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It's fun, it's serious, it's the fair

Minnesota Education Secretary Alice Seagren shows how to wash her hands, long enough to sing "Happy Birthday" twice, during a State Fair demonstration about how to slow spread of the flu. Don Davis/Minn. State Capitol Bureau

FALCON HEIGHTS, Minn. - Two Minnesota state commissioners put on their best wild west sheriff impersonations, complete with cowboy hats, to show how to prevent flu from spreading.

Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau handed out booklets and heart-shaped pill bottles to promote a healthy-heart program.

Concordia College in Moorhead and Concordia Language Villages in Bemidji handed with plastic fans and talked about their programs.

State legislators fielded complaints and suggestions from citizens in record numbers.

And Secretary of State Mark Ritchie stepped into his carnival pitchman mode to recruit election judges and make sure people were registered to vote.

The Minnesota State Fair combines fun with the serious like few other events. And with high attendance this year, those in public life are connecting with the public in a big way.

Perhaps nothing better symbolized how serious issues can be fun than Thursday morning when Health Commissioner Dr. Sanne Magnan and Education Commissioner Alice Seagren donned "Germ City" T-shirts and acted a skit right out of a B wild west movie as they tracked down germ "varmints."

It was a silly skit that to show young people the value in washing their hands long and vigorously, coughing into their sleeves and taking other precautions against the flu.

Ironically, even as the skit was being planned earlier this week, H1N1 flu began to spread on the fairgrounds, sending 120 4-H members home on Thursday, with most leaving soon after the Magnan-Seagren show ended.

"You know, kids," Seagren said, "this germ was in town last spring and we don't want it to happen again."

"We've got to run them out of town," Magnan added to the sparse crowd in the Agriculture Building.

The commissioners and four young guests put fake germs on their hands, which lit up brightly under black light. Then they washed their hands and another black light visit showed most of the bad guys gone.

"Soap and water, time and friction are your friends," Magnan proclaimed.

Across the fairgrounds Thursday, Molnau handed out brochures at the Health Department's booth promoting a new national lieutenant governors' campaign urging Americans to go to and begin a 12-week program to eat better, exercise more and take other actions to improve heart health.

Near where Molnau handed out literature, Ritchie was pitching the need for Minnesotans to become election judges and to register to vote.

"Are you registered?" he would ask. "Have you moved?"

Many fair visitors made a point to tell Ritchie they appreciated his handling of the long-disputed U.S. Senate election, but he was more interesting in other things, including making sure business owners took care of their annual registration with his office, even offering to help them in the midst of fair chaos.

As nearly perfect weather and a rough economy boost fair attendance, state House and Senate booths also are seeing more interest this year.

The Senate booth is on track to get a record 7,500 people to take its poll, while the House appears likely to top its 9,000 mark from 2001.

Most government and education organizations lease fair space every year, but not so for Concordia College and its affiliated language program.

Concordia Marketing Director Roger Degerman said the organizations have been on a fair waiting list, and are happy to be able to promote themselves to potential students and to connect with alumni, especially those in the Twin Cities.

The Moorhead college needs to reach into the more populated area, he said, because the nearby youth population is not growing.

"It's a great way to give us some brand exposure," said Degerman, who along with colleagues handed out plastic fans and encouraged people to sign up to win an iPod.

The Bemidji language program, meanwhile, sends representatives to a lot of language-oriented conferences, but not so much to general public events.

"You are getting the very broadest of audiences," Degerman said of the fair.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.