The Little Cheese Box and Election Battles

“No mortal man could have surmised what was afterward learned, but the Confederate Naval officers intended to destroy the Minnesota…”
Confederate Military History, volume 12

As the morning dawned on March 8, 1862, none of the crew of the Civil War battleship “Minnesota” had any inkling they were destined to be witnesses to the changing history of naval warfare. The Minnesota was the first battleship to carry our state’s name in the Navy and was originally built only five years earlier as a steam frigate — a sailboat with steam engines. As all ships of those days, the Minnesota was built out of wood with a crew of 600 men and carried 43 guns.

That day the Minnesota, along with its fellow Union battleships Cumberland and Congress, encountered a strange vessel riding low in the water at the mouth of the James River where it exited Virginia to empty into the Chesapeake Bay. It was the newly designed Confederate Ironside battleship the Virginia on its maiden voyage.  The Virginia was originally a large wooden steamer known as the Merrimac that Confederate engineers retrofitted with 4 inch iron plates.  The ships engaged in fierce battle, with the frigate Congress being sunk and the Cumberland narrowly escaping with major damage.  As night fell, the Minnesota ran aground trying to evade the cumbersome Confederate gunboat and was saved only because of nightfall.

In the morning the Confederate Ironside set out with the intentions of destroying the grounded Minnesota.  As the behemoth drew near to the Minnesota, the Confederate sailors noticed a small odd looking little vessel they described as looking like a “cheese box” position itself between the two ships.  It was the Union “Monitor”, itself an iron-plated vessel.  It was only a third of the size of the Virginia and had only two specially designed guns that provided rapid fire from a pivoting turret.  The two vessels pounded each other for three hours without much damage to either vessel.  The slower Virginia finally withdrew from the engagement giving the Minnesota time to escape.

The crew of the Minnesota was certainly thankful for timely arrival of the little cheese box. As a result the Minnesota went on to have a long history of service within the U.S. Navy, being decommissioned in 1901.  The two Ironside ships didn’t have such a long career, both sinking as a result of mishaps unrelated to battle within a few months; but they changed forever how naval battles were fought.

The state of Minnesota is witnessing a historic change in how our election battles are fought out. This was displayed most recently in the primary race in Senate District 33. Historically primary races were local affairs were party faithful identify community champions that would best carry their banner and usually candidates had no significant policy differences. That was not the case this year in District 33.

With popular sitting Senator Gen Olson stepping down after a storied 20 year career, the district was open. As is common for Senators, Olson encouraged one of the state representatives from the district, Connie Doepke, to move up to replace her in the Senate. It is not surprising that Doepke faced opposition for the endorsement, but what wasn’t expected was how the battle was played.

Doepke was challenged by a local city council member by the name of Dave Osmek who had strong backing from the surging conservative tea party movement. The major change occurred when several mailings went into the district from outside political action committees The Freedom Club and Americans for Prosperity Minnesota. These political mailings were nearly exclusively negative smear ads attacking Doepke, a direct violation of Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment for Republicans of not attacking your fellow party members.

The negative ads resulted in Doepke losing by 107 votes. As a result our Minnesota Legislature has lost a champion for conservation.  Doepke has been a rational voice in the protection of our natural resources and has shown the can-do spirit that has distinguished Minnesota’s public servants in the past. The business-orientated Freedom Club had endorsed Doepke in past elections, which isn’t a surprise given that she spent 20 years as an executive in the direct marketing industry and as an officer of a Fortune 500 Company. Apparently that wasn’t good enough two years later.

The District 33 race seems to signal that local Republican primaries will not be about building a broader coalition through quality local leaders, but rather a purity test for billionaire supported political action committees. The result: if you don’t pass their purity test you will be bombarded mercilessly with misleading advertisements. Minnesota voters could use the little Union “Monitor” right about now to get between us and the behemoths bombarding us with negative mailings.

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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