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Cruel words - and rocks - thrown at local legislative candidates

Although for years it wasn't normal for encounters between local legislative candidates and the public to turn nasty, several incidents so far in 2016 have veered from that standard.

Meg Litts, a DFL candidate for House District 9A, was recently on the receiving end of vitriol she never expected. During a parade in Verndale on July 30, Litts had a group of people say rude things and refuse to shake her hand. Litts had seen the same behavior while campaigning at previous parades, but nothing of what happened next was familiar. As she was crossing the street away from the rude group of people, she felt a handful of pea-sized rocks hit her back. Then another.

Litts said the people she was walking toward laughed and cheered as the rocks were thrown from the crowd on the opposite side of the street.

Litts, who is director of Discovery Woods Montessori School in Brainerd, said the incident displayed the classic hallmarks of children's bullying.

"All three elements were present," she said. "There were the bullies, throwing the rocks. There were the bystanders, who were kind of the 'buddies,' they were cheering and laughing. And then here there were the people who just said nothing, did nothing, just let it happen."

Although the rocks didn't hurt in a physical sense, Litts said, she was reminded of being bullied as a nine-year-old girl. Her voice cracked as she said it made her remember what she felt when her parents told her how to cope with her daily walk to school.

"'Look straight ahead, don't look at them, don't say anything, just keep walking, keep your head up,'" she recalled them saying.

Last Monday, her house in Staples was egged. Since the house is set back from the road, she figures the vandals had to cross onto her property to do it. There's no family name on their mailbox by the road, but her home address appears on her campaign literature, she said.

Staples Police Chief Melissa Birkholtz, a 16-year veteran of the force, said she could not remember a similar incident occurring there before.

"Occasionally we'll have a call where somebody's political sign is stolen, something like that," she said. "But where it's an actual political candidate, we don't typically have anything."

Although Litts suspects the egging was politically motivated, Birkholtz said, it's unclear whether it was.

John Poston, Litts' GOP opponent for the House District 9A seat, said while he's had people refuse to shake his hand, nothing as bad as what happened to Litts has happened to him. He said he was shocked after she told him about it.

"Probably 98 percent of the people that I walk up to in parades or at the fair or at a community event or knocking on doors are polite and friendly," he said. "There's just very, very few that because they belong to a different party, they just don't want to shake your hand or talk to you."

Someone recently threatened to shoot Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, if he came into their yard.

"I checked in with a few people, and this individual is likely harmless, so I didn't do anything about it," he said. "But it's not fun getting those kinds of comments."

He said the incident isn't characteristic of the conversations he has generally. With constituent emails Heintzeman receives, "99 percent" of them are reasonable, although exceptions included the issues of muskie stocking and transgender people in locker rooms and dressing areas, he said.

Quinn Nystrom, Heintzeman's DFL challenger, said trackers showed up on multiple occasions at Baxter city council meetings - since she's a member of the council - to confront Nystrom and film her. "They've never been there before" she ran for legislature, she said.

"That becomes unnerving," she said.

As to what happened to Litts, Nystrom said it was "disheartening" and could stymie potential candidates, especially younger people, from running for office in the future.

"Millennials need to say 'We're not going to do this kind of negative talk, this negative behavior'" she said. "If you don't want to vote for somebody, that's fine. But, to throw rocks, egg a house, kind of unnerve people ... I don't think that's what you need to do to win an election."