When I see children in cages at the border, I see my children.”

Noting that she cares about improving race relations, extending access to health care and keeping the planet habitable, Farrar characterized her vote for Biden as “an act of care and of love for people and the planet.”

The local Democrats discussed several other factors that led them to support Biden.

Norton said she was confident a Biden administration would be filled with more qualified people than the “Trump cronies” who now occupy top spots in the federal government.

“I think Biden will surround himself with real experts heading up departments,” Norton said, adding that she also believes Biden will bring honesty and empathy back to the White House.

Several Democrats mentioned the pandemic and climate change — and Biden’s pledge to follow the advice of scientists in tackling those issues — as key reasons to support the former vice president.

UW-Eau Claire student Tate Williams said Trump follows the dangerous approach of going with his gut instead of following the science on such issues.

“Listening to the scientists is a very basic answer. Scientists like (Dr. Anthony) Fauci are the experts,” Williams said. “Biden understands that he is not the authority on everything and will listen to the science.”

While Williams said he also cares deeply about issues such as health care, racial injustice and college affordability, Biden’s promise to address climate change may be the No. 1 reason he has gained Williams’ support.

“We need a planet to live on to discuss racial injustice and other issues,” he said.

Regarding the pandemic, Hochstein said the country needs a leader such as Biden who will take a firm stand in mitigating the effects of the virus to replace Trump’s style of ridiculing people for wearing masks and holding large campaign rallies at a time when COVID-19 cases are spiking and public health officials are urging people to avoid big gatherings and practice social distancing.

Republicans defend Trump's handling of virus, support him on economy, abortion
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EAU CLAIRE — Over the past four years, Chippewa Valley Republicans say they have learned to take President Donald Trump’s words with a grain of salt while appreciating his policies.

Supporters insist they pay more attention to the conservative substance of Trump’s presidency than the combative style of his time in office.

“I think he’s the most outspoken politician I’ve ever experienced in my life,” Bloomer Republican Dustin Johnson said. “Some of it could be tamed down a bit for sure, but I’d rather be told exactly what’s going on than hear a sugar-coated version of the truth.”

Acknowledging that Trump’s name-calling can be “a little ridiculous,” Johnson said it’s hard to blame him considering he has been been under constant attack since taking office.

Trump backer Greg Wolfe of Eau Claire said the president is impulsive and doesn’t have any filters, but maintained it is refreshing “to get what you see” from a politician.

Likewise, Republican Cheryl Frisch of Colfax said, “I know President Trump makes some God almighty statements at times ... but he tells it like it is.”

When it comes to the coronavirus, the issue roiling the lives of most Americans in 2020, the regional Republicans defended Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic that as of Thursday had resulted in more than 225,000 deaths and 8.9 million people testing positive in the United States, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Frisch said Democrats are unfair for criticizing Trump’s downplaying of the pandemic and his handling of the health crisis because no one knew what a serious threat the virus would be when it struck the U.S. early this year.

“In my opinion, a good leader doesn’t cause people to panic,” said Frisch, who described herself as a firm believer in wearing masks but someone who thinks everyone should make up their own minds. “We didn’t know what we were dealing with. He did what he could.”

She credited the president for pushing for more ventilator and personal protective equipment production, and suggested the toll wouldn’t be any different if Trump had drummed up more panic.

Another Colfax Republican, Denise Solberg, said she realizes COVID-19 cases are surging in Wisconsin and other places around the country but stressed that the death rate has gone down since doctors have learned more about the best ways to treat the virus.

“I feel like his leadership qualities have really come out in this crazy 2020,” Solberg said of Trump.

By contrast, Solberg said she fears a Biden administration would institute a nationwide lockdown for an indefinite amount of time, stating, “Our country isn’t going to survive if that’s the case.”

Wolfe said he always liked Democratic former President Barack Obama as a person but often disagreed with his agenda.

“I always felt like for those eight years that I just wasn’t getting listened to,” Wolfe said. “I felt like my beliefs were not being reflected in policies.”

In particular, Wolfe said, he believes the Democratic administration ignored concerns about religious freedom when passing the Affordable Care Act, which, for example, required all health insurance plans to cover birth control even if that went against the religious beliefs of some employers.

The Trump administration offers a better match for Wolfe’s beliefs on abortion, morality and religious freedom issues, he said.

Johnson said his No. 1 reason for supporting Trump is that he believes the president, unlike most politicians, has attempted to deliver on his campaign promises. Johnson pointed to the strong economy before the pandemic struck and the construction of a portion of a wall between Mexico and the U.S. as examples.

A close second, Johnson said, is his belief that Trump is a stronger proponent of law enforcement than Biden. Johnson cited Trump’s desire to crack down on protesters when violence erupted and cities across the country “were pretty much burning to the ground” after the May death of George Floyd, a Black man, under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis.

“You’ve got to side with the side that’s going to promise to protect us,” Johnson said.

The economy is another big issue for Johnson, who said the past two years have been his best in 22 years of owning a small business.

Frisch said her opposition to abortion rights is a major reason she supports Trump, as well as her fear that the Democratic Party is shifting toward socialism with its support of more government involvement in health care, stimulus money for the economy and tuition-free public college for families earning less than $125,000 a year.

Solberg also cited Trump’s anti-abortion stance and his stewardship of the economy as important issues for her.

“We had a great economy going before this whole pandemic,” Solberg said, “and I just really feel like he’s the right person to lead us to get our economy back.”

Lake Hallie spirits
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I don’t exactly see apparitions at my house on Lake Hallie, but I sometimes sense a presence. My husband doubts me, though Bruce knows that in each place we live we leave behind pieces of ourselves: children’s growth etched onto a wall or dead skin lost between floorboards. Why wouldn’t we also create a spiritual imprint?

Many of us pick up on the vibes in any space. Walk into a room where two people are angry at each other or one in which a couple is newly in love. That energy is palpable. The same is true with psychic phenomena.

Paranormal investigator Dan Sturges claims that everyone has a bit of an “ability.”

He says, “It’s like cable TV and basic service versus premium service. Everybody’s got basic — you need basic. But some people have HBO. Some people have Showtime. Some people have all of it plus internet and On Demand.”

My antenna has always been able to tune into that which I cannot see. I’m not alone. One night a friend visited not long after Bruce and I moved to Lake Hallie 10 years ago. Maybe 15 minutes after sitting at the kitchen counter, she looked up from her beer and said, “You have a ghost, don’t you?” This was a bit like someone with a cat allergy sniffing out a hidden kitten.

I nodded. “I think he likes to be right here” — I pointed to the hallway — “especially when we drink.” I joked that we just live and let live at our new place.

Our house documents only go back to the 1960s, when the first septic system was installed, but the most interesting history comes from my old-timer neighbors. They claim that in the 1920s this was an early site for Lake Hallie Golf’s clubhouse, then a small cabin built by “Banty” Wendt. Next, ownership shifted from one Tangen family: Art and Rita — longtime owners of the golf course — to George (Art’s cousin) and his wife Joan. We bought from Joan in 2010, 10 years after George died in the house.

When I started recording the oral histories of people who have been on Lake Hallie the longest, my neighbors connected me with Nellie Dutton Erickson who lives across the lake from us.

I call to set up a meeting, and Nellie tells me, “I met my husband at your house, October 31st, 1946.”

My initial reaction: Does she really know where I live? I’ll soon discover she knows everything. She spent her entire life here, and Nellie’s ancestors were some of the original white settlers in this area.

I first visit her just after Halloween, 2014. “Witches were in our family. Not just me,” she teases.

After an hour of Lake Hallie history — including lore about its namesake, lumber baron John Ure’s daughter Hallie, who may have drowned here — she proclaims, “Now I’m going to tell you the story of your house.”

Nellie lived off of a busy highway, what’s now OO. Her dad owned Bucket of Blood Bar, next door to Slim’s (now Slim’s Lake Hallie Tavern). Gilbert Dutton died in 1933 when Nellie was a baby. As a girl she ran with a group of neighborhood kids. Over 70 years later, she remembers there were three girls and 14 boys. She still calls them “Hallie Brats.” Each Halloween they snuck onto Wendt’s yard — now Bruce’s and mine — and tipped over the outhouse. Once they pushed so hard, it ended up in the lake.

I know where that outhouse stood. One winter a few years ago a sinkhole opened up in our side yard, precisely where the long-ago owners built their latrine.

It may be easy to cast Frank “Banty” Wendt as the neighborhood ogre, but perhaps he just didn’t like kids on his property. Frank was born in Germany in 1893 and settled in Eau Claire with his parents and siblings. Later he built two small cabins on Lake Hallie, where he rented boats and sold bait. Nellie tells me Banty also worked as a handyman at the golf course. His obituary in 1971 listed him as a brick layer. He erected both of his rustic structures on stone — one perched from a shale outcropping on the south edge of Lake Hallie and the other — which still stands: where I’m writing from — was built into rock with its foundation in the water.

One of my other neighbors claims Frank got his nickname because he strutted around like a banty rooster. Others confirm he was small and aggressive — a hothead with a mean streak, especially when he drank. He often picked a fight with the biggest guy in Slim’s. No surprise: Banty got beat up time and again.

The Halloween Nellie was 14, her neighborhood pack snuck onto Lake Hallie Golf Course, down the Wendt’s long driveway and headed toward the outhouse. Before they could push it over, Banty jumped out the narrow door with a shotgun and sprayed rock salt. The kids scattered.

A petrified Nellie stumbled. Her friend David, a seventh grader Nellie remembers was already 6-foot-2 and had “legs like Ichabod Crane,” simply jumped over the top of her and ran away. She fell again running up the steep sand driveway. When she struggled to climb over the barbed wire fence, strange hands reached down and lifted her up and over to safety. This was the first time she met Jim Erickson, a 19-year-old who had just moved to the area. After graduating from Eau Claire Senior High, he fibbed about his age to get a job at Northern States Power Company. He moved to rural Hallie so he could keep his prized horse, Colonel, on his sister’s farm.

After that Halloween encounter, Jim waved at Nellie as she waited for the bus. Nellie says she didn’t really notice him. Then their mothers talked at a church function: Mrs. Erickson told Mrs. Dutton that her son was smitten with Nellie.

When her mom asked about this boy, Nellie responded, “Jim who?” Once she turned 16, the two started dating. That annual neighborhood prank led to a lifetime. They married in 1954. Nellie is 88 now; her beloved Jim died in 2010. She still calls him her “perfect man.”

Not many ghost stories turn out to be love stories. This Halloween at our place there’s no outhouse, no Banty Wendt, no Hallie Brats. Just the spirits of many souls who once lived on and loved Lake Hallie.