Dorset isn’t a town; it’s a publicity stunt. And Robert Tufts isn’t a mayor; he’s a four-year-old who likes taffy and fishing, and who has media-savvy parents.
“Thanks for your support,” Tufts told a crowd in front of Camponeros, a Mexican restaurant in Dorset. The town describes itself as the “Restaurant Capital of the World,” though it only has six restaurants and a handful of residents.
Dorset consists of a one-block stretch of County Highway 7, a three-and-a-half-hour drive northeast of Minneapolis. Dorset has no government, no city hall, no police force. But for the past 23 years, Dorset has had a mayor — or, rather, a puppet used to attract attention. This week, buried in the back of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, Orlando Sentinel or whichever other small-to-mid-market newspaper you prefer, you might see the story. Someone, somewhere, will be sipping coffee and reading, learning about this quirky rural Minnesota town.
“Huh, would you look at that?” a man in The Villages will say to his wife. “This town in Minnesota just re-elected a kid as their mayor.”
When you picture Dorset, you should think of Disneyland, where buildings were constructed to resemble small towns. But unlike Disneyland, Dorset was once an actual town.
“Dorset used to be a legitimate town until the United States passed the zip code ruling,” said Kathy Schmidt, owner of the Dorset General Store. “Once they did the zip code thing, they wouldn’t allow a town this small to have a post office.”
Tufts was first elected mayor of Dorset last year. Here’s how the process works: You pay $1 and you get a vote — which is never counted. The dollar bills are wrapped with pieces of paper on which you write the name of your candidate. At 2 P.M. on the first Sunday of August, when the Taste of Dorset is celebrated, the “ballots” are put in a plastic tub, which is sealed with bungee cords and mixed up by volunteers. A blindfolded local business owner then picks the mayor.
“You don’t have to be here to win, you don’t have to be a human being, you don’t have to do anything to be the mayor. There are no official duties whatsoever,” Schmidt explained. “One year our rooster ran, and he was campaigning really, really hard. He would sit out at the birdfeeders and crow every morning so people were really aware of him, but unfortunately a black Labrador came up and took care of the rooster.”
The reason for the election is simple: In northern Minnesota, there are scores of resorts, each with a small town nearby that once relied upon the logging industry, but now clamors for tourist dollars. The Taste of Dorset, while a perfectly nice family event, isn’t much of an attraction by itself. But add a fedora-and-suit-wearing four-year-old and you might have a reason to bring folks down County Highway 7.
Mayor Tufts is the perfect attention-getter: He has the smile of a kid who just dumped a box of cereal on the kitchen floor for fun, he doesn’t say much, and he’s got the Miss America wave down pat. Part of his celebrity, according to his grandmother, Debbie Rasmussen, stems from an appearance on WCCO, a local news station. Following his election last year, Tufts was prepping for an interview, chewing on a fishing bobber (as three-year-old kids from Northern Minnesota apparently do) and rehearsing. The interview question was, “What’s that taste like, Bobby?” Tufts was supposed to answer chocolate, but when the cameras rolled, he said, “It tastes like fish poop.” The quote is now on T-shirts sold by Tufts’s parents.
There are also business cards. On one side, they feature Tufts looking like a tiny version of a politician, though wearing a fishing vest. On the other side, Tufts is seated with Sophie, his girlfriend. “I would love to be your mayor as much as I love Sophie,” a heart-enclosed caption reads.
This was the first year that Dorset’s mayoral election featured a parade. Tufts’s throne sat on a float, and he was led by three deputies from the Hubbard County Sheriff’s Office. Tufts sat and waved, smiling when prompted. I wondered, Had anyone thought what his reaction would have been had he lost? A heavy reality like that at such a young age in front of so many people could be devastating.
Tufts wrote out autographs for almost an hour after the parade. At one point, he put his head in his hands. He was tired.
“He usually gets a nap,” Rasmussen said. “We’ll see how long he keeps his composure.”
A moment later, Tufts was under the autograph table, clamoring for a piece of taffy.
One woman, seated at the bar of the Dorset Cafe, said the town should rig the election so Tufts wins every year. But what would happen when he’s 10 and not as cute? These aren’t questions that were being asked. For now, Tufts is a commodity and a public figure.
While Tufts signed autographs, a man asked, “What’s your plan for unemployment?”
Tufts’ dad answered for him: “Just gives you more time to fish.”
Mayor Tufts climbed under the table, looking for another piece of candy.
Justin Glawe reports on crime for The Pioneer in Bemidji, Minnesota. Without a college education, he has somehow managed to put himself in a position to question those in power. Follow him on Twitter @JustinGlawe.