Tuesday, September 5, 2006

Flashback: From Washington, D. C. to the Governor’s Office in St. Paul Sobered by Hubert Humphrey’s Dire Warning

[More memories from fifty years in politics for my kids and grandchildren, few of the latter who are interested now but may be one-day].

Conservative Republican Ed Viehman built a dynamic party out of a flaccid molten mass of contradictions: Harold Stassen oldsters, unregenerate conservative small business owners, farmers who supported unrestricted freedom to plant, farmers who endorsed high price supports, unemployed once-liberal Iron Range miners who hated liberals for over-taxing the mines thus losing their jobs and Twin Cities suburbanites who believed that Humphrey’s party was unable to stop damaging labor troubles that threatened the state’s economy. (It was well before religious and moral issues came into the equation on the right, although because of civil rights concerns, they were front and center for the Democrats). DFL governor Orville Freeman’s third term (1959-61) was overshadowed by serious labor troubles. Production of iron ore on the Range declined drastically from a serious steel strike: thousands of Minnesotans were unemployed and state taxes on ore fell by $18 million.

Disruptive strikes threatened the economy—strikes that the pro-labor Freeman seemed unable to handle. The private transit company serving the Twin Cities was paralyzed and another involved truckers and employees serving Minneapolis grocery stores, which led to a lockout which Freeman seemed powerless to mediate. Then came the wildest event: the strike of packinghouse workers in southern Minnesota in the town of Albert Lea which got national attention. Declaring he feared the loss of human life from the struggles, Freeman ordered national guardsmen to the scene and closed the plant—an act that sided with the strikers. Two weeks later a federal judge condemned the governor’s action and re-opened the packing plant. Freeman’s one-sided bias for the strikers was generally derided. By the end of his third term, Freeman seemed to have lost the good will that Humphrey and he had built up with middle-of-the-road voters. Instead, by 1960, they feared that the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party was so beholden to militant unions that it could not act with objectivity, a fear that Viehman capitalized on as he re-built the Republican party.

The state was grievously worried about economic problems on the Minnesota Iron Range. Twentieth century mining had been the exclusive story of the Mesabi Range whose production of iron ore far surpassed all other U.S. iron regions. The Mesabi is what Minnesotans call The Range--the northeastern triangle bounded by Lake Superior, the St. Louis river and the international boundary. Long before the Mesabi reached its full potential, miners found that the most accessible ore had to be purified before it could be used in blast furnaces. The richest ore was excavated and shipped to furnaces in Pittsburgh and Erie. Purification plants were built and by the late 1950s there were nearly eighty concentrating facilities along the Mesabi. The year 1951 saw the peak of the state’s ore production on the Mesabi when 18,000 men worked the mines.

But there was always anti-capitalist hatred in the area, some said from the radical Scandinavian nature. And this stimulated the growth of the Industrial Workers of the World and the liberal media which fomented dissatisfaction against absentee mine owners. In his pioneer party building, Humphrey and his assistant Freeman capitalized on the latent hatred, propagating the story that the state had been bilked by the first iron-ore capitalists. By the time I moved to St. Cloud as a young newspapermen, I heard about the exploitation evil of Andrew Carnegie, regarded in most of the country as a pioneer philanthropist—and St. Cloud was a hundred miles from the Range. But Humphrey and his Farmer-Labor predecessors lived on the stories that one Charlemagne Tower (an unfortunate pompous name for an early steel capitalist who during his entire life had never set foot in the state ) had forced the state through machinations to levy ore duties of only a penny a ton to encourage range development. I can still hear in my memory of travels with Humphrey his excoriating the name Charlemagne Tower…Charlemagne Tower…Charlemagne Tower, calling him an exploiter, although he had been dead for over fifty years and his original tonnage tax had been discontinued in 1897 in favor of an ad valorem property tax based on the assessed valuation of un-mined ore.

Then, responding to the whipped-up fury by Humphrey’s Farmer-Labor predecessors, the legislature overwhelmingly passed what it called an “occupation tax”—a special tax on the tonnage of extracted ore, not a tax in lieu of property taxes but one in addition. The occupation tax was ratified as a constitutional amendment because labor politicians proclaimed the specter of companies taking away the ore that was irreplaceable, after which they would depart, leaving only holes in the ground and unemployed workers to gaze at them. But liberal hatred for the steel companies and mining owners did nothing but stall progress. By the late 1950s prospects were bleak: most of the high-grade ore was gone and the mining economy was suffering at a time of general national prosperity. But there was hope; mining experts found that northern Minnesota’s economy could be reclaimed by taconite—a low-grade iron ore. A process had been developed that would crush rock in which the ore was found, wash it and separate out the ore, ultimately reducing it to a flour-like texture, efficiently removing the ore particles by magnetic attraction from the tons of waste, or tailings.

The mining companies mastered the production of taconite but the process was costly. It was essentially a manufacturing process and they were restricted by the state’s mineral laws. Something had to be done to encourage the taconite industry; for one thing, taconite could be found in numerous areas around the country. An increasing number of Minnesotans understood the state had to take a step that could help the old Democratic-Farmer-Labor demon: the ore and steel industries. Into this breach stepped Elmer L. Andersen, liberal Republican, a mild-mannered ex-state senator, multi-millionaire Rotarian (that membership proved fortunate later), who announced for governor and espoused what he called a “Taconite Amendment” to the state constitution which would provide that taxes on taconite and other specified minerals including copper and nickel should not exceed t hose levied on other industries. The DFL denounced it as a sop to the hated companies and that Andersen was just another errand boy for them. But Andersen’s liberal legislative record contradicted this.

Ed Viehman had publicized the need to change the tax laws but he was shouted down by the Democrats with other conservatives as lackeys of the industry which had robbed the state of its ore and had succeeded in paying too low taxes for the excavation. Viehman’s reputation was that of an economic conservative so he had trouble with the issue across the state—but he made brilliant overtures to Iron Range small town mayors, all Democrats, who were disenchanted with the old liberal huckstering against the mining companies. The mayors saw rising unemployment and that Humphrey and Freeman had very little to offer for relief.

I was in Washington then, but watched the campaign with interest. The charge that Elmer Andersen was an industry toady didn’t wash. Everyone knew he was one of the most liberal Republicans ever to call himself Republican—pro-labor, pro-civil rights…pro-state government expansion (to an extent that frightened me)…a man regarded as so liberal that most of the party rank-and-file wondered why he hadn’t gone over to the other side. The reason he hadn’t is that, liberal as he was, he understood business economics and realized that the old hate-campaign against the mining companies was a vestige of the 1930s which was not solving any problems on the Iron Range. (Andersen would not have been nominated for governor if P. Kenneth Peterson had continued to run—but since Walter Judd had declined to run for the Senate, Peterson chose to do this, leaving the way open for Andersen. Thus the liberal Republican, Andersen, had a free shot).

The DFL wanted, if possible, higher taxes on the mining companies along with a state income tax hike; the business community wanted to institute a sales tax. Andersen took a chance: He antagonized the Minnesota Employers’ Association which wanted a general sales tax, opposing a sales tax unless low-income Minnesotans, senior citizens and those with large families could be exempt. The Employers blasted Andersen, which added immeasurably to his popularity with labor. He was a man often feted for his social progressivism: by black organizations, liberal churches, Jewish philanthropies. His office walls were studded with plaques and testimonials.

Everyone figured they were in for the same-old, same-old with Andersen: that he would call for a higher income tax rate and greater spending as all liberals of Humphrey’s stripe were expected to do.

But, in a surprise turn-around, Andersen didn’t come out for a state income tax hike as Republicans had feared (and Democrats hoped) but for lower property taxes for farmers, home-owners and small business owners, saying he wanted to eliminate the onerous personal property tax and spur tax reform—reform that would grow business. He said that if businesses grew, Minnesota could avoid a state income tax hike, anticipating the Laffer Curve. In fact he was the first to explain it to me in state terms. With that hope held aloft he followed Viehman into the labor unions but with a sharply more liberal message.

He didn’t back away from a notably liberal legislative record, however. He told union members about his efforts in the state Senate to equalize the pay of heavy equipment operators doing road construction in the state, abolishing the pay structure that set a lower wage for workers in rural counties which conservatives had fought. He expanded his program to include items that appealed to Republicans: proposing to exempt from the property tax the first $7,500 of value of a homestead owned by a senior citizen…calling for an end to mandatory retirement at age 65. He scored with Democrats by supporting more public housing with some set aside exclusively for the elderly. He pointed to the fact that he was the father of the Metropolitan Planning Commission which had been derided by some conservatives as a prototype of metropolitan government for the Twin Cities.

Intrigued, I wangled a trip with Andersen to get the measure of the man. It was a changing-point in my life. We visited mental hospitals in Faribault, Red Wing and Mankato. It was the first time I had ever seen state institutions up close. Even after so-called progressive legislation that had been passed by Freeman, it was obvious there was maltreatment and great human need unmet by the state. “I can see the change in you already,” Andersen said as we went from facility to facility. As a former legislator in charge of appropriations for these institutions, he knew exactly where to go and where to find the abuses. I have never been with a lawmaker—least of all a wealthy, suburban Republican one—who knew the ins and outs of mental health as did he. Then we went to a facility that he had authored as a lawmaker—for emotionally disturbed and psychotic children. A father myself, I was greatly affected by (a) what was being done for these children and (b) what more could be done if Andersen were governor. I kept my views to myself but I was powerfully impressed with him.

Then Brad Heffelfinger called with an interesting report. Andersen’s economic plan which played to growth was winning him financial support and fans with the Rockefeller people in New York who saw him as a kind of Rockefeller of the Upper Midwest.

“He’s not going to have any trouble raising money,” she said. “The same people who like Rocky and Cabot Lodge like Elmer. But I still think he’s—feminine.” There was that word again—a word that seemed to mean that Andersen was a wimp. I got him on the phone from Washington and told him so. One man doesn’t like to tell another man that he’s feminine.

There was silence on the other end of the phone. Then after a long time—after I thought we were disconnected—he said quietly, “I see.”

Well, I thought, as we hung up, there’s goes another friend. But it was not so. Soon thereafter, Andersen and Freeman met in a debate on October 9 at the University of Minnesota’s Northrop auditorium. As the debate began, Andersen was his old self—stating with almost prissy precision and exact definitude the issues while Freeman went ahead as a blunderbuss and defended his decision to shut down the Wilson packing plant at Albert Lea.

That was too much for Andersen. He began by making nice-nice with Freeman and praising some aspects of his record. But then, his face darkening, he turned to the Wilson packing plant strike and said, pounding the rostrum for effect until the microphones jiggled: “On the strike, he’s made a mistake. It’s an inexcusable mistake. He betrayed his oath of office and that cannot be condoned. He should have known better. He had been governor long enough to know what a governor’s obligation is. He made a profound mistake that justifies his discontinuing in the office. He has led a highly political, dictatorial, arbitrary and angry administration.”

Coming in those tones from a man many felt was feminine, too gentle, namby pamby, it prompted huge headlines. Then Andersen followed Freeman to a Rotary club in Fosston. Freeman was scheduled to speak. Always having difficulty keeping his temper in check, Freeman looked over the audience, spotted Andersen and said he had not arranged for a debate—that he was there to make a speech alone. The Rotary club president said that Andersen was a Rotarian and was only attending as a duty of membership and would not speak. But Freeman’s insecurity bubbled.

“Andersen,” enthused Brad Heffelfinger to me on the phone, “turns out to have some [scatological term for testicles]! He had to show he is a man and, by God, he has!”

But all the while, Viehman, dying, was angered by this liberal who was capitalizing on the organization Viehman had built. I tried to tell him the good things I felt about Andersen but it was no use. Andersen went through the Iron Range not just calling for the Taconite Amendment but for a job-training program, telling companies they should have to support for youth and a retraining program for older workers and he would get state support for part of it if he could. I must say he made me a follower. He tied it to his Lutheran layman’s sense. He called for state programs supporting accelerated reforestation so that more trees could be harvested without putting the state’s forests at risk, calling for more research dollars to discover new uses for low-grade timber. He outlined a proposal for a new state college system tied to the University of Minnesota, a 12-step highway safety proposal including drivers’ education in all high schools, compulsory chemical testing of drivers suspected of intoxication, mandatory installation of seat-belts in new cars. He became the more liberal candidate than Freeman on mental health, advocating programs to upgrade training of mental health workers that would bring services to the rural areas.

“Damn him!” Viehman shouted at me over the phone. “Just another [condemnatory epithet] socialist! This is what I’m giving my life for!” I said: Not so. Not a socialist. Just a liberal Republican, Ed. If you had gone with us you’d see that social services must be expanded. I’m not sure a conservative can get elected at this time, I said.

”He’s got to you, too!” he said and hung up in a rage.

“Hooray!” said Brad Heffelfinger who by now loved Viehman but never mentioned their ideological differences, “Elmer’s made a liberal of you! I never thought that could be done!”

Not really, my dear, I said, but if it pleases you to think so…

In this day of expanded domestic government by Republicans as well as Democrats…George W. Bush and John McCain…Andersen’s 1960 proposals sound like weak tea indeed. Then they did not. In Washington, I bumped into Humphrey—now Senate majority whip—at a Chamber of Commerce buffet. “Listen,” he started to say… I interrupted: “Are you going to tell Elmer Andersen to get his nut cups on like you told Walter Judd?” He had forgotten this momentarily, remembered and roared with laughter (something I always liked about him). “No,” he said. “But the way your guy is going I just might tell Orv [Freeman] to get his on!” Andersen wasn’t my guy, then—but he was getting there. I was and am now conservative but I don’t see starving state human resource facilities as conservative—just reactionary. I didn’t imagine I would go to work for him but I enjoyed the Humphrey’s anger. It was a concession. Andersen had stolen much of the DFL playbook.

An anomaly: Andersen seemed the more progressive candidate—although he was certainly a pro-business candidate. Minnesotans were weary of the old DFL crusade against big business, particularly the mining companies. In his last appearance the day before election in the Twin Cities, Viehman, supporting himself on crutches, spoke in behalf of Andersen and said without undue dramatics that if he meant anything to the GOP foot-soldiers he mobilized, they would do everything in their power to elect Elmer Andersen. The speech produced the most deafening roar of applause anyone ever heard. I was there and there were no dry eyes. I had to step outside in the crisp fall air because I didn’t want him to see my sniffling. The troops vowed to obey their great leader, set ideology aside and elect Andersen as tribute to the dying Viehman. If that sounds like winning one for the Gipper, well so be it. Viehman and Andersen were both great men. I regret they disliked each other intensely because in a sense I loved them both. I remembered Brad Heffelfinger’s original condemnation of Andersen: He is too feminine for me. The time was coming when his masculinity would be proven and she would acknowledge it.

Andersen was elected governor by a margin of 22,879 over Freeman while JFK won the state by 22,018 over Nixon…out of a total of 1,890,000 votes cast. By an oddity of the state constitution the state could have a governor of one party and a lieutenant governor of another (Illinois had the same situation with Dick Ogilvie and Paul Simon). A DFLer was elected Lieutenant Governor with Andersen—Karl Rolvaag, a nonentity with a magnificent Norwegian name. Sometimes drunk, sometimes sober, he was the son of the great author Ole Rolvaag (to whom he always felt he was inadequate as a son) whose novel, “Giants in the Earth” translated from Norwegian was requisite in every state public school—and may still be. It’s a novel I read to my kids at the dinner table and they were transfixed. A takeoff on it came in the film “The Immigrants” with Liv Ulmann.

After election with Quie and Judd easily reelected (Quie having long ago forgotten Viehman’s initial role in getting him elected)…and Freeman quickly named Agriculture secretary by JFK as a sop to Humphrey…I returned to Washington. Then I was asked to become press secretary for the new governor whom I barely knew after only one road trip. I said okay. Before I left for Minnesota, I went over to the Senate to see Humphrey since it was obvious we’d be on a collision course. He came bustling out of the Senate side and into the reception room, shook hands and said, “You’ve taught us a lesson that the 1930s are dead and gone. This idea of hating industry should be discarded along with Hoover’s celluloid collars.” He didn’t really mean it, of course. Hubert, I said, I haven’t taught you anything; Andersen did.

“Right,” he said. “But tell him this and you remember it, too. He ran as a real DFLer on all our issues but one: a tax break. If he doesn’t deliver on jobs for the Range—and in a big way—he’s going to be a one-termer. I’ll see to it. Then you can tell him to get his nut-cups on.”

He meant it. The threat was not delivered angrily but with measured thought. But by Andersen’s reckoning, more jobs for the Range couldn’t come until a Taconite Amendment which the DFL opposed as a matter of religious faith. The term of the governorship was then only two years. It was now January, 1961; the next election was in November, 1962: could we deliver on an Amendment and more jobs before that? I left Hubert and drove with Lillian and baby Tom to Minnesota, most of the time musing that since Minnesota was still a Democratic state, I’d better start thinking of how I was to end this 8-year career in poorly-paying journalism and better- paying-but-transitory politics and get to the private sector—or Hubert would decide my future for me. Lillian would say on occasion, “You seem lost in thought.” Right-0. Hubert would decide my future for me. A prophetic thought.


  1. It was a long post, Tom, but a good one. Please keep posting them. I think keeping history alive is important -- a lot of people could use the longer perspective.

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