Partisan Politics

“Men are elected to office, not parties. . .”
Willmar Tribune – April 23, 1913

In politics and legislative maneuvering it is sometimes a little dangerous to get too cute because it can easily backfire. Such was the case in the 1913 legislative session when some Republican legislators thought they invented a cute way to kill a bill to expand nonpartisan elections to county officials.

In the early 1900s political allegiances were shifting rapidly in Minnesota. Republican stalwarts who had dominated Minnesota politics since the Civil War were facing new movements of progressives and populists from multiple different directions. State politics and the Republican Party were deeply divided around the issues of prohibition. One of the expressions of that fraction was whether local officials should be elected under party labels. The “wet” faction typically favored the party machine in both parties. On the opposite side progressives were divided amongst those who favored total state prohibition or giving counties the option.

In 1912 Gov. A. O. Eberhart, a progressive, made a bold move to preserve his governorship in the face of opposition from stalwarts. To catch on to the fervor around the Teddy Roosevelt Bull Moose run for president, he called a special session for the purpose of making judicial and large city races nonpartisan. Eberhart won reelection handily with several new progressives also winning on the coattails of Roosevelt who carried Minnesota. Based on their successes from that election, progressives, both county option and prohibitionists, set their sights in the 1913 legislature on expanding the nonpartisan races to all local officials.

When SF412 reached the Senate floor it was evident that it would pass easily, but it was then that a handful of stalwart wet Republicans hatched what they thought was an ingenious plan. Partisan Republican stalwart Sen. A. J. Rockne from Zumbrota was credited with coming up with the poison pill strategy. He convinced Sen. Frank Clague from Redwood Falls to offer an amendment to include the state legislature under the nonpartisan election provisions. He was convinced from signals he received from the House leadership that such a poison pill amendment would cause the bill to die quietly in committee once it reached the House. The progressive senators were caught off guard by the solid argument that what is good for county officials should also be good for the legislature. The amendment and the bill passed by wide margins out of the Senate.

Things started to unravel on the stalwarts’ poison pill strategy when the liquor lobby decided to quietly support the bill behind the scenes because they thought this was a way to reduce Republican influence over the legislature. They feared the Republicans would continue trending towards a full prohibitionist philosophy. Then prohibitionists started to support the initiative because they thought it was a way to win local elections by avoiding splitting their votes between those that support a county option or full prohibition. Then the Bull Moose Republicans jumped on the bandwagon because this would remove the difficulty of whether they should run under the banner of fledgling Bull Moose Progressive Party or the Republican Party.

With strong public pressure mounting in support of the nonpartisan legislature, it eventually received final passage after a contentious conference committee. Several of the surprised conspirators would vote against their provision on final passage after the conference committee. As a result, the Minnesota Legislature remained nonpartisan from 1913 until the early 1970s.

The Minnesota Senate Republicans today probably could have learned a lesson from the last Republican majority in 1913 to control the Senate that partisan political maneuvers can sometimes backfire. This week on a strictly party line vote the Senate rejected the confirmation of Ellen Anderson to be chair of the Public Utilities Commission (PUC). Anderson had served with distinction in the Senate since 1992. She had shown herself extremely effective in reshaping Minnesota’s energy policy by carefully building positive coalitions. She was widely credited with playing a major role in developing Minnesota’s nation leading renewable energy standard, mercury reduction plans and energy conservation programs. As a result, she developed some enemies among the more conservative elements of the Republican Party even though all of these provisions passed with bipartisan support to be signed into law by a Republican governor.

The rejection of Anderson’s confirmation came across as petty partisan politics and sour grapes that resulted in the governor blasting the legislature in a press conference. The rejection of the confirmation will likely be viewed in our modern political history as a colossal blunder. Anderson was somewhat constrained by the statutory limitations of the PUC, but now she will be back out in the advocacy realm not under those constraints. Given her past success on advocating progressive energy policy by building coalitions and public support, she will be far more effective on the outside of the PUC. The governor has offered her a position as his energy policy director and he will now have more motivation to defend those policies with Anderson on his side to shape the debate.

Back in 1913 after the passage of the non-partisan legislative election provision, the St. Cloud Daily Times boldly, but as history would prove, mistakenly, concluded “truly the day of political parties is passing away”. The 2012 legislature proves that partisan politics is still contaminating our political process, yet making the same mistakes a century later. The good news is Minnesota’s champion of energy independence and cleaner air has greater freedoms to do battle in the policy arena and maybe with a little motivation to boot.

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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