Leadership Takes Shape

“We have a majority and what is the use of letting the old fellows run the House?”
Michael J. Dowling
Speaker of the Minnesota House

There is no question that the story of former Speaker of the Minnesota House Michael J. Dowling’s life is one of the most inspiring stories about overcoming the adversity of a disability. Dowling’s early years were extremely challenging; with the loss of his mother at a very young age, he drifted alone through the upper Midwest from the age of 10 working on steamboats, lumber camps and farms.  One fateful day in 1880, just outside of Canby, Minnesota, the 15-year-old farmhand was riding on the back of a wagon when he and his companions were assaulted unexpectedly by a gigantic Minnesota blizzard.  He was accidentally thrown from the back of the wagon and because of the wind and blinding snow was lost by his companions to presumably perish in a 50° below wind-chill.

Fortunately for Dowling, he happened upon a hay mound while groping in the driving snow.  He burrowed in for the evening and woke up the next morning to find his legs and arms frozen stiff.  Both of his legs had to be amputated 6 inches below each knee along with his left arm below the elbow and most of the fingers of his right hand.  If there was one thing that young Dowling learned in his years of drifting, it was how to fight and he determined not to let the circumstances defeat him. He eventually acquired prosthetic legs and arm and determined “there was just one thing for me to do if I did not have any legs or arms, and that was to polish up the machinery above my neck.”

Over the next couple of years Dowling became a voracious reader and sought to teach himself as much as he could.  He showed his prowess in political persuasion at age 17 by convincing the miserly Yellow Medicine County Board that the county taxpayers would be better off helping him pay his tuition at Carleton College in Northfield. He did not disappoint the citizens of his Yellow Medicine County by excelling at Carleton.

After graduation he became a teacher.  He quickly rose to be superintendent of schools in Olivia and to own a local newspaper.  In 1896 he served as a clerk in the Minnesota House of Representatives, a short-term temporary position of the time, and decided that he wanted to have a vote in that chamber.  In 1900 he was elected to the House during a year when there was a wave of younger progressives winning seats throughout Minnesota.  Taking his fearless attitude of attempting the impossible, he put together a coalition to become the only freshman legislator ever to be elected Speaker of the House, using the above-quoted slogan with his fellow members.

He was soon tapped by the McKinley administration and later went on to be a successful banker.  Together with his wife he helped start the Dowling School for the disabled and a camp, which eventually became what is now known as the Courage Center. He also became world-renowned as an advocate for rehabilitation of disabled soldiers returning from WW I.

Last week’s election saw another Minnesota progressive wave sweep the DFL party into the majority in both the House and the Senate. The new leadership positions are being established. Filling the seat of House Speaker will be six-term member Paul Thissen from Minneapolis. The majority leader in the House will be Rep. Erin Murphy from St. Paul. This breaks the past tradition of DFL of these two top caucus positions being divided between one urban member and one greater Minnesota number. This reflects the fact that with redistricting and the success of the DFL suburbs, two-thirds of its membership now resides in the seven county metro area. Actually the membership is nearly split evenly one-third between greater Minnesota, suburban and urban members.

The top spot in the Senate is the majority leader and that position goes to the architect of the Senate DFL takeover in the last election, Tom Bakk. He hails from the sprawling Senate district in the Arrowhead region. His assistant Majority Leaders will be freshman Senator Jeff Hayden from Minneapolis and third term Senator Katie Sieben from a suburban district south and east of St. Paul. She has been a leader in our community in the area protecting drinking water from industrial chemical pollution.

As of the writing of this blog, we also do know two of our key chairmen in the conservation area. Environmental champion John Marty from Roseville will be serving as the Environment and Energy Policy committee chair. Iron Ranger David Tomassoni will oversee the Environment, Economic Development & Ag Finance Division that will likely be affectionately known as the “frogs, jobs and hogs” division.

There are several other important decisions that still need to be made in the organization of the legislature. Nonetheless, most conservation and environment groups are feeling positive going into this next legislative session. The general feeling is positive, but there are always challenges in protecting our great outdoors regardless of which party is in control.

*Rehabilitation of the Wounded, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, volume LXXX, November 1918, pp. 47-48.

About John Tuma

John is a former state legislator and litigation attorney. He served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for eight years from the Northfield area, beginning in 1994. Elected as a Republican, John was known for his independent thinking and ability to work across party lines. He is well-known in Minnesota state government circles.
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