The petition, with space for 20 signatures, appeared on page 4A of The Journal, the daily newspaper in this south-central Minnesota farming community.
"Wake up Washington," it said. "Farmers are facing the worst economic conditions since the Depression. Low commodity prices, massive land deflation and overburdening debt are tearing away at the very fabric of rural America. Farmers need a fair price for their product."
The petition is a sign of the times, part of the wave of discontent that is sweeping across the agricultural states of the Midwest as the farm economy continues to deteriorate. But it was not sponsored by any of the farm protest groups that have cropped up here and in other agricultural states to demand government relief from Washington. Instead, it was in part a political document, one of the opening moves in the reelection campaign of the petition's chief sponsor, Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.).
After five years of increasingly unpopular Reagan administration farm policies, Weber and other Midwest Republicans are heading into their own winter of discontent. Less than a year before the 1986 congressional elections, they see farms and businesses in their districts close to collapse, while a Republican administration in Washington advocates a free-market approach to farm policy that offers little prospect of immediate help.
In response, Republicans such as Weber are moving rapidly to distance themselves from their leader, President Reagan, and to align themselves with their suffering constituents against what some see as the blind and uncaring federal government in Washington.
On the surface, there are all the makings of a GOP debacle across the Farm Belt next year, and nowhere more so than in Minnesota's 2nd congressional district. In the last four months, three small banks in the district have been forced to close and more are threatened, according to Todd Johnson, the agriculture specialist in Weber's district office here. In Worthington, a city of 10,000 just north of the Iowa border, 30 business concerns have gone under in recent months, said Jim Nichols, the state's commissioner of agriculture.
The foreclosure rate against Minnesota farmers has risen to 6 percent and is probably higher in Weber's district, one of the most agricultural in the country. Land values have plunged by 50 percent since 1982, making matters worse since farmers depend on land for loan collateral.
"It's awful," Nichols said. "We could easily lose a fourth of our farmers."
These stark economic trends, which are common in the rural congressional districts of the Midwest, have made Republican strategists understandably nervous. Their unease has been heightened by the ominous parallels between 1986 and 1958, a year in which a populist revolt across the Farm Belt cost the GOP 23 House seats in the Midwest alone.
In 1958, as now, there was a personally popular second-term Republican president in the White House, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Then, as now, the farm economy was in shambles and the administration's farm policies were the target of bitter criticism. Before the 1958 elections, as now, controversial farm legislation moved through Congress, a political minefield that stood between farm district incumbents and reelection.
But, as Alan Ehrenhalt has noted in Congressional Quarterly, there are limits to the parallels. "The Republicans serving in the House today are very different from the ones who lost their seats in 1958," he wrote.
Weber is an example, a case study in the protection of political flanks against a coming electoral storm.
Swept into office in the 1980 Reagan landslide, the 33-year-old Weber, considered a rising star of the GOP's right wing, is now an entrenched incumbent, making full use of the powers of incumbency to preserve his political career.
Weber said he could see the political repercussions of the farm crisis of 1986 long ago, and he has been preparing for it. One of his first moves was to drop the "town meetings" he had held in his district and replace them with what he calls "district office hours," in which the local congressman hears out the complaints and problems of individual consitutents, and tries to do something about them.
"I am trying to personalize my approach to the problem, to show that I care about them as individuals," Weber said.
According to Weber's staff here, this increased attention to constituent services, coupled with the worsening economic conditions, has resulted in a tripling of the casework done by Weber's three separate offices in the sprawling, 32-county district. It also provided a series of laudatory statements from constituents that were quickly reproduced in a brochure and mailed to potential voters throughout the district.
"We are so grateful for your help on our Social Security disability," Dick and Lucille Lewis of Windom, Minn., were quoted as saying.
Meanwhile, Weber also moved early to align himself with Groundswell, a group representing angry farmers and rural community leaders similar to other organizations that have sprung up in the Midwest. While Groundswell has been engaged in a bitter struggle with the Republican-controlled Minnesota House over farm foreclosures, Weber's aides have worked closely with the protest group and were helped by Groundswell members in circulating the "Wake Up Washington" petition.
"Vin Weber has more or less been romancing us," said Bobbi Polzine, a co-founder of Groundswell, who credits Weber's district offices with providing "a great deal of help."
"My district is agriculture," Weber said in explaining the informal alliance of a conservative-Republican and sometimes radical farmers. "If a significant farm movement develops and I'm not part of it, there is something wrong. I think other Republicans should do the same."
Weber also aligned himself with Democrats -- specifically Reps. Timothy J. Penny and James L. Oberstar, who represent two other rural Minnesota districts. In 1958, House Republicans, under pressure from the Eisenhower administration to cut farm price supports, voted against Democratic legislation to keep the price supports in place. "They were lambs to the slaughter," Ehrenhalt wrote of the election that followed.
But on the key issues in the 1985 farm bill that passed the House in October, Weber was no lamb, voting the same as Democrats Penny and Oberstar.
This in turn earned Weber a tribute from Warren Sandmann Jr., editor of the normally antagonistic Sleepy Eye (Minn.) Herald-Dispatch. Under the headline "Vin's on the Right Track," Sandmann wrote that while Weber "may only be playing politics" with his votes in the House, his district should be grateful that he "deviated from the Reagan administration line . . . to support a 1985 farm bill that would have meant higher prices and a chance for farmers to regain some control over their own product."
Finally, Weber has not ignored the most important aspect of running for reelection -- fund-raising. With about $175,000 on hand, he has already accumulated almost as much as his first Democratic opponent spent in 1980, and triple the amount the Democratic candidate was able to raise in 1984. Through his strong ties to the Republican right, he expects to raise another $80,000 from two fund-raising appearances next month in Minnesota by Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and is prepared to spend as much as $500,000.
According to Nichols, the Democratic commissioner of agriculture who unsuccessfully challenged Weber in the 1982 election, farm-state Republicans are also benefiting from Democratic ineptitude in Washington. Calling the House-passed farm bill, which Weber voted against but which a majority of Democrats supported, "a disaster," Nichols fumed:
"The Democratic leadership hasn't done anything and these farmers know it. What the hell have the Democrats done for farmers?"
Minnesota politicians of both parties say rural anger has not yet been focused on Republican incumbents in Congress. Polzine, frustrated by the inability to gain a state moratorium on farm foreclosures, said Groundswell blames the hardships farmers are suffering "as much on the state level as the national level."
Early this month, Weber commissioned a public opinion survey of his district that found that, while 30 percent of voters blamed the farm crisis on the "Reagan economic program," 37 percent said the cause was "past Democratic policies."
This was comforting news to the incumbent, but there are still 11 months to go before Election Day. At the moment, Weber has no announced Democratic opposition, but he may have a challenger in David Johnson, who has a 1,900-acre corn and soybean farm just south of the town of Hector. Johnson, 52, has never held public office, but is known for his work as a local community leader. He is being encouraged to take the plunge by Democratic officials in Washington who see Johnson as an attractive candidate and perfect symbol of a Farm Belt revolt. A Reagan delegate to the 1984 Republican National Convention, Johnson has since switched parties and now describes administration farm policy as "ruinous."
While Johnson mulls his prospects for 1986, Weber is confident of the steps he has already taken.
"I think most of what I have done is true of incumbents across the Farm Belt," he said. "This is not a problem that snuck up on us. All of us have changed our behavior. I don't expect a big turnover next year.