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CONVENTION 2000 / THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION

Ready to Rock This Town--and Turn in Early

August 13, 2000|DANA PARSONS

Los Angeles, consider yourself warned:

"North Dakotans are party animals!"

Is that widely known?

I had heard that they grew lots of wheat and wore large bulky coats in winter, but beyond that my knowledge of the state was limited.

Still, I'll take Earl "Bill" Anderson at his word.

After all, who would know better than a lifelong North Dakotan whose hometown of Rutland once laid claim to "The World's Largest Hamburger," a 3,591-pounder cooked in a 16 1/2-foot-wide skillet that drew thousands of folks to this hamburger hamlet of 225 people?

So when Anderson, 55, says he and his fellow delegates heading to this week's Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles are primed, one can only wonder: How's security on the Sunset Strip?

I suppose I should note here that in the next breath, Anderson says he, personally, likely would be in bed every night by 9. (Hey, that's 11 p.m. Dakota time!)

But that leaves the rest of the 22 delegates and four alternates (or is it 21 and three--there seems to be some confusion) to live up to its reputation.

"Honest to God, I'm not known as a fun person," says 47-year-old delegate Shirley Meyer as we talk at her farm outside Dickinson.

That's not what I hear, I tell her. "I'm pretty sure at least one other person in the delegation told me you're extremely interesting."

"You better double-check your notes," her husband, Dean, says.

Regardless, Meyer says she expects to be the "most horrified" at what she sees in L.A.

"Was Shirley feigning the country girl thing?" delegate April Fairfield asks me, laughing, two days later and 200 miles away in Jamestown.

Who knows? I can attest that after spending the last two weeks traveling the state from Bismarck to Barney and from Fargo to Kulm (Angie Dickinson's hometown and somehow pronounced with two syllables) and meeting the entire delegation--except for its three Washington, D.C.-based congressional members--the group is locked and loaded.

I went to North Dakota not because it's there and not for the World Horseshoe Pitching Tournament that just ended a two-week run in Bismarck, but because I'm bird-dogging its delegation this week.

My task, I told them, is to see how Los Angeles looks through the eyes of a Heartland delegation. After meeting them, however, my goal now is to make sure this group of uncommonly nice people--the kind we'd all be if we didn't live in California--comes out alive after a week in L.A.

*

Just how far is it from North Dakota to L.A.?

Pretty darn far.

It's a place where directions to meet people can include things like "take a left at the shelter belt," or, "if you pass the buckboard on the hill you've gone too far."

It's a place where delegate Tim Purdon has a two-minute commute to his law office.

It's a place where in the winter people leave their cars unlocked and running in the parking lot while they're shopping.

It's a place where a few years ago, Meyer and her family were gone when a blizzard hit. They returned to find a note from a trucker--a total stranger--whose rig had broken down. He had made it to their house, let himself in to the always-unlocked home and spent the night. He left a thank-you note, guaranteeing he hadn't touched anything, and $20.

"It's probably less interesting how we react to L.A.," says Fairfield, a 30-year-old policy analyst for the North Dakota Farmers Union, "than what people's concept there is of North Dakota. I think most people look at us as the absolute hinterlands and 'Do we get out much?' "

The reality is that many in the delegation are well traveled and well read, she says. Still, after taking a lot of ribbing over depictions in the movie "Fargo," North Dakotans can't be blamed for wondering if the big-city sophisticates will ever tire of mocking them.

They're willing to play along--to a point.

"There is a bit of the 'state-fair-comes-to-L.A.' aspect to this," Purdon, a 31-year-old lawyer, says with a laugh.

When delegate Chris Runge told her twin brothers, who live in Orange County, about my assignment, they told her: "They're going to make you out to be a bunch of yokels."

Remarks like that can hurt a guy.

Besides, even by North Dakota standards, everyone likes to talk about Arlo Schmidt, a 68-year-old state legislator from rural Maddock. The 1976 North Dakota auctioneer of the year, Schmidt once sponsored a bill making the square dance the official state dance.

Even he first thought it might be a bunch of foolishness. Then he heard the square dancers' presentation, and it made sense.

Passing the bill, he told his fellow legislators, would be like wearing a diaper: They wouldn't notice any difference on the outside, but they'd have a warm feeling on the inside.

They passed it.

Yep, I might have to keep an eye on Arlo this week.

*

Parsons writes a column for The Times' Orange County edition.

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