Monday, October 16, 2006

Flashback: The State Supreme Court Certifies Andersen Won but the Nation’s Longest Vote Recount Begins. All This and an Hysterical Trash Man on TV.

[More memories of fifty years in politics for my kids and grandchildren].

County canvassing boards—a regular examin after all elections—set to work. Minnesota law spelled out the procedure. Normally the boards were to check the county report for surface errors without going into the ballot boxes but in case of “an obvious error in the counting and recording of the vote” a four-fifths vote of the canvassing board was needed to state that such an obvious error exists requiring an inspection and recounting of ballots in a given precinct. The inspection was to be conducted in the office of the county auditor “and the auditor shall set the time of the meeting and give notice to the candidates a sufficient time before the meeting.” Voting machines were used in the big cities: Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth and some suburbs which amounted to 37 percent of the vote. The balance—small towns, rural areas, many outer suburbs—used paper ballots.

For the two weeks that all 87 county canvassing boards re-checked “obvious errors,” the candidates’ pluralities vacillated. The totals started out being good for Rolvaag. On Monday, November 12 his plurality was 168…on the 13th 259…the 14th 276…the 15th 199…the 16th 208 by 11:32 a.m. Then throughout the 16th Rolvaag dipped: 109 by 5:30 p.m…100 by 9:40 p.m. On the 17th it was Rolvaag 39…the 18th Rolvaag 40…the 19th –when we all celebrated—it was Andersen by 5…then 83…then 101 by 7:55 p.m. It was enough to drive the DFL candidate to drink who had pledged his sobriety to Humphrey. The work went so slow that it worried me that a winner might not be certified by inauguration day. No matter which way the canvassing went, there would likely be a recount—to be called for the losing candidate.

And here was a major point to consider: since bringing a recount was a legal matter, the burden of proof rested with the candidate not certified by the state Canvassing board such the challenger had to initiate the action, provide adequate evidence and testimony and “carry the financial burden” of the case. But it didn’t mean the contestee (or theoretical winner) would have an easy time. On the contrary, lawyers for both Andersen and Rolvaag…I as the governor’s spokesman and Joe Scislowicz as Rolvaag’s…worked 18 hours a day for 139 days on the contest including such holidays as Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. Which meant as the totals changed hour by hour both of us would have to be on hand to give the proper “spin.”

Here as with many other times when I had to work with members of the Democratic party for communications, the two of us grew fairly close while maintaining our partisanship: enjoying private wisecracks and musing with ourselves where we would work if we lost. Scislowicz was a labor p. r. guy and could go back to the union. As the governor’s press guy I would be unemployed. And of course I couldn’t make any plans for another job in case Andersen lost for it would be seen by the media as lack of faith and an inside knowledge that the governor was doomed. But with a wife and two small kids it did concern me.

And there was another point for the rivals to consider. The one initiating the recount had to post a bond amounting to as much as $200,000. Who, in 1962, after an onerous campaign in 1962 which tapped out donors, would have that much money which would amount to at least two million today? Moreover they had to be made aware that the loser of the recount would have to pay all the expenses of the contest. Would you ever contribute to pay the bills for a governor who lost? The party thought of the Heffelfingers first and I was elected to make the pitch.

Peavey Heffelfinger wasn’t crazy about paying it for Andersen whom he never had a special affinity for because of his liberalism (Peavey was decidedly more conservative than his wife). Brad came to me and said, “you know, Peavey doesn’t want to pay it and I don’t blame him from his perspective. Hell, he’s a conservative and he’d have to put up $200,000 for a guy he doesn’t much agree with. I think we’ll take a pass on this.”

That seemed to be her adamant view. Then I explained to her an interesting factor: Andersen would remain as governor if the recount went beyond Inauguration Day. The amended Minnesota constitution which set the governor’s term for four years beginning in 1963, provided that “the term of office for the governor and lieutenant governor shall be four years until their successors are chosen and qualified.” That meant that the long, long vista of the recount could conceivably be stretched out for years which meant that Minnesota could well have a longstanding Republican governor until the final vote would be decided—maybe not until the end of 1963 or 1964--`64 being a presidential year (she still had aspirations for “Cabot” Lodge).

That changed things. She didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to guarantee continuation of a Republican governor who could be helpful to “Cabot”—although Andersen was more interested in Nelson Rockefeller. “Do you think you could get him to make a deal if that happens and back Lodge in the convention in exchange for the $200,000?” she asked. Brad, I said, how possibly can I go to him and ask that with all that’s happening? “Well,” she said, “you’d try to get him to back Cabot as a favor to me, wouldn’t you?” Sure, I said. She decided immediately. “Well, Peavey won’t pay but I will. Who do I make the check for $200,000 to?” I told her to wait to see if Andersen was the loser; then she could pay. God love her, keep her and cherish her in what I hope for her sake is a luxurious, well appointed mansion with a good liquor cabinet where she is today. Those were the days when the right rich sponsors pushed for the party not personal monetary advantage.

As the canvasses produced changes, batteries of lawyers for Andersen and Rolvaag met mid-field and fought over how re-canvasses would be conducted. Andersen’s wanted to re-open all the canvassing boards; Rolvaag’s would take it on a case-by-case basis. Until then all we had to go on were the wire-service reports from election night. I passed a duplicitous word to the DFL through Wanda that we were scared to death that Hennepin county (Minneapolis) would be re-opened because we feared Rolvaag would gain votes there. Tricky stuff. She took it to the DFL which immediately pushed to re-open Hennepin. We pretended to oppose this. They “won.” Ha-ha! Fooled `em! Andersen got a 58-vote plurality there: 619,704 to 619,646. It was one of many moments of high exultation for me where ups and downs ran by the clock. And Wanda made the sale to the DFL as only she could with her purring voice and charm.

After the DFL re-opened the Hennepin canvass, it caused a flood of re-canvasses sweeping Andersen into the lead and giving him the right to certification by the state canvassing board, an important psychological assist, Michelson and I celebrated. And because of the Hennepin county gaffe Wanda led the DFL to make, her credibility with her party was shot which was okay with me anyhow. The DFL finally recognized her tie-up with Michelson who the party regarded as anathema because he and I were friends partly because he believed I spared him from being beaten up by his newsmen fellows after he taunted a UPI reporter for having but one eye. (Strange because if he was anything, Michelson was either a Fabian socialist or crypto leftist). From that time on, both she and Michelson despised by the DFL and regarded as Republicans. The thought of the proletarian pre-Hippie bushy-haired, pot-smoking radical Michelson as his lissome blonde girl-friend ex-Humphrey idolater as Republican operatives still convulses me. I can’t think of one conservative idea they supported between the two of them.

Then more good news. The DFL’s “open sesame” inspired by Wanda of re-opened canvasses boosted Andersen’s skimpy totals. The DFL tried to call halt but lost in the court of public opinion. Next, the state canvassing board split evenly and could not decide who was the winner. The issue went to the state Supreme Court which had a 3 to 2 Republican edge. While the court deliberated, the DFL came up with another “scandal.” I sat down with my family…wife and two kids, son Tom 2 years old, daughter, Mary Catherine 11 months… for Thanksgiving dinner November 22 when the phone rang and I was summoned to the Capitol. The DFL had sprung a sensational story which could change everything.

All 5.000 ballots of the village of St. James in Republican Watonwan county—which Rolvaag had lost by 1,500 votes--had been tossed into a trash heap! The ballots had been sealed in a paper box waiting for an eventual canvass and/or recount. The box containing the ballots was stored in a county jail cell in the building’s basement. The cell door was locked. Masking tape stretched around its door and over the keyhole. A deputy sheriff, Curtis Sheehan, gave the key to the sheriff, Dave Matson. Everyone in Watonwan county knew the cell door was not to be opened under any conditions. But as fatalistic history shows there’s always one guy who doesn’t get the word.

He was a trash man. Orville Francis, a village eccentric, had orders to clean out the basement jail which had been in dire need of cleaning. He rummaged down there, mopped and cleaned up the jail and left. The janitor, Leonard Nelson, went to the jail basement and found to his horror that the cell door was open and the ballot box was missing! He rushed outside and found the ballot box on the trash heap. He opened it, saw that the ballots were inside and notified the county officials. Trash man Francis was ripped from his Thanksgiving dinner by a phalanx of DFL lawyers who questioned him unmercifully. TV was outside his door calling him a too-efficient trash man.

The DFL Greek chorus of media jumped on the story. TV paraded everybody—the sheriff, sheriff’s deputy, the janitor and the excitable sputtering trash man--across the screen. The trash man screamed he would never vote DFL again, shouting his reputation and livelihood as a reputable trash man were irremediably maimed by the DFL and Hubert Humphrey personally. Humphrey, whose Thanksgiving dinner was interrupted as well, didn’t want to alienate future votes from the village, the county, the small towns across the state and Minnesota’s trash men, told the party’s lawyers to scotch the story. It didn’t appear in the party’s legal case…but the episode made good fodder for Johnny Carson who even then was the top late night national TV standup comedian.

On Thanksgiving Day…the trash man and the junked ballots on the trash heap…had sent me racing back to the Capitol, I stayed at work until midnight and came back home famished. I learned then the true meaning of the phrase “cold turkey.” The thing about being 34 was the ability to work all night, celebrate with Michelson and not feel it the next morning. Not so today.

The “scandal” of a ballot box on a trash heap faded when the state Supreme Court which had a 3 to 2 Republican majority ruled that Andersen was reelected governor by 142 votes and ordered the canvassing board to certify him as winner by .012 percent. Again Michelson and I toasted the victory. With Andersen likely to be returned as governor, he thought sure he would be on the side to get an almost monopoly of state stories (as indeed I assured him he would). Wanda announced that she would now be a life-long Republican although GOP principles eluded her. Andersen figured he was going to be the state’s first four-year governor. I relaxed and stopped thinking of where I would go to work after his loss (although sick at heart by Walter Judd’s defeat which I blamed partly on my boss). Karl Rolvaag asked Humphrey to find him some rich people who would pony up the $200,000 for a recount. Humphrey found them and we were off to a recount. A three-judge panel was appointed by the state Chief Justice to make decisions on the recount.

With my boss already certified as the winner, I hoped the recount would just be a formality. How wrong I was.

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