BEMIDJI -- Seventeen-year-old Austin Pickett won’t be eligible to vote by Election Day, but regardless, he is out in full support of Donald Trump. As one of the younger attendees at Tuesday’s Faith, Family and Freedom Rally, he made sure his voice was heard and his views widely known with his fully decorated pick-up truck -- including at least two Trump flags.

“I will not be 18 by the election, sadly,” Pickett said. “I love this country. I believe Trump is doing the best job he can for this country.”

Austin Pickett, 17, stands with his pickup truck sporting several Trump signs at the Family, Faith and Freedom Rally held Tuesday evening on the east side of the Paul Bunyan Mall. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
Austin Pickett, 17, stands with his pickup truck sporting several Trump signs at the Family, Faith and Freedom Rally held Tuesday evening on the east side of the Paul Bunyan Mall. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

Pickett was not alone. With only 49 days left until the general election, a couple hundred people came out for the event to gather yard signs, meet with area candidates and listen to Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake.

It’s tricky to guess just how many people were in attendance -- since the rally was designed to be a drive-in event, many attendees stayed in their cars, while others milled around meeting with candidates. Due to COVID-19 regulations, the event was capped at 250 vehicles. Attendees were encouraged to wear masks and social distance.

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Tuesday’s rally was a bit of a warm-up for Friday’s presidential visit -- and the excitement for Trump’s arrival was palpable.

Event organizer Phil Ehlke and Stan Strong of Blackduck give opening remarks during the Family, Faith and Freedom Rally held Tuesday evening on the east side of the Paul Bunyan Mall. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
Event organizer Phil Ehlke and Stan Strong of Blackduck give opening remarks during the Family, Faith and Freedom Rally held Tuesday evening on the east side of the Paul Bunyan Mall. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

Yard signs were a big topic of the evening-- event organizers were handing out signs for the candidates in attendance, as well as other area conservative candidates and Trump-Pence signs. One emcee joked - if you can move your signs in 30 seconds to mow your lawn, you don’t have enough signs.

The event was not met with opposition, however, one lone car parked with a large Biden-Harris sign greeted rally-goers as they exited.

Tuesday's event was not met with opposition, however, one lone car parked with a large Biden-Harris sign greeted rally-goers as they exited the Paul Bunyan Mall parking lot. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
Tuesday's event was not met with opposition, however, one lone car parked with a large Biden-Harris sign greeted rally-goers as they exited the Paul Bunyan Mall parking lot. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

Candidate perspectives

Each of the six candidates present was given a short time to speak on stage part way into the event, including: District 2B Rep. Steve Green, R-Fosston; Minnesota District 5 Sen. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids; District 2 Sen. Paul Utke, R-Park Rapids; Former District 5A Rep. Matt Bliss, R-Pennington; Minnesota State Sen. Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks; and Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake.

“That’s why we are here tonight, to honor these gentlemen that have put themselves out there to be our leaders politically in our area,” organizer Phil Ehlke said of the candidates in attendance. “Tell them thank you, tell them you’re praying for them, tell them you're going to vote for them, whatever the case may be.”

Minnesota state Sen. Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, speaks during the Family, Faith and Freedom Rally held Tuesday evening on the east side of the Paul Bunyan Mall. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
Minnesota state Sen. Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, speaks during the Family, Faith and Freedom Rally held Tuesday evening on the east side of the Paul Bunyan Mall. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

In visiting with attendees Utke talked about playing catch-up while campaigning due to the lack of parades and county fairs this summer.

“If the events are there, we go to them,” he said, mentioning that face to face interactions with voters far outweigh phone calls.

Eichorn spoke about how usually rallies focus on “guns, babies and unions,” but now he’s hearing more than ever about public safety and police funding.

He mentioned his desire to have greater Minnesota treated the same as the rest of the state, and how he wants to push back COVID-19 restrictions and “let people live their lives,” he said.

Bliss is currently seeking re-election to the Minnesota House of Representatives. He lost his race in 2018 by 11 votes. Bliss spoke about the energy he felt from recent Trump boat parades and a rally at a bar in Walker last week.

Bliss said while knocking on doors the topics that came up most frequently were public safety, the rule of law and police funding.

The event was capped off with an address from Gazelka who spoke about his faith and experience in the Senate.

Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, speaks during the Family, Faith and Freedom Rally held Tuesday evening on the east side of the Paul Bunyan Mall. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, speaks during the Family, Faith and Freedom Rally held Tuesday evening on the east side of the Paul Bunyan Mall. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

He walked the crowd through lawmaking in the era of COVID-19 and what the days following the death of George Floyd looked like from his perspective. He described the friction of working with a Democratic governor and a blue House of Representatives.

Gazelka later described his previous interactions with Trump and labeled him as “another flawed person trying to do the right thing.”

Trump’s upcoming visit

While he won’t be in town until Friday, Trump’s presence loomed large at the event.

The excitement among attendees was clearly visible, along with an assortment of Keep America Great swag -- including several dogs sporting Trump bandannas.

Tango the “Republican dog” stands with his owners, Kathy and Lanny Cyr during the Family, Faith and Freedom Rally held Tuesday evening on the east side of the Paul Bunyan Mall. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
Tango the “Republican dog” stands with his owners, Kathy and Lanny Cyr during the Family, Faith and Freedom Rally held Tuesday evening on the east side of the Paul Bunyan Mall. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

Candidates also mentioned their enthusiasm for the visit, and most plan to be in attendance on Friday, despite not being allowed to campaign at the event.

“The president is coming on Friday, thank you, Jesus,” Ehlke said, then he reminded people to keep their eyes on God, not the president.

The evening wrapped up with a prayer over the candidates present.

Attendees at the Faith, Family and Freedom Rally pray over conservative candidates on Tuesday in the Paul Bunyan Mall parking lot. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
Attendees at the Faith, Family and Freedom Rally pray over conservative candidates on Tuesday in the Paul Bunyan Mall parking lot. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

“We ask your blessing upon each of these congressmen, senators, legislators, we ask your blessing upon our president,” Mike Rasch, one of the event organizers, said in his closing prayer. “We see a revival coming in this country, I feel it every day, I see it everyday. In this state, I see a revival, and you are leading in that direction, God. So help us to understand your process for us, show us what you’d like us to do, get us to the polls, don’t give us any excuses, God, allow us to work for you and you only.”