Monday, September 11, 2006

Right Away I Learned I Was Working for a Liberal Governor—and I Mean a Liberal; He Rejects Plan to Have Legislature Fill a Deficit Gap.

[From fifty years in politics, a memoir for my kids and grandchildren].

Understand, I took the job as press secretary to newly-elected Republican governor Elmer L. Andersen knowing full-well that, while he was an man of exemplary integrity and statesmanship, he was a governmental liberal of the 1960s stripe. But, eager to get out of Washington, D. C. with my wife and baby, I said to myself: okay, maybe I’ve got something to learn here. I’ve been a conservative all my life. Here’s a chance to work for and virtually live with a Republican liberal, maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe I’ll learn something.

Well, I did. The first day I started, before he was sworn in, we went to see Senator Donald Wright, a sagacious old conservative curmudgeon, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee—one of two or three players who would mold the next budget. We knew and were told by him that there’d be a deficit. This is what Wright said: “Cut some of the extraneous services to the bone. Submit a balanced budget on paper. We’ll cover the deficit if it’s reasonable in the legislature and you won’t get hurt. Do it that way, please.”

Not my liberal idealist. He thanked Wright for his suggestion but as we were going out the front door he rejected it to me. He wanted to expand services and he wanted to take responsibility for paying them to the tune of submitting a balanced budget—a budget balanced not with a hiked income tax or imposition of an unpopular sales tax. It would call for a new tax on utility bills. “I think that would be fair,” he said, “because people who had a low utility bill would pay very little while people with elaborate homes and big utility bills would pay more. I want to suggest a uniform tax on both telephone and power bills.” He didn’t say so but he was banking on what he saw as Minnesota’s populism: that grassroots support would come from people who have always sided with the DFL on socking the utilities.

I said, “Elmer, you’re not looking at the partisanship angle of this. The DFL will attack this and will side with the utilities and will endeavor to become the champion of the utilities.” He said, what? The DFL the champion of the utilities—impossible! You don’t know the history of the DFL championing the little guy. I do know the history, said I. But the DFL can not only risk joining with the utilities but will show the people that they are not the anti-industry people Ed Viehman has always maintained they are. The DFL and Walter Mondale want more than anything else to defeat you next year. They’ll accept any coalition partner to do it. The utilities will contribute to the DFL to spare themselves the tax. Don’t you get it?

“No, I don’t,” he said. “You’re from Illinois. You haven’t lived here long enough to understand that the DFL, enemy of the utilities, will logically back me to pass the tax and to get the expanded goodies I am offering.” Only in a perfect world, Governor, I said. Only in a perfect world. I remember what he told me which underscored his entire philosophy. “I waited many years to be governor and I am determined to do things the way they really ought to be done.” I said he was losing his Republican base and because of DFL partisanship would not only be deprived of liberal support but was actually propelling the DFL into a coalition with the utilities. He shook his head no. But he was governor, not me.

So right out of the chute he came out with an inaugural message that I had a hand in writing (that’s what you do in this business: you fight for the right but you have a job to do after you lose). The Andersen plan called for no new income tax hike, no imposition of a sales tax—the good parts. But it called for $39 million in new revenue, expansion of mental health programs, initiation of a really big highway safety program, a single sanitary sewer system for the Twin Cities metropolitan area, a new state park at Fort Snelling (an historic site of a Civil War training camp, a gorgeous old battlement overlooking the Mississippi) and expanded natural resource conservation. He also called for a Taconite Amendment to the state constitution to require what was a manufacturing process to extract ore out of what used to be slag be taxed at a manufacturing rate, not by the old iron ore rate. You watch, he said. The Republicans will oppose the utility taxes but will support the Taconite Amendment; the liberal Democrats will support the expanded services and we’ll get it through.

I watched, all right. The Democrats hooked up with the utilities, the conservatives joined them in support of the utilities; Donald Wright was offended and there we were…a governor with a plan but no one in support of him. We had what he thought was an honorable plan with some needed program improvements but the liberals weren’t buying nor were the conservatives. Nor the editorial boards. All because he didn’t understand politics; he knew the issues but not the politics. The DFL was dying to get right with industry; Hubert Humphrey’s goal was to buddy up with industry and while industry winked at his expensive programs got some goodies out of it for themselves. It is clear in retrospect that what Andersen should have done is what Ronald Reagan did in California: stick to his base, cut spending to the bone insofar as possible, present a budget that may have been put together with bailing wire and scotch tape and allow the conservatives in the Senate to take the heat for raising such revenue as was needed to balance. That and push the Taconite Amendment.

So with that first failed effort, he got the reputation of Elmer the do-gooder who couldn’t muster enough influence to get a dog out of a pound—with Republicans enraged, industry enraged, the Democrats gloating and nobody supporting the grand plans he had envisioned. How could one who meant so well and served so long in the legislature not have understood that—and how could a punk from Chicago, a transplant to Minnesota, understand it? So he said: what do I do now?

I said: let the plan you’ve submitted die (which it will anyhow). Then go back to Don Wright with your hat in hand and say, “Don, I’ve got a lot to learn. I wish I had followed your advice.” Then see if you can craft another budget, slashing expenditures (blaming the DFL for the slashes because they wouldn’t support your original budget) and shove the mess into the legislature and see if Wright can’t compromise with the DFL and get it passed. Nope, said the Governor. I don’t want to act that way. That, Mr. Roeser, is the kind of partisanship that may work well in Chicago but not here. Wrongo. That’s the kind of partisanship that everybody plays and Humphrey was a master of.

He did go to Wright without me and Wright, miffed, told him to go to hell. The Republicans who controlled the Senate were furious at him. The liberal DFL which controlled the House was gloating in his discomfiture. He came back empty handed, his poll ratings down, being accused of a lack of leadership by the editorials, the DFL and Walter Mondale who was preening himself for a run in 1962 along with Lt. Governor Rolvaag who in his sober moments was also planning a run for governor. Right then Ed Viehman died. I went to the funeral. Neither Andersen nor Quie were there, Andersen too busy as governor, Quie too important a member of Congress who was tied up in Washington. I was rather depressed as they buried my friend at the age of 39—a man who built the Republican party only to have it come to this.

I came back from the funeral, handled a press briefing, defending Andersen all the while biting my lip because I had been right and at 4 p.m. went down to the Capitol cafeteria for a slice of cold pie and the dungeon’s awful coffee. I carried my tray into the seating area and there was His Prominence himself, the almighty attorney general having coffee with a group of sycophants…a group of young male three-button suiters from his office.

“Well,” he said, “here is the Governor’s political brain! Join us!”

I did.

“And tell us what new plans for taxing the poor does the Governor have?”

I said—okay, Fritz, tell me why you don’t want expanded mental health, a new state park and a unified metropolitan sewer for the Twin Cities. What do you have against a better highway safety program, Fritz? Or is it because your new close buddies in the utilities will be offended and won’t fulfill the plans you have for them in your party…the so-called party of the people? Incidentally, you call yourself The People’s Lawyer, Fritz.. What people? Northern Natural Gas? Northwestern Bell? What people, Fritz? Tell us, Fritz!”

I had heard Humphrey demagogue enough so that I could do a pretty good imitation.

One of the Suits, all of 24, interrupted: “You shouldn’t be talking to the Attorney General like that.” Mondale raised a hand of benignity: let him talk, he’s had a hard day. After all his good buddy Viehman, the friend of the poor was taken from us.

I sipped the coffee and allowed an idle thought to center about emptying my cup in his lap. Instead, I turned to the Suit and asked politely: “How should I address Mr. Mondale?”

Before the AG could intercede the callow youth, trying to ingratiate himself with his boss said, “we call him General.”

Mondale grimaced. Too late. Oh, said I, General is it? And who is following this General on the battlefield…Northern Natural Gas? Northwestern Bell? The tourist industries who want to commercialize the parks…the Weyerhaeuser’s who have done such a good job with our natural resources up to now—which just came out against our natural resources plan? You feel good about your new buddies, Fritz…I’m sorry: General?

“Listen,” he said. “If you’re not going to be able to take a little ribbing, I feel sorry for you.”

He was right, of course. He had just got the cover of “Time” magazine as the young leader of the future and I was jealous because my guy was wounded. I went back upstairs to my office and took a call from George Etzell, the Republican National Committeeman, a small town newspaper editor in the central part of the state…a man few knew but whom I liked as a friend.

Etzell said, “Hey, I know the Governor’s taking it on the chin—especially from Mondale. Let me just suggest something to you. If you ever want to slam back and don’t want to have Elmer do it himself…and I recognize he’s not a fighter anyhow…just write a press release in my name. You don’t have to check it with me. I trust you. Just fire it out through the GOP and have me say all the tough things you want to say.”

I said: But I ought to check it with you, George, before I write anything.

“No. Frankly, that’d be a waste of your time and mine. Just fire it out through the GOP. I’ll hear it on WCCO or see it in the newspaper and I’ll play along.”

Later that day when I was in with the Governor, he said—in his cautious, feminine, indirect way: “You know, Fritz is getting all that good press with Time magazine and all. I would consider it personally advantageous if someone started a kind of campaign to laugh at his pomposity. Know what I mean?”

I did. Our little baby, Tom, who was seventeen months old, would slop his oatmeal happily at breakfast with joy because on Saturday morning he would watch a goofy animal named “Crusader Rabbit.” He wasn’t Bugs Bunny who was a crafty, wise-aleck type, but a floppy-eared do-gooder who was always goofing up, like helping old ladies cross the street who didn’t want to cross the street. Mondale had just scored big press with another consumer proposal and was the darling of the Lutheran Church as he extolled social responsibility, declaring that idealism must return to the public service now that Elmer Andersen had forsaken idealism—things that made me furious.

So I sat down and wrote a news release for “George Etzell, the Republican National Committeeman” saying that the more Etzell looked at TV on Saturday mornings, the more Fritz Mondale reminded him of Crusader Rabbit. I added a few nonsensical things Mondale had said. The more I thought about it the more ideas I got. I wrote the thing and called the state GOP to pick it up and send it out on a pr. Newswire.

That was Friday night. Nothing happened. The press release just lay there on the desks. But on Sunday morning I got a call at home from Fred Neumeier, the ancient political editor of the St. Paul “Pioneer Press.” Neumeier was a bachelor and he was working at his desk when he came across the press release. “You know,” he said, “Monday’s going to be a dull news day. So I asked the art department to ding up a cartoon of Crusader Rabbit and Mondale. It’s a honey! Do you know about Etzell’s release?”

No, Fred.

“I don’t believe you. It sounds just like you. But if you say so, Etzell wrote it and he’ll get the credit.”

Ten minutes later the Minneapolis “Tribune’s” John McDonald called.

“Hey,” he said, “what gives? The city desk called me and said there’s a honey of an attack on Mondale about him and a rabbit. You know about it?”

No I don’t.

“Well, they’re dressing Mondale up as a bunny rabbit—slow news day tomorrow. I hate things like this, don’t you?”

I have no views on it, of course, since I haven’t seen it.

On Monday morning both papers came out with almost identical stories—Mondale the goof, next to Crusader Rabbit. The AM radio picked it up. I got a call at home from the governor.

“Well,” he said, “what a joy—a magnificent joy—to pick up both morning papers.. Congratulations on a brilliant job!”

When I got to the office, a Suit was standing by my desk.

“Attorney General Mondale wants to see you immediately.”

Of course, I said, I’ll be delighted to see him. Tell me, what’s on his mind?

1 comment:

  1. I said, “Elmer, you’re not looking at the partisanship angle of this. The DFL will attack this and will side with the utilities and will endeavor to become the champion of the utilities.”

    Tom, do yo see any similarities with your story and the City of Chicago's big box wage ordinance? One difference: Daley is politically astute; your man appears not to have been.

    By vetoing the big box wage ordinance Daley may alienate some white liberals, but those in the black community who believe Chicago would lose retailers if it passes can't gripe about Daley supporting policies that discourage those retailers from setting up shop in their neighborhoods. Had this ordinance been brought up immediately after an election, I wouldn't have been surprised if Daley signed on. (Solution: national legislation)

    By the way, how can Jesse Jackson, Jr. run on the core project of his tenure as congressman -- the airport in the cornfields of Peotone outside of his district and some 30 miles south of Chicago -- to the voters of Chicago if he runs for mayor?