The Brilliant Demise of Allen Quist

At the 1998 Republican convention, the conservative crusade comes Coleman's way

The defining moment of last weekend's 1998 Minnesota Republican Convention occurred on Friday afternoon, when a black man with a microphone in his hand sprinted from the middle aisle of the Target Center floor onto the stage, screaming, "He's unelectable! He's lost eight times already! He'll never be taken seriously! His views are just too radical!"

The man doing the shouting was Dan Williams, tapped by gubernatorial hopeful Allen Quist to be his running mate as lieutenant governor. The man Williams was talking about was not Quist--who's been the butt of similar barbs since getting stomped in the 1994 Republican primary by Arne Carlson--but one of the party's founding fathers, Abraham Lincoln. Williams's preamble set the stage for Quist to deliver a brilliant speech just minutes later in which he equated the GOP's lead role in the fight against slavery with its ongoing holy war against abortion.

Earlier in the week, when Quist announced his choice of Williams on the steps of the state Capitol, most of the assembled media already knew that his rivals for the nomination, St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman and sitting Lieutenant Governor Joanne Benson, were recruiting highly regarded veterans of the Legislature as running partners. More than once, Quist was asked how Williams, who's never run for nor held political office, would provide the boost he obviously needed at the convention. Quist benignly replied that his pick had "a high level of ability in the field of information technology" as a manager for GE Capital Consulting and "a lot of experience working in the center city" as a pastor for Grace Resurrection Ministries in North Minneapolis. When Williams ducked questions about his age four times, conceding only to being in his "mid-40s," more than one reporter figured him for an eccentric lightweight whose selection was indicative of Quist's flagging fortunes.

Dead wrong. The first two people nominating Quist for endorsement knew that nearly all of the 2,100 delegates were familiar with their candidate, and dwelled instead on Williams's vigor and conservative beliefs. They were followed by Williams himself, who moved from his catalytic Lincoln intro into ringing praise for Quist, delivered with a preacher's cadence and rhetoric that primed the crowd.

Quist did not drop the torch. Noting that "freedom" was the convention's theme, Quist quoted Lincoln's "new birth of freedom" from the closing line of the Gettysburg Address. "Whenever we deny women their constitutional right to bear arms," he proclaimed, deliciously perverting the catchphrase of his pro-choice foes, "we lose some of our freedom. Whenever we use some of our tax money to pay for sports stadiums"--taking a swipe here at public financing of Coleman's St. Paul hockey arena--"we lose some of our freedom." Then, with Williams at his side, Quist invoked the counsel of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. "Whenever we are judged by the color of our skin instead of the content of our character, we lose some freedom." And, he declared, "The last time the Republicans led the grass roots was against slavery, and we were the majority party for 70 years. We won't become the majority by following opinion polls."

It was he, Quist pointed out, who had first challenged the unfair tax burden on married couples and the state's nefarious control over education through the Profile in Learning and Goals 2000 plans--not Coleman or Benson, both of whom later adopted the issues as theirs. Lowering his voice to a somber pitch, the ex-debate coach then intoned, "The hard truth is, partial-birth abortion is wrong. A country that allows partial-birth abortion is no better than a country that allows slavery."

With that, Quist went where he knew his archrivals could not follow, and threw the staunchly anti-abortion crowd two chunks of red meat: First, if he were elected governor, there would be "a litmus test" for judicial appointments, with no pro-choice arbiters considered. Second, Quist ruled the Minnesota Supreme Court decision allowing tax dollars for abortion to be "unconstitutional," saying he would render it "null and void" by executive order and "veto any tax money to pay for abortion." More inspirational quotes from the Lincoln-King-Quist triumvirate roiled the audience into a frenzy, backed by a mention of Mel Gibson's cry for freedom in the film Braveheart, as his character is being tortured to death.

Coming into the convention, Coleman's pollsters--the best money could buy--figured their man had firm commitments from about 40 percent of the delegates, 20 percent shy of the total needed for party endorsement. Their surveys also showed Quist and Benson about evenly divided in the fight for second place on the first ballot. "But there were some people who were undecided, and we thought those would go to Norm and Joanne," said Chris Georgacas, Coleman's campaign manager and former Republican Party chair. "We believed it was most likely that Benson would finish second, with Quist a close third."

John Schroers, one of the uncommitted delegates, said before the endorsement speeches, "I could see myself voting for all three of them. People say Norm has the best chance of winning, and I want to win. If Quist wins, I'm afraid the media is going to beat him up again, like in 1994. [KSTP radio talk-show host] Barbara Carlson will start talking about how he buried a fetus." Years ago, when Quist's first wife died while nearly seven months pregnant, Quist had the fetus removed from her body and displayed in an open casket so his family could properly grieve for an unborn child. It was one of a series of revelations from the '94 campaign--another was Quist's assertion that men had a "genetic predisposition" to rule the household--that torpedoed his primary bid after he'd been endorsed at the last GOP convention. It also fueled the notion that he is unelectable in Minnesota.

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