The Recount Recounted: Minnesota Nightmare

Posted by .

John Tuma’s Capitol Update – The Summer Version
The Recount Recounted: Minnesota Nightmare

Lobbyist John Tuma compares this year’s seemingly endless U.S. Senate recount to another in Minnesota’s past, and the conservation hero who emerged from it.

Even the most junky of the political junkies grew weary of our 2008 senatorial recount. When it finally concluded this summer, it was more like waking from a bad dream than the usual drama of a campaign conclusion. We knew it was over because we have all seen pictures in the news of Sen. Franken sitting at a U.S. Senate committee table asking questions of a Supreme Court nominee. Interestingly though, the above title, “The Recount Recounted: Minnesota Nightmare” was actually from 1963.*

The 2008 senatorial race was a repeat of a nightmare Minnesota voters experienced in the Minnesota gubernatorial election of 1962. The difference is that when we awoke from the 1962 nightmare, Minnesota’s conservation community actually came out a winner, but more on that later. Let’s get back to our nightmare.

In several ways the 2008 U.S. Senate race was déjà vu all over again with the 1962 gubernatorial race. As Minnesota approached the 1962 election, there was significant party realignment going on in the nation. John F. Kennedy was elected president and the Democratic Party was reasserting itself throughout the nation after a long post World War II exile. The 1962 gubernatorial election took on additional significance in that it was the first time in Minnesota that a governor would be elected to a four-year term and that the lieutenant governor would be listed jointly on the ballot. Prior to that time, governors were only elected to a two-year term and lieutenant governors were elected separately.

Running for reelection in 1962 was first-term governor Elmer Andersen, a progressive Republican. Andersen’s earlier life was a truly inspiring rag to riches saga. He came from a broken family where he grew up as part of the forgotten working poor in the early 1900s. After working his way though the University of Minnesota, he took a job as a salesman for a small St. Paul manufacturer of industrial and home adhesives known as H.B. Fuller Company in the depths of the Depression. Within six years he worked his way up to become the CEO. Under his leadership, H.B. Fuller expanded into one the leading industrial companies in America.

At the end of World War II he entered politics, serving in the Minnesota Senate until 1958, at which time he retired from politics. He was persuaded to abandon the notion of retirement and challenge popular DFL Governor Orville Freeman in his bid for his fourth two-year term as governor in the next election. Minnesota voters continued to build their reputation as fiercely independent mavericks in 1960 by reelecting DFLer Hubert Humphrey as a US senator, overwhelmingly supporting Democrat John F. Kennedy for president, and selecting the progressive Republican Andersen as our governor. In Andersen’s official Minnesota Historical Society short biography, his two years as governor is noted thus: “He worked to bring economic stability to Minnesota’s Indian reservations and to the Iron Range, where the mining industry was undergoing upheaval. He pushed for the creation of several new state parks and pressed the state Senate to pass the Fair Housing Bill, another landmark in civil-rights legislation.”

Despite his effort to tread a moderate trail as governor, Andersen faced a serious challenge in his 1962 reelection bid from the state’s DFL lieutenant governor Karl Rolvaag. Rolvaag was the son of the famed St. Olaf professor Ole Rolvaag, who gained renown for writing such books as “Giants of the Earth” memorializing the gritty determination of Scandinavian immigrants to tame the wilds of the Midwest into its agricultural dominance. Son Karl was a lieutenant in World War II where he commanded a tank. He went on to Norway to study politics and return to Minnesota to become head of the newly formed Democratic Farmer Labor Party. He was successfully elected Minnesota’s lieutenant governor in 1954.

The 1962 race was a brutal partisan battle. All accounts indicated that Andersen was leading Rolvaag in the polls until DFL partisans charged that improprieties had occurred during the bidding process for the construction of Interstate 35. This controversy broke during the final days of the campaign and many argued later that it gave Rolvaag the boost he needed in the last week of the campaign. Unlike today’s instant reporting of election results, it was clear as final vote totals from distant precincts started to slowly work their way into St. Paul that the governor’s race was too close to call on election night. After the first canvass of votes was completed on November 29, Andersen won by 142 votes out of the 1.2 million votes cast. Minnesota entered into what was viewed then as an unprecedented laborious 139-day recount. It was only considered grueling in 1962 because our forefathers could never have foreseen what we would have to go through in 2008 and 2009.

As the 1962 recount flowed into 1963, the Minnesota legislative session actually started with the possibility of the final result still far off in the future. As a result, both administrations set up office in the Capitol. When the recount was complete, Rolvaag won the governorship by 91 votes, overturning the initial results. In a move of true statesmanship, Elmer Andersen graciously chose not to drag the recount into litigation. The statesman choosing not to litigate of course is not something that parallels 2008, even though we should give credit to Coleman for at least not bringing a separate federal action. Though it was a bitter defeat for Andersen at the time, he would later reminisce that losing the recount was probably a “fortunate thing.”*

Andersen’s defeat truly turned out to be a very fortunate thing for Minnesota’s conservation movement. It was not that Rolvaag went on to do amazing things for environmental protection in his administration. Actually Rolvaag’s tenure as governor by most historical accounts has been considered a failure on many fronts. He never figured out how to effectively work with the more conservative legislature. His personal problems with alcoholism were unfortunately at their apex in his term as governor. It should be pointed out that he did later go on to be a champion of treatment for alcoholism, but at this time in his life the struggle was sadly debilitating. At the end of his first term, his party denied him the endorsement for reelection. Rather, the DFL convention selected his lieutenant governor A. M. (Sandy) Keith to be a candidate for governor. Like a tragic character in one of his father’s historic novels, Rolvaag entered the primary with the slogan, “Let the people decide!” He soundly defeated Keith in the primary, only to lose to the Republican candidate Harold Levander.

The “fortunate thing” for Minnesota’s conservation community was the return of Elmer Andersen to private life. He took the focus and determination that made him a huge success in the business world prior to his political life and applied it to great civic engagements in his later years. He became a publisher of a small-town paper, served in many community and charitable boards, and became a distinctive voice opposing partisanship in politics.

Most significantly, Andersen became a champion for conservation. One of his greatest conservation achievements was the creation of Voyageurs National Park just to the west of our renowned Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. In April of 1975, the US Congress passed the legislation establishing what was then Minnesota’s only National Park, thanks in great part to Andersen’s vision and drive. He was joined in his effort by naturalist icon Sigurd Olson, Minnesota’s environmental champion State Representative Willard Munger, and famed aviator Charles A. Lindbergh. Nonetheless, it was the tireless and devoted work by Andersen in persuading landowners, timber industry leaders, politicians, and citizens of the value of this park for future generations that earned him the title, “Father of Voyageurs National Park.”

Whether the recount for the election of the 2008 US Senate will have a silver lining for the environment is something that future historians will have to comment on. What is clear is that the land of 10,000 lakes is still a fiercely independent maverick when it comes to our voting habits. There is a rumor, however, that Minnesota actually has more than 10,000 lakes. Maybe somebody should recount them. Then again 10,000 lakes has a nice ring to it.

*”The Recount Recounted: Minnesota Nightmare,” by Robert A. Forsythe. In Advance, vol. 2, no. 4 (summer 1963): pp. 43-47. Minnesota Historical Society call number: JK 6152 1962 .F67 1963

Comments are closed.