When Elections Mattered

Rotten eggs, firebombs, and the "wicked extortions of the coal kings": Local campaigns weren't always this dull.

It's hard to imagine a set of candidates emptier than those arranged before the voters this time around. The watery stuff that passes for electoral politics (crime and pothole hand-wringing, pissing matches over who hands out bigger corporate subsidies) only rarely stirs into what might be loosely called debate. No, it isn't a question of "sticking to the issues," though there's the usual clucking in the media hen house over that rotten egg: The Strib praised Minneapolis candidates for "sticking to the issues" when they stopped talking about race.

You would never guess it, but this is a town with a grand tradition of public debate and high political passions. It was here, though few recall it, that on election eve 1931, the conservative mayoral candidate had his house firebombed. For the better part of this century the political life of Minnesota ranged from hot to very hot; a tour of some of the highlights offers a diversion from this year's doldrums.

At the turn of the century, Minneapolis was a rough industrial capital ruled by mayor Alonzo "Doc" Ames and his cronies: Virtually all of the city offices, including the police department, were on the take, bribed by gamblers, prostitutes, and saloon keepers. Doc and his gang were indicted by a grand jury in 1907, and the mayor literally rode out of town on a midnight train to avoid prison.

Into the power vacuum stepped the captains of industry, and for most of the rest of the 1900s the political battle lines were drawn between the Citizens Alliance--cutthroat capitalists who ruled with stool pigeons and deputized thugs--and the unions, communists, and socialists who opposed them and the open shop. Until the 1930s, the Citizens Alliance maintained the upper hand when it came to union activity. An army of private detectives managed to crush every union drive, and the city became known nationally as the center of anti-union sentiment. But if they didn't succeed on the shop floor, the trade unionists managed to garner enough votes to hold office.

In 1916, for example, Thomas Van Lear captured the mayoral post as the candidate of the Public Ownership Party, one of a half-dozen socialists to sweep into City Hall during the same period. His party called for taking gas, electric, and coal supplies out of the hands of private monopolies, pledging to halt "the wicked extortions of the coal kings." Van Lear was also concerned about inadequate public schools, and called for tenure for teachers, liberal-arts education, and an end to school crowding: "Education should look to training for service in the community," he declared, "not mere use in industry."

A working-class mayor, Van Lear came to politics through his work with the International Association of Machinists, where he rose through the ranks to become a regional leader. He was a political pragmatist, but he used the mayor's office as a bully pulpit. Author David Paul Nord set one of Van Lear's speeches down in Socialism in One City: "When fat, slick, well-fed, well-dressed men who never missed a meal in their lives come down here and tell you working men that you should be patient and satisfied with things as they are, I think you should tell them to go to hell!" (It should be briefly noted that not all of Van Lear's allies were as capable. One of them, Charles F. Dight, a doctor, was a single-issue candidate who demanded the city purchase pigs to consume its garbage. In later years he founded a program in eugenics at the University of Minnesota.)

At around the same time Van Lear and his socialist colleagues were taking on the Citizens Alliance, Charles A. Lindbergh, Sr. was wrapping up his tour of duty as congressman from the 6th District, which includes Little Falls and St. Cloud. Lindbergh (his son, the pilot, eclipsed his fame) ran and won as a member of the Republican Party, but he was actually a prairie populist. In Congress he called for an investigation into banking practices, singling out J. P. Morgan, arguably the most powerful American of the day. Like many of today's conservative populists, Lindbergh couched his anti-banking rhetoric in anti-Semitic terms. In practice Jews inevitably bear the brunt of such diatribes while the banks emerge unscathed. But Lindbergh met with some limited success in his bid against J.P. Morgan. Congress reluctantly took on the giants and found that, indeed, there was an active money trust fixing prices and interest rates and generally skimming off the top.

Congress's solution--creating a Federal Reserve Board to oversee banking--angered Lindbergh even more than the money trust. He lambasted the board as a puppet organization in the control of J. P. Morgan, complaining that the law would legalize "the invisible government by the monetary power." In 1917 (a year after he called for the government to investigate the Roman Catholic Church), Lindbergh read into the Congressional Record the articles of impeachment against every member of the Federal Reserve Board. He was not re-elected.

Lindbergh left the Republican Party along with other populist members the following year and ran for governor as the candidate of the Non-Partisan League, the party which would later team up with the Democratic party and the Farmer Labor Party to form the DFL. But like other radicals of the day, he saw his political career undone by World War I. In Congress, Lindbergh had been staunchly opposed to American involvement in the war--not as a pacifist, but because he argued that a clique of elite business interests began the entire affair. The war issue split the insurgent radical movement (Van Lear quit the Socialist Workers Party because he supported the war) and the forces ranged against it traded on war fervor as craftily as presidents Reagan and Bush did in later years.

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