Feeling Minnesota

Is it possible to understand our state's politics? You betcha.

In his book How to Talk Minnesotan, Howard Mohr writes: "Get excited about something in Minnesota and you might as well paste a bumper sticker on your forehead that says, 'I'M NOT FROM AROUND HERE.'"

That observation explains a lot about Minnesota politics—and about what you can expect in the coming week. Minnesotans are not a demonstrative lot, and the idea of hosting a political convention has us all a bit queasy. National conventions, after all, are known for their excitable people, but Minnesotans pride themselves on their demure and civilized politics, and we expect the same from others. If anyone starts trouble in or outside the Xcel Center, you can bet he's not a local.

Minnesotans, in fact, are so polite that we had to invent a phrase for it—Minnesota Nice. Politically speaking, that's why a Democratic city like St. Paul is only too happy to host a Republican convention.

Governor-elect Tim Pawlenty and outgiong Governor Jesse Ventura in 2002
Associated Press
Governor-elect Tim Pawlenty and outgiong Governor Jesse Ventura in 2002

But not being expressive about politics isn't the same as not being passionate. The state has contributed more than its share of prominent and powerful people to public life, including two vice presidents, four Supreme Court justices, and a boatload of Cabinet secretaries.

In our own quiet way, we're thrilled to be living in a battleground state, but to understand Minnesota politics today, visitors will have to understand what came before. To help, here's a look back at the most memorable moments in our political history.

10,000 B.C.: Glaciers retreat

Long before there were politicians, there were glaciers, which arguably have contributed more to the state's image and identity than 150 years of elected officials. During the last ice age, massive ice sheets slowly crept across the northern part of Minnesota, gouging holes in the soil and soft bedrock that later filled with water, creating the state's famous lakes. Minnesota has roughly 12,000 bodies of water larger than 10 acres. They are not only a part of our state motto but an essential part of our identity, contributing to our reputation as a place of abundance, natural beauty, and hardy outdoorsmen. In fact, if it weren't for the glaciers Minnesota would basically be...well, Iowa.

1892: Minneapolis hosts the Republican National Convention

It's been over a hundred years since the Republican Party held its national convention in the Twin Cities. (There's a McCain joke in there somewhere, but we'll let it go.) A few things have changed since the last Republican visit. For one thing, until 1932, Minnesota voted for a Republican president in every election except one. Since 1932, Minnesota has voted Democratic in all but three presidential elections, and all since 1976.

At the first convention, held in Minneapolis, President Benjamin Harrison handily won his party's nomination for re-election. Unfortunately for the Republicans, he lost in the general election to former president Grover Cleveland—the only Democrat elected president in the 52 years between 1860 and 1912.

1944: DFL Party formed

Minnesota's version of the Democrats—the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party—is unique to our state, and our Republican guests will be gleeful to learn that in its early days it really was full of Commies and radicals. Not long after the turn of the 20th century, the Farmer-Labor movement was founded by an unusual coalition of rural and urban interests radicalized by hard economic times—drought and farm foreclosures, unemployment, and the Great Depression. Farmer-Labor became the rare third party that actually gained power over time, electing three Minnesota governors and four U.S. senators between 1920 and 1940. By World War II, however, both the Farmer-Labor and Democratic parties' influence was waning. In 1944, they joined forces as the DFL. One of the party's early leaders, Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey, was an anti-Communist liberal who gave the DFL a new and more electable focus, begetting a long line of nationally prominent DFL progressives that included Eugene McCarthy, Walter Mondale, and Paul Wellstone.

1968: Hubert Humphrey loses to Richard Nixon

Hubert Humphrey was a political folk hero in Minnesota in the 1960s, an old-school liberal who had risen to the second-highest office in the land as vice president under Lyndon Johnson. When Johnson declined to seek a second term, Minnesota's favorite son became the Democratic Party's standard-bearer. His race against Nixon took place amid the greatest upheaval in American society since World War II—at the height of the Vietnam War and following the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Humphrey's achingly narrow loss—by just seven-tenths of a percent—changed the course of American history. Nixon's victory—like Ronald Reagan's in the California governor's race a year earlier—was a law-and-order vote, a backlash against the social chaos of the times, and helped usher in a wholesale realignment of American politics. Since Roosevelt's election 36 years before, only one Republican, Eisenhower, had served as president. In the 40 years since 1968, all but two presidents have been Republican.

1973: Gov. Wendell Anderson appears on the cover of Time magazine

It was just a magazine cover, but the photo of Anderson fishing, emblazoned with the words "The Good Life in Minnesota," was a watershed moment for our state. The headline inside, "The State That Works," was a validation of everything Minnesotans believed about their little slice of Valhalla but were too humble to say themselves. Minnesota, as the story confirmed, is a place of "courtesy and fairness, honesty, a capacity for innovation, hard work, intellectual adventure, and responsibility." Its politics are "almost unnaturally clean—no patronage, virtually no corruption." Our citizens are "well educated; the high school dropout rate, 7.6%, is the nation's lowest. Minnesotans are remarkably civil; their crime rate is the third lowest in the nation." Even so, the rest of the world was apparently less impressed—Time's Minnesota cover was recently chosen as one of the worst in the magazine's history.

1976: Sen. Walter Mondale is elected vice president

Next Page »