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

It's typical of Minnesotans that the highest elective office any of us has achieved is vice president—and we're okay with that. Nevertheless, one of those vice presidents, Walter Mondale, certainly made the most of his time in office. In 1976, he and President Carter transformed the vice presidency from the proverbial bucket of warm spit into a position as trusted advisor and project manager. Mondale was the first vice president to have an office in the White House. He promoted U.S. policies abroad, and was a key part of the negotiations between Egypt and Israel that led to the Camp David peace agreement. Never mind that Mondale was later involved in two of the most embarrassing landslide defeats in American presidential politics (as running mate of Jimmy Carter in 1980, and as presidential candidate against Ronald Reagan in 1984), Mondale's service as vice president has made an indelible mark on modern politics—for good or for evil. If it weren't for Mondale, Dick Cheney would not have been possible.

1978: The Minnesota Massacre

It was one of the most shocking political upsets in Minnesota history. In a post-Watergate election, when Democrats were riding high and DFLers dominated state government, Republicans in a single night swept the state's three top offices—the governorship and both U.S. Senate seats—and nearly doubled their ranks in the state Legislature, pulling even with the DFL. Pundits dubbed it the "Minnesota Massacre," and historians still debate exactly what caused such a radical voter shift. Nationally, soaring inflation and high unemployment under President Carter may have played a role, but more than likely DFLers carved their own tombstone. Two years earlier, Sen. Walter Mondale had been elected vice president, and popular DFL Gov. Wendell Anderson was charged with appointing his successor. Anderson's choice? Himself. In an audacious political maneuver, he resigned his office in a prearranged deal so that Lt. Gov. Rudy Perpich could take his place and appoint him to fill the empty Senate seat. The nakedly ambitious move incensed many voters. Then in January 1978, Sen. Hubert Humphrey died, and Perpich appointed Humphrey's widow, Muriel, to fill his post until a special election in November. Which meant that the state's three top posts were occupied by DFLers who hadn't been elected to those jobs. Compounding the DFL's problem, the primary leading up to the special election was openly contentious, with the winner, conservative DFLer Bob Short, opposed by a large bloc of the party faithful. With public dissatisfaction running high, state Republicans engineered a shocking election coup, with Al Quie beating Perpich for governor, Rudy Boschwitz winning Anderson's Senate seat, and David Durenberger besting Short for the other Senate seat. Statewide, Republicans dominated local elections, too, winning a stunning 37 seats and creating a 67-67 tie in the Legislature.

1998: Jesse Ventura elected governor

When Minnesotans elected a bombastic former professional wrestler as their governor in 1998, the state became a laughingstock around the world. But Jesse Ventura was serious about his politics, and so were Minnesotans. Despite Ventura's woefully underfunded Reform Party campaign, voters responded to a candidate who offered them plain talk, authenticity, and a platform of pragmatic centrism rather than partisan ideology. An aggressive grassroots campaign and clever television spots helped Ventura score his surprising upset against Republican Norm Coleman and DFLer Skip Humphrey. For an extended honeymoon period, Ventura held one of the highest approval ratings of any governor in state history, with political victories that included a tax refund and starting construction of a light rail system. Inevitably, he wore out his welcome with stunts such as moonlighting as a TV commentator for the short-lived Xtreme Football League and with controversial statements like calling organized religion "a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people." For a wrestler, he also had a surprisingly thin skin, which led to a notoriously contentious relationship with the media (reporters were once issued press badges emblazoned with the words "Official Jackal."). Ventura declined to seek re-election in 2002 by claiming media harassment of his family—though critics speculated that a looming budget deficit and steadily plummeting approval ratings might have also played a role. He hasn't been shy about the media since then, however, using press jackals and talk shows to promote a book, make claims that the 9/11 attack was a government conspiracy, and deny, after months of public teasing, that he might run again for governor. He is now reportedly negotiating to star in a Judge Judy-like court TV show.

2002: Sen. Paul Wellstone dies in a plane crash

Only 11 days before the 2002 election, two-term U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone died along with seven others (including his wife, Sheila, and daughter Marcia) in a plane crash in northern Minnesota. The tragedy left Minnesota and the nation stunned and threw the Senate election into turmoil. At the time, Wellstone held a slim lead over Republican rival Norm Coleman. The DFL hurriedly recruited elder statesman Walter Mondale to take Wellstone's place on the ballot, even as family members and party officials planned a massive public memorial. The emotional service was broadcast nationally, but it generated intense controversy after many participants and viewers complained that some of the eulogizers had tried to politicize the occasion, exhorting the audience to use their votes to continue Wellstone's legacy. Gov. Jesse Ventura and others angrily stalked out of the service, and the debate raged for days on radio and TV. In the end, Mondale lost the election by 2 percent of the vote, which many commentators attributed in part to the ill will generated by the memorial. With Coleman's election, the political orientation of the Senate seat took a sharp U-turn, and in some ways the repercussions of Wellstone's death are still being felt. To this day, many of his supporters have never removed the familiar green-and-white "Wellstone!" bumper stickers from their cars, as a tribute to the populist senator.

2002/2006: Tim Pawlenty elected governor

The election and re-election of Tim Pawlenty as governor of Minnesota are signs of the state's changing political landscape. Though five of Minnesota's last 11 chief executives have been Republican, most have been centrists. Pawlenty is of a different stripe, reflecting a gradual shift among voters from blue to purple. Earlier this year, Robert Novak in the Washington Post dubbed Pawlenty "the most conservative Minnesota governor since Theodore 'Tightwad Ted' Christianson in the 1920s." "Tightwad Tim" wouldn't be a bad nickname for Pawlenty, who has kept a stranglehold on taxes during his term. Cynics have suggested that his ideological purity on taxes and other conservative issues was due in part to having his eye on the vice presidency. Whether or not he is picked for the VP spot, Pawlenty's national exposure will no doubt make it hard to keep him down on the farm, though he is eligible for re-election in 2010.

2007: I-35W bridge collapses

At 6:05 p.m. on Wednesday, August 1, 2007, a busy bridge of interstate highway 35W in Minneapolis spontaneously collapsed during rush hour, sending dozens of cars plunging to the Mississippi River and its banks below. Thirteen people were killed and nearly 150 injured in a horrific scene that was broadcast around the world. In Minnesota and nationwide, the tragedy led to calls to reinvest in the country's aging infrastructure. The political repercussions in Minnesota were minimal in the immediate aftermath, though many questioned the transportation funding policies of both the Pawlenty and Bush administrations. Ultimately, the disaster contributed to the ouster early this year of Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau from her role as transportation commissioner. Though the cause remains under investigation, preliminary findings point to a design error: gusset plates that were too thin to support the load on the steel truss arch bridge. Little more than a year later, a new bridge is set to open this fall.

2008: St. Paul hosts the Republican National Convention

Republicans had such a good time at their convention in 1892 that they've decided to return. This time, however, St. Paul will be in the eye of a media hurricane that Minnesotans a hundred years ago could never have imagined. The state is shaping up to play a major role in this year's campaign, and not just because it's hosting a convention. For the first time in months, Minnesota is living up to its hype as a battleground state. Several polls have shown John McCain narrowing the gap in Minnesota to within 2 to 4 percentage points of Barack Obama—a statistical dead heat. But visiting Republicans are advised not to get too excited—it's a dead giveaway that you're not from around here. 

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