When Elections Mattered

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

By the final year of WWI during Lindbergh's gubernatorial campaign stump, conservative opponents had codified their attack on anti-war candidates' patriotism, with embarrassing results. As one biographer reports, Lindbergh was "run out of town, stoned, rotten-egged, hanged in effigy at Red Wing and Stanton, and refused permission to speak in a number of places throughout Minnesota." Nine days before the election, he was arrested in Martin County for unlawful assembly and conspiracy to interfere with enlistments. He lost the race for governor, but remained politically active and outspoken until his death.

WWI and the Bolshevik Revolution gave the American government free rein to wage war on the Red Menace. A generation before McCarthy, socialists and communists along with leftists and populists of every stripe were held up as treacherous conduits for foreign influence. In Minneapolis, the Citizens Alliance pushed its advantage, and its candidate--a military man from Edina who took up residence at a downtown hotel in order to be eligible to run for mayor--beat Van Lear.

Still the labor movement continued to grow. One undercover union-buster wrote his boss that an agent from the Department of Justice admitted the Twin Cities was "the worst spot in the U.S." for International Workers of the World (IWW) organizing. By the time the postwar economy turned sour and the Depression hit, the radicals were poised to gain the upper hand.

The Dunne Brothers (no relation to the coffee shops)--Vincent, Miles, Grant, Fenton, and Bill--were the kids of an Irish laborer who swept out cars on the Milwaukee Road rail line. By the end of the '30s they were the most important politicians to come out of the city of Minneapolis--Hubert Humphrey included--especially Vincent Dunne, who was called the most effective labor leader in America by none less than Leon Trotsky. A behind-the-scenes organizer for the Teamsters Brotherhood, he led Minneapolis workers in a final showdown with the Citizens Alliance.

The battle went on for months, with the Alliance deputizing more than 1,000 strikebreakers. The governor, Floyd B. Olson--whose father had worked alongside Dunne's in the rail yard, and who in his early days was a card-carrying member of the IWW--played both ends, using the National Guard to control the street, and also to raid the offices of the Citizens Alliance.

Nevertheless, at least three men died during the strike. Two union members fell to Minneapolis police bullets, and a Citizens Alliance deputy succumbed to strikers' clubs. With the help of president Franklin Roosevelt, Olson negotiated a deal that broke the Citizens Alliance. The Teamsters not only won the right to organize, but became a recognized leader of militant labor: Instead of the center of strike-breaking, Minneapolis became the national hub of the socialist labor movement.

But where there are radicals there is factionalism. Bill Dunne, a Stalinist, attacked his brother Vincent, a Trotskyite, publicly and repeatedly in the Daily Worker, the American Community Party newspaper that he edited. Tension in the ranks of the Teamsters--rival union bosses eventually enlisted the services of a young attorney named Harold Stassen--began to crack Dunne's power. The final blow came in 1941 when Dunne and a dozen other SWP organizers were tried and convicted of sedition. Dunne served only a short prison sentence. In 1948 he ran for president, but he never recaptured the fire of the '30s.

Dunne's 1948 running mate was a St. Mary's Hospital doctor named Grace Carlson who was also convicted in the sedition trial. When she emerged from her sentence, Carlson began a speaking tour agitating for better conditions for women in prison. She spoke in town halls and church basements across the country and her ideas--largely missing from today's crime debate--were well received. "When someone says to me, 'What are women in prison like?'" read the notes of one speech, "I say, 'What are you like? What am I like?' Because women in prison are human beings who are victims of a corrupt and vicious system that first robs them of the opportunity to have meaningful, happy, dignified lives, and then forces them into so-called lives of crime and calls them 'fallen women.'"

In 1952, Carlson "defected" from the SWP. A Catholic, she said she could no longer countenance the contradiction between her two faiths. Tucked into her personal papers at the Minnesota Historical Society are a couple of pages pulled from FBI files and mailed to her by a comrade. In stilted official prose, an operative describes a conversation with Carlson at her office. Would she name her former comrades on the barricades? No. Would she identify them from photographs? No. Carlson was, the operative deemed, an unreliable source anyway: She was too loyal to her old friends, and suspiciously sympathetic to the aims of socialism.

But if persecution, infiltration, and factionalism didn't get the better of Carlson, they did combine to drain the energy out of local politics. Maybe the recent spate of labor victories--UPS, the Service Employees International Union's sweep of local nursing homes--presages a change. But the voting pattern thus far tells a bleaker story. Residents who turned out in droves for truly contested elections now largely stay home, left out of a political process that is in the pockets of their bosses. In 1927, 70 percent of eligible Minneapolitans voted for municipal candidates. In recent elections, the figure has hovered in the 20s.

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