Friday, October 13, 2006

Flashback: A Flurry of Charges and Counter-Charges on Highway 35. Then the Vote on November 6 and the Longest Election Night in U.S. History. “All This—for Wales?”

[More reminiscences from fifty years in politics for my kids and grandchildren].

The countdown to election day, November 6, 1962 was overshadowed by angry charges and counter-charges. November 1: Clark Mollenhoff of the “Minneapolis Tribune” reported from Washington that a delay in federal funds for Highway 35 “is not planned.” Also on November 1: Rep. John Blatnik, (D) chairman of public works and also of the subcommittee on highways and a close ally of Humphrey’s announced he would not attend the opening of the highway because “concrete was poured at colder temperatures than is advisable for curing and bituminous fill did not meet contract specifications.” Accordingly there was exerted greater pressure on the Bureau of Public Roads which had it twisting and turning after Mollenhoff’s article.

With news releases coordinated between Karl Rolvaag’s campaign and the BPR, Rolvaag declared “the state faces suspension or loss of federal participating funds because of the Highway 35 case.” Next the BPR changed its mind and said that preliminary tests show enough evidence of substandard work to warrant “a full investigation of every phase of this project”—which is what Humphrey earnestly desired so that the breath of scandal would overhang the highway issue on election day.

I talked with Mollenhoff, a Pulitzer prize-winner, on the phone from his Washington office. He said, “Tom, all I can tell you is that the rumor is that Humphrey has pulled a classic—exerting unheard of pressure on the BPR with the understanding that a deal was cut: the BPR will announce a probe goes on but Humphrey won’t be able to affect its findings.” I said: No, of course not. The findings will come out after election day and the issue will be moot. Mollenhoff: “You got it.” I said: Why don’t you report it? Mollenhoff: “How can I when it’s a rumor and no one will talk? I’ve got to have at least one person in the BPR say it with credibility. No, I’m afraid you’re cooked. It’s a tragedy.”

Anyhow, we lashed back. Andersen demanded a congressional investigation into the influence of politicians over the BPR, accusing the BPR of “victimizing the state of Minnesota,” calling the investigation “the cheapest kind of political smear.” I called Judd to ask if he would echo the request, but, understandably, he said: “Why should I help Elmer Andersen who sat by and watched while I was redistricted out of my seat?” Anyhow, no investigation could be held by a Democratic Congress. Now General Marshall suspended Robert O’Donnell the DFLer who took the bogus findings to his brother in the Rolvaag campaign—which worsened it, I thought, but Marshall was running his own department and was adamant about not checking this with us. Marshall told me he had no other choice since Civil Service rule 13.4 mandated as such when a worker was absent without leave from his post. The orchestration continued: Rep. Blatnik denied Andersen’s charge that the bogus scandal was cooked up in a hotel room. Robert O’Donnell had maintained he had met with Blatnik and others in a hotel room. Blatnik blustered: “Elmer Andersen is a four-square, boldfaced liar.”

The orchestration continued. On November 3 Grant Mickle, deputy administrator of the BPR stated there was “evidence of more irregularities in the small stretch of off-ramp near Hinckley” which played into Humphrey’s hands. At my prompting, General Marshall cited statistics of road repairs under Governor Freeman to show that road repairs were nothing new and such repairs were made at the expense of the contractor not the state. Now the issue was either a “scandal” or a non-scandal but the single-most topic of the campaign.

Like a maddened zealot lacking his characteristic humor, Humphrey stepped up his whirlwind campaigning, declaring that Andersen “fired” O’Donnell which was untrue. Finally on the night before election, November 5, 1962, the most politically propitious hour for the DFL the Bureau of Public Roads crew arrived to drill holes in the off-ramp while the TV cameras rolled. Minnesotans went to the polls the next day with the media regurgitating the stories and showing the drilling.

Mollenhoff called me and left word: “Sorry. You’re cooked.” Michelson called and told my secretary: “Tell Tommy he’s [scatological word for sexual intercourse].” She said, “Mr. Michelson, I won’t tell him anything of the sort.” Michelson grunted and hung up. Wanda the Weather Bunny called and left word which said “Tommmeee. I hate Hubert and his poleeticks!” I wondered. She certainly was our friend. But was she his at the same time? I’ll never know.

The voters went to the polls in much greater numbers than expected. There was a record off-year voter turnout of 1,267,502 voters or 63.1 percent of citizens 21 years and older. The long election night of November 6 lasted 3,264 hours until March 21—featuring the longest recount in U. S. history. For us Andersen people barricaded in a Minneapolis hotel, the night started off encouraging. Voting machines in St. Paul and Minneapolis, Duluth and certain suburbs that used machines saw Rolvaag streak ahead with by 30,000-- 37 percent of the total vote. With Andersen in seclusion, media were banging at me demanding a statement.

I told them the truth: these are Democratic areas which always lead off first. To those unaware of election patterns in Minnesota it looked like a runaway for Rolvaag—but, I said, I see several worries for Karl. Heavily Democratic St. Paul and Ramsey county does not give him the plurality he needs to carry the state. In fact, the projections I made had Rolvaag carrying the county by less than 13,000, the lowest DFL plurality for that county in modern history. That sent the media—agnostic on returns—scurrying to Rolvaag’s media guy, Joe Scislowicz for whom I had grudging respect—and who called me saying, “damn you! They’re at my door now!”

After the initial blast of cold wind in heavy Rolvaag returns—with Minneapolis giving Rolvaag a resounding 11,000 plurality, the towns and rural areas started coming in with Republican returns. Most of them were on paper ballots and slower coming. My wife Lillian went home at about midnight while the Republican votes trickled in and Rolvaag’s margin was completely erased at 2:30 a.m.

I had brought a change of clothes and a shaving kit and lasted through the next day without sleep. By 9, the rural and small towns bolstered Andersen by 440,181 or approximately the vote Rolvaag got in the Twin Cities. Not enough I thought. As I was shaving with the radio on, the media came in and demanded a victory statement. I thought: Are they kidding? I have a dreadful premonition we’ll lose. So I did what all press secretaries do: lied, pretended I was confident and furthermore that I may have seen secret numbers boosting my optimism--and sent them on their way. As I continued shaving, the radio crackled a few minutes later with a correspondent phoning in to say: “Andersen’s people seem to know something good and are optimistic!”

Then, from 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. the solid DFL Iron Range tallies came in from an area nearly 3 to 1 Democratic. While I grabbed a roll and coffee I told the media, frankly, that if we could withstand the Range we could win the election. If a Republican led by 5 or 6 a.m. the day after election and the Range had reported, a final phase could lock it up for Republicans. It looked like we could hold but there was a delay in Duluth (St. Louis county) which held up the totals. In Chicago a vote delay always prompts the suspicion—rightly so—of vote fraud. This didn’t happen in pristine, pure Minnesota.

Andersen led by 25,000 by 9 a.m. and the media again pleaded for a victory statement and Andersen, relaxing at his home, , was ready to trumpet it but I pleaded for him not to. When the Iron Range vote began trickling in later on in the day, Rolvaag crept up on Andersen’s vote. He thanked me grimly when one wire service thrust Rolvaag into the lead temporarily at 2:54 p.m. the day after election. The media banged on my hotel door and wanted a statement. They were citing AP; I had the UPI which had Andersen still ahead. Then AP discovered an internal error which corrected put Andersen back in the lead by 392. By nightfall the day after election, we were anxiously looking for the “canoe vote” that always came several days late. That was in the remote sectors of Oak Island and the Northwest Angle accessible only by water or air. There was no telephone contact in that remote area and efforts to contact them by ham radio proved futile. I was ready to spend a second night in the hotel and Lillian arrived with more clean clothes.

A snowstorm had hit this remote area on election day providing further difficulties. When I had finally gone back home and had gone to the office—on November 9—a bush pilot, Don Hanson, who hauled mail to and from the settlements, flew to the Lake of the Woods section to get the ballots. He picked up the ballots and flew to Warroad, a tiny town where they would be counted and sent by truck to Baudette, 38 miles away. The county auditor would have them by late Friday. I talked to the pilot’s wife and she told me, unofficially, that she recalled her husband said the vote was Republican, 23 precincts to 6. I couldn’t tell the media because a pilot shouldn’t have been counting them. Besides he shouldn’t have been counting while he was flying his plane. The official tally showed that the two precincts had gone Republican 26 to 3.

At two minutes after midnight Friday, November 9 the AP reported Rolvaag led by 5 votes overnight—but by 9:20 Friday morning Andersen had retaken the lead by 44 votes. Canvassing errors found in several counties had the vote see-sawing. By Saturday morning Andersen was ahead by 51 according to the AP and 35 by the UPI. Errors in suburban Edina corrected a 10-vote mistake in Andersen’s favor and Rolvaag took a 139 vote lead by end of the day. From election day to the following Saturday the gubernatorial lead changed six times. Now the battle was to see who would gain most from the corrections made by the 87 county canvassing boards. Then with Rolvaag ahead by 259, Andersen, with me by his side, said that the state would be best served by a total recount.

After the news conference in the Capitol, I dashed down to the cafeteria for a late sandwich. In rounding the corridor to the cafeteria I almost collided with Humphrey who with a coterie had just left the Lieutenant Governor’s office. Previously both in my earlier role as journalist, then as friendly adversary, we could josh and joke. The coterie, sensing that we were both weary, parted and he and I faced each other with a very weak shake of hands.

Strangely he didn’t seem to know what to say. I did. I was so tired I couldn’t phrase the sentence all that elegantly but as I recall I said: “Senator, you might remember when Saint Thomas More lost his bid for freedom and had to face the axe-man instead, he turned to a courtier of the King who had lied about him expecting to be rewarded with a dukedom over Wales. And More said, `I would expect you to lie, but--for Wales?’ I say Hubert: all this fury that you concocted in behalf of a bogus scandal—for Wales?” He decorously said nothing and we went our separate ways. I never really thought so well of him again as I had earlier…although I did wipe a tear away at his excruciatingly sad cancerous death.

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