The Battle for the “Bloody Fifth”

“I have not felt as if I were fighting for Knute Nelson, or any other little Norwegian, but for principle.”*

Knute Nelson, July 12, 1882

In every election there are always a few key races that take on extra importance. 130 years ago one of those key races was the battle for the “Bloody Fifth District” for the United States Congress, pitting State Sen. Knute Nelson against millionaire Northern Pacific Railroad mogul Charles F. Kindred. As a result of the Census of 1880, Minnesota gained a new congressional district that covered the entire northern section of the state above St. Cloud.  This new district gained the reputation as the “Bloody Fifth District” due in part to the battle for the Republican endorsement for the new congressional seat between Nelson and Kindred.

Knute Nelson was one of the great populists in our state’s history.  Of illegitimate birth, he arrived in America from Norway at age 7 with his single mother in 1849.  He learned how to curse and fight with the best of them as a paperboy on the streets of Chicago while staying with his uncle.  After his mother wed, his stepfather moved them to Dane County, Wisconsin.  During the Civil War, Knute joined the Wisconsin Fourth Volunteers and served with distinction as a corporal.  Upon returning home from the war, he worked hard to educate himself to become a lawyer and received admittance to the Wisconsin Bar.  He even served two terms in the Wisconsin Assembly. He was encouraged to join other Scandinavian immigrants flooding to settle the outward reaches of Minnesota and found his place in the community of Alexandria where he rose to the level of serving as their State Senator for one term.

Stout hard-working Knute Nelson, popular amongst the Scandinavian settlers of the western part of the district was up against Northern Pacific Railroad mogul Charles F. Kindred, whose power base was amongst the logging and mining interests of northeastern Minnesota.  Kindred made no secret that he was willing to spend his wealth to gain the congressional seat and did everything his money could do to buy delegates for the Republican convention in Detroit Lakes on July 12, 1882.

Undaunted, the Nelson faction prepared for battle.  The convention was full of skirmishes and disorder regarding the seating of delegates.  At one point there were about 50 people around the podium screaming for attention.  Eventually the Nelson faction realized there would be no semblance of order and left the convention for their circus tent they had set up outside.  They formed a Rump Convention and nominated Nelson to run as an independent.  Despite some obvious corruption in the general election from some of the precincts Kindred owned, Nelson went on to win the election handily with 16,956 votes to Kindred’s 12,238.

Nelson would go on to serve our state with distinction not only as a congressman but also as a future governor and one of our longest serving U.S. senators. He was so respected his statue was placed at the beginning of the front steps of our Capitol – one of only two that have the honor of guarding the front of the Capitol’s entrance. Over next couple of weeks we will look at some of the key races developing for the Minnesota Legislature in 2012. The first of the races have the double coincidence of also being in northern Minnesota and occurring in the district designated as number 5.

Due to the redistricting that has occurred prior to this election, District 5 sets the stage for one of the most interesting combination of races in the state. All six candidates for the Senate and two House seats are incumbents that have been combined together after the district lines were redrawn. All the races are extremely competitive and are considered critical for determining which party will control the legislature.

Senate District 5 pits first term senator John Carlson (R-Bemidji) against third term senator Tom Saxhaug (DFL-Grand Rapids). The areas within this new district in the past have leaned slightly DFL, but the new district combines two regional centers in Grand Rapids and Bemidji. Carlson is a former mayor of the slightly larger city of Bemidji. Saxhaug hails from the other regional center to the east in Grand Rapids where he served as county commissioner prior to entering legislature. Both are members of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

In the new House District 5A the two incumbents that were combined are seven-term member Larry Howes (R-Walker) and second term member John Persell (DFL-Bemidji). Howes is chair of the powerful Capital Investments Committee and is considered one of the more moderate members of the Republican House Caucus. Persell has been an active member on the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee and has strong ties to the local Ojibway tribes. The contest in House District 5B is between third term member Tom Anzelc (DFL-Balsam Township) and freshman legislator Carolyn McElfatrick (R-Deer River).

These three contests will be on all the scorecards of the political observers to watch on election night November 6th. To learn more about how the candidates have voted in the past on important conservation issues go to the Conservation Minnesota website Check My Legislator.

*101 Best Stories of Minnesota, Merle Potter, Harrison and Smith Co., 1931, page 3

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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