The Brilliant Demise of Allen Quist

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.

But Quist's stirring freedom-from-slavery speech overcame the reservations of Schroers and hundreds of others. As predicted, Coleman captured just over 40 percent of the vote on the first ballot. But Quist emerged a strong second, with around 33 percent, beating out Benson by 8 percentage points. Quist had confounded the prognosticators and proved himself a force to be reckoned with inside the Target Center. Ironically, he'd also doomed any chance he had of playing power broker at the convention.

From the beginning, Coleman and his supporters feared that a Benson-Quist alliance could deprive the mayor of the endorsement. They reasoned that with all three candidates under pledge to abide by the party's decision, a hung convention would enable the two underdogs to live and fight another day in the primary. Consequently, Coleman's backers inside the party bureaucracy--most notably GOP chair Bill Cooper--had rewritten the rules to facilitate an endorsement, disqualifying, for example, any candidate who didn't receive at least 20 percent of the vote after the third ballot. Nevertheless, while a majority of delegates understood that endorsing Quist would amount to political suicide for the party in a statewide race against the Democrats, nearly a quarter of those on the floor were staunch Quist supporters unwilling to go down without a fight. That put Quist in a position to bargain for concessions on such key issues as abortion and education with either Coleman or Benson in exchange for his votes. It was widely rumored that Quist had already discussed with both rivals what it would take to make a deal: an appointment to be state commissioner of either Education or Children and Family Services were the most frequently mentioned prizes. If Benson found herself in the 30 to 40 percent range on the first two or three ballots, Quist would be in an excellent position to determine the fate of the convention.

But the first ballot produced a surprise political equation. Suddenly Quist had the better shot and needed Benson's help to put him within endorsement range. That wasn't going to happen. Granted, supporters of Benson and Coleman indulged in a nasty exchange of letters, questioning each other's conservative credentials less than three weeks ago, and there was no love lost between the two. But Benson and Quist were hardly bosom buddies, either. After all, she was Arne Carlson's running mate when Carlson toppled Quist, the endorsed candidate, in the '94 primary. What's more, her campaign this year included such movers and shakers as Sen. Rod Grams and former Gov. Al Quie, who understood the political cost of paving the way for another Quist endorsement.

On the second ballot, Coleman grabbed 4 percent from both sides, garnering nearly half of the total delegates, while Quist slipped to just under 30 percent and Benson fell further. At the close of the third ballot, Benson plummeted to under 20 percent of the vote and was disqualified, while Coleman surged to 56 percent and Quist held firm at half that. With Coleman needing just a quarter of the Benson holdouts to secure the endorsement, the fourth ballot was a mere formality when 67 percent of the convention's delegates put the mayor over the top.

Throughout the convention, Coleman did what he came to do: flex enough organizational muscle to buttress his air of invincibility, and mollify the party's right wing enough to be an acceptable consolation prize without making promises that might hamstring him during the general election. Keeping with the spin, one of his endorsement speeches was given by a Youth for Christ worker who reminded the delegates that Pat Robertson and Ronald Reagan had also switched parties. In his own speech, Coleman noted that St. Paul is a city of two domes, the state Capitol and the St. Paul Cathedral, "and it is not by accident but by design that the Cathedral is on the higher hill. We know who is in charge, and it is not the Minnesota Legislature."  

When it comes to political dancing, perhaps only Bill Clinton can match Coleman's ability to traipse across the ideological spectrum with one foot planted solidly in the mainstream. A short two years ago, Coleman co-chaired the Clinton-Gore campaign in Minnesota and supported the re-election of the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate, Paul Wellstone. Today, he is the gubernatorial standard-bearer for a party that endorsed Wellstone's antithesis, Allen Quist, four years ago. Even more remarkable, the 1998 endorsement of Coleman comes with no strings attached.

As the losing candidates joined Coleman on stage for a strained show of unity, the winner was already looking ahead to the next dance, turning away from Quist and toward Benson, who not coincidentally was chosen to propose that the convention make Coleman's endorsement unanimous. "All in favor say aye,'' the moderator cried; then, when it came time to solicit nays, skipped the show with a quick "We won't go any further." Quist's concession speech was restrained, to say the least.

As the convention wrapped up, it appeared likely that many of Quist's troops will proceed to sit on their hands during the Coleman campaign--and maybe cross over to vote for pro-life Democrat Doug Johnson in the DFL primary, a sweet bit of revenge for those who believe pro-choice DFLers helped Carlson eclipse Quist in the '94 primary. Then they'll hold their noses as they pull the Coleman lever in November. No matter. The hard reality is that their leader is out of political options. It's no secret that Quist and Coleman would not make a good pair out on the hustings. Immediately after the convention, Quist told reporters, "I haven't gone fishing since the campaign, and I'm experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to go."

Meanwhile, Coleman is off and running. The Republican Party hasn't been this unified in 20 years, and he is the charismatic, well-funded beneficiary of that good will. Two days after the convention, Coleman embarked on a fly-around of smaller cities across the state--"striking while the iron is hot," campaign chair Georgacas called it. Throughout this election season, he will no doubt deploy his uncanny ability to cajole and co-opt the affections of any potential voter he meets. Between ballots on the convention floor last Friday, he even tried it with Quist's running mate, Dan Williams. As the two came face to face during their respective greet-and-gropes with simpatico delegates, Coleman reached over, gave Williams a big hug, and whispered softly into the pastor's ear, "You are my hero."

And why not? For one brief and glorious moment, Williams helped turn Allen Quist into Abraham Lincoln.

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