When Elections Mattered

Mike Wohnoutka

It's hard to imagine a set of candidates emptier than those arranged before the voters this time around. The watery stuff that passes for electoral politics (crime and pothole hand-wringing, pissing matches over who hands out bigger corporate subsidies) only rarely stirs into what might be loosely called debate. No, it isn't a question of "sticking to the issues," though there's the usual clucking in the media hen house over that rotten egg: The Strib praised Minneapolis candidates for "sticking to the issues" when they stopped talking about race.

You would never guess it, but this is a town with a grand tradition of public debate and high political passions. It was here, though few recall it, that on election eve 1931, the conservative mayoral candidate had his house firebombed. For the better part of this century the political life of Minnesota ranged from hot to very hot; a tour of some of the highlights offers a diversion from this year's doldrums.

At the turn of the century, Minneapolis was a rough industrial capital ruled by mayor Alonzo "Doc" Ames and his cronies: Virtually all of the city offices, including the police department, were on the take, bribed by gamblers, prostitutes, and saloon keepers. Doc and his gang were indicted by a grand jury in 1907, and the mayor literally rode out of town on a midnight train to avoid prison.

Into the power vacuum stepped the captains of industry, and for most of the rest of the 1900s the political battle lines were drawn between the Citizens Alliance--cutthroat capitalists who ruled with stool pigeons and deputized thugs--and the unions, communists, and socialists who opposed them and the open shop. Until the 1930s, the Citizens Alliance maintained the upper hand when it came to union activity. An army of private detectives managed to crush every union drive, and the city became known nationally as the center of anti-union sentiment. But if they didn't succeed on the shop floor, the trade unionists managed to garner enough votes to hold office.

In 1916, for example, Thomas Van Lear captured the mayoral post as the candidate of the Public Ownership Party, one of a half-dozen socialists to sweep into City Hall during the same period. His party called for taking gas, electric, and coal supplies out of the hands of private monopolies, pledging to halt "the wicked extortions of the coal kings." Van Lear was also concerned about inadequate public schools, and called for tenure for teachers, liberal-arts education, and an end to school crowding: "Education should look to training for service in the community," he declared, "not mere use in industry."

A working-class mayor, Van Lear came to politics through his work with the International Association of Machinists, where he rose through the ranks to become a regional leader. He was a political pragmatist, but he used the mayor's office as a bully pulpit. Author David Paul Nord set one of Van Lear's speeches down in Socialism in One City: "When fat, slick, well-fed, well-dressed men who never missed a meal in their lives come down here and tell you working men that you should be patient and satisfied with things as they are, I think you should tell them to go to hell!" (It should be briefly noted that not all of Van Lear's allies were as capable. One of them, Charles F. Dight, a doctor, was a single-issue candidate who demanded the city purchase pigs to consume its garbage. In later years he founded a program in eugenics at the University of Minnesota.)

At around the same time Van Lear and his socialist colleagues were taking on the Citizens Alliance, Charles A. Lindbergh, Sr. was wrapping up his tour of duty as congressman from the 6th District, which includes Little Falls and St. Cloud. Lindbergh (his son, the pilot, eclipsed his fame) ran and won as a member of the Republican Party, but he was actually a prairie populist. In Congress he called for an investigation into banking practices, singling out J. P. Morgan, arguably the most powerful American of the day. Like many of today's conservative populists, Lindbergh couched his anti-banking rhetoric in anti-Semitic terms. In practice Jews inevitably bear the brunt of such diatribes while the banks emerge unscathed. But Lindbergh met with some limited success in his bid against J.P. Morgan. Congress reluctantly took on the giants and found that, indeed, there was an active money trust fixing prices and interest rates and generally skimming off the top.

Congress's solution--creating a Federal Reserve Board to oversee banking--angered Lindbergh even more than the money trust. He lambasted the board as a puppet organization in the control of J. P. Morgan, complaining that the law would legalize "the invisible government by the monetary power." In 1917 (a year after he called for the government to investigate the Roman Catholic Church), Lindbergh read into the Congressional Record the articles of impeachment against every member of the Federal Reserve Board. He was not re-elected.  

Lindbergh left the Republican Party along with other populist members the following year and ran for governor as the candidate of the Non-Partisan League, the party which would later team up with the Democratic party and the Farmer Labor Party to form the DFL. But like other radicals of the day, he saw his political career undone by World War I. In Congress, Lindbergh had been staunchly opposed to American involvement in the war--not as a pacifist, but because he argued that a clique of elite business interests began the entire affair. The war issue split the insurgent radical movement (Van Lear quit the Socialist Workers Party because he supported the war) and the forces ranged against it traded on war fervor as craftily as presidents Reagan and Bush did in later years.

By the final year of WWI during Lindbergh's gubernatorial campaign stump, conservative opponents had codified their attack on anti-war candidates' patriotism, with embarrassing results. As one biographer reports, Lindbergh was "run out of town, stoned, rotten-egged, hanged in effigy at Red Wing and Stanton, and refused permission to speak in a number of places throughout Minnesota." Nine days before the election, he was arrested in Martin County for unlawful assembly and conspiracy to interfere with enlistments. He lost the race for governor, but remained politically active and outspoken until his death.

WWI and the Bolshevik Revolution gave the American government free rein to wage war on the Red Menace. A generation before McCarthy, socialists and communists along with leftists and populists of every stripe were held up as treacherous conduits for foreign influence. In Minneapolis, the Citizens Alliance pushed its advantage, and its candidate--a military man from Edina who took up residence at a downtown hotel in order to be eligible to run for mayor--beat Van Lear.

Still the labor movement continued to grow. One undercover union-buster wrote his boss that an agent from the Department of Justice admitted the Twin Cities was "the worst spot in the U.S." for International Workers of the World (IWW) organizing. By the time the postwar economy turned sour and the Depression hit, the radicals were poised to gain the upper hand.

The Dunne Brothers (no relation to the coffee shops)--Vincent, Miles, Grant, Fenton, and Bill--were the kids of an Irish laborer who swept out cars on the Milwaukee Road rail line. By the end of the '30s they were the most important politicians to come out of the city of Minneapolis--Hubert Humphrey included--especially Vincent Dunne, who was called the most effective labor leader in America by none less than Leon Trotsky. A behind-the-scenes organizer for the Teamsters Brotherhood, he led Minneapolis workers in a final showdown with the Citizens Alliance.

The battle went on for months, with the Alliance deputizing more than 1,000 strikebreakers. The governor, Floyd B. Olson--whose father had worked alongside Dunne's in the rail yard, and who in his early days was a card-carrying member of the IWW--played both ends, using the National Guard to control the street, and also to raid the offices of the Citizens Alliance.

Nevertheless, at least three men died during the strike. Two union members fell to Minneapolis police bullets, and a Citizens Alliance deputy succumbed to strikers' clubs. With the help of president Franklin Roosevelt, Olson negotiated a deal that broke the Citizens Alliance. The Teamsters not only won the right to organize, but became a recognized leader of militant labor: Instead of the center of strike-breaking, Minneapolis became the national hub of the socialist labor movement.

But where there are radicals there is factionalism. Bill Dunne, a Stalinist, attacked his brother Vincent, a Trotskyite, publicly and repeatedly in the Daily Worker, the American Community Party newspaper that he edited. Tension in the ranks of the Teamsters--rival union bosses eventually enlisted the services of a young attorney named Harold Stassen--began to crack Dunne's power. The final blow came in 1941 when Dunne and a dozen other SWP organizers were tried and convicted of sedition. Dunne served only a short prison sentence. In 1948 he ran for president, but he never recaptured the fire of the '30s.

Dunne's 1948 running mate was a St. Mary's Hospital doctor named Grace Carlson who was also convicted in the sedition trial. When she emerged from her sentence, Carlson began a speaking tour agitating for better conditions for women in prison. She spoke in town halls and church basements across the country and her ideas--largely missing from today's crime debate--were well received. "When someone says to me, 'What are women in prison like?'" read the notes of one speech, "I say, 'What are you like? What am I like?' Because women in prison are human beings who are victims of a corrupt and vicious system that first robs them of the opportunity to have meaningful, happy, dignified lives, and then forces them into so-called lives of crime and calls them 'fallen women.'"  

In 1952, Carlson "defected" from the SWP. A Catholic, she said she could no longer countenance the contradiction between her two faiths. Tucked into her personal papers at the Minnesota Historical Society are a couple of pages pulled from FBI files and mailed to her by a comrade. In stilted official prose, an operative describes a conversation with Carlson at her office. Would she name her former comrades on the barricades? No. Would she identify them from photographs? No. Carlson was, the operative deemed, an unreliable source anyway: She was too loyal to her old friends, and suspiciously sympathetic to the aims of socialism.

But if persecution, infiltration, and factionalism didn't get the better of Carlson, they did combine to drain the energy out of local politics. Maybe the recent spate of labor victories--UPS, the Service Employees International Union's sweep of local nursing homes--presages a change. But the voting pattern thus far tells a bleaker story. Residents who turned out in droves for truly contested elections now largely stay home, left out of a political process that is in the pockets of their bosses. In 1927, 70 percent of eligible Minneapolitans voted for municipal candidates. In recent elections, the figure has hovered in the 20s.

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