The Candidate

When did U.S. Senate hopeful Rebecca Yanisch get the idea to make affordable housing a top priority? It sure wasn't while she was running the Minneapolis Community Development Agency.

Becky Driscoll was in trouble. It was 1971, back when she was the belle of Sacred Heart High School in East Grand Forks, Minnesota, a pom-pom girl, a member of the royal circle at the homecoming dance, and a straight-A student.

Becky's beauty and brains were fortified by grit and ambition. Raised on a sprawling family farmstead, she grew up knocking dirt clumps off a conveyor belt at the back of a potato harvester. By senior year she had overcome her father's resistance to letting any of his four girls operate heavy machinery, and she drove the sugar-beet truck to the processing plant in the fall.

"She was very goal-oriented, really driven. I would say the rest of us were a little more playful than she would give in to being," says Margaret Horken, a former classmate. "All the guys wanted to date her," adds Becky's older sister Dianne. "But she hated it if they worshiped the ground she walked on. She wasn't about to be pigeonholed as just a pretty face."

The trouble started when Becky met George King at a party at Dianne's house shortly before graduation. George, who was stationed with Dianne's husband at the Grand Forks Air Force Base nearby in North Dakota, was tall, lanky, and athletic. He played softball and guitar, and he did not worship the ground Becky walked on. He was, Dianne recalls, a guy's guy, a regular good-time Charlie.

Teenage girls like Becky Driscoll aren't supposed to get pregnant, but some of them do, of course. When Becky told her parents, staunch Catholics, they said they'd pay for a nice wedding, and she and George were married four months after Becky's high school graduation. In 1974, when their daughter Sara was two years old, they separated, and the marriage was later annulled. They haven't seen each other since.

Hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans know the rest of the story. They know because Rebecca Yanisch has recast her mistake, and the way she overcame it, as a political folktale that is the heart and soul of her campaign for the U.S. Senate. Early this summer the 47-year-old former executive director of the Minneapolis Community Development Agency unleashed a statewide TV advertising blitz focusing on her time as a single mother with no health insurance, worrying about the welfare of her daughter while struggling to earn the college degree that helped transform her into a successful businesswoman and public official. And it worked: Just two weeks into her media salvo, statewide polls showed Yanisch, a political unknown who is making her first run for elective office, with 62 percent name recognition and the lowest negative rating (6 percent) of any candidate in the Senate race.

The strength of Yanisch's campaign has to rank as one of the biggest surprises of this political season. A neophyte who refused to abide by the state's DFL endorsement process, she has nevertheless managed to attract significant mainstream party support. The co-chairs of her campaign are former Congressman Tim Penny and former Secretary of State Joan Growe. Penny, a political moderate who played a key role in Jesse Ventura's transition to the governor's office, was widely considered to be the frontrunner for the DFL nomination before he dropped out of the Senate race in February. Growe's unsuccessful 1984 Senate bid is legendary within DFL circles for inspiring a cadre of women supporters to get involved in politics, and Yanisch is emulating her "Victory Tree" method of grassroots organizing. Meanwhile, through a combination of Yanisch's business contacts and a national network of donors to female candidates, she was able to raise more than $1 million during the first six months of this year. The polls consistently show her with a viable chance of winning a tight four-person DFL primary race on September 12.

One of the keys to Yanisch's success has been her ability to stay "on message," doggedly repeating her personal history to underscore her support of issues ranging from universal healthcare for children to education tax credits and enhanced subsidies for childcare and student loans. As the concluding phrase of one of her TV commercials puts it: "Maybe Congress will solve these problems--if we send them a senator who has lived them."

Yanisch's opponents have publicly noted the size and success of her family's farming operation, implying that she may have overstated her period of poverty for melodramatic effect. (Her grandfather, Leonard Driscoll, was one of the first farmers in northwestern Minnesota to keep his potato crop warm after harvest, a practice known as "conditioning" that produces a more desirable potato chip. Yanisch's father and uncle were able to capitalize on his vision, amassing 7,000 acres--one of the larger independently owned spreads in the Red River Valley.) Yanisch and her sister Dianne respond by pointing out the frugal conditions of their childhood--the hand-sewn clothing and hand-me-downs, the dinners of fish sticks and macaroni and cheese, the cramped living quarters that had eight children (eventually there would be nine) sleeping two to a bed until a substantial addition to the farmhouse was erected when Yanisch was twelve. "It wasn't until I was out of high school that I began to realize how successful my dad was," Dianne says. Adds Yanisch: "Money from farming is not wealth that comes out of the pocketbook. It is an investment you make in the land and the equipment so you can continue farming."

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