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Minnesota: Land of 10,000 eccentrics no more?

No matter who prevails in the recount for U.S. Senate, I fear an unheralded chapter in Minnesota politics will come to a close.

Call it the “Eccentric Era.” Whether incumbent Norm Coleman or challenger Al Franken wins, Minnesota’s role as the engine of business as not-quite-usual politics will end, and the national political scene will suffer as a consequence.

Minnesota has always produced senators who did not quite fit into the Washington culture.

When Hubert H. Humphrey was successfully elected to the Senate in 1948 on the Democratic-Farmer-Labor ticket (which he helped to found), he was the first Democrat Minnesota sent to Washington’s upper house since before the Civil War.

While one might expect that Humphrey’s breakthrough would moderate his politics, just the opposite transpired. He was immediately a leading progressive in the Democratic Party and fought for serious and determined action on civil rights — including federal legislation to combat lynching and end school segregation — when his other Democratic colleagues happily settled for meek endorsements and empty support.

Advocacy and amicability juxtaposed

Despite his ardent defense of human rights and aggressively liberal ideals, Humphrey also sported a famously pleasant and gregarious demeanor and was nicknamed “The Happy Warrior” for this juxtaposition of fierce advocacy with an amicable manner.

Following in Humphrey’s footsteps was Walter Mondale, whose honesty and willingness to stand ahead of his own party may have been his undoing. In his ill-fated presidential campaign, he demonstrated unusual candor on his willingness to raise taxes and fought against nuclear buildup at a time when such a stance was deeply unpopular.

While Sen. John McCain reaped credit as a trailblazer for choosing a female vice presidential candidate in Sarah Palin, Mondale decided early in his campaign that he would be the first major-party candidate to run with a woman and selected Rep. Geraldine Ferraro from an illustrious pool that included San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein (now a senator) and Martha Layne Collins, the only female governor in Kentucky history.

That was 24 years ago.

The late Paul Wellstone, a beloved professor from Carleton, embraced the audacious spirit of Minnesota senators like Humphrey and Mondale. A diehard liberal, he would joke “I represent the democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”  In 2002, he voted against the Iraq War, although he knew his vote might cost him an election he sadly never reached.

The independents: Ventura and Barkley

We can’t forget the other unusual pols who have succeeded in Minnesota politics. Jesse Ventura upended established political figures Norm Coleman (he just can’t catch a break) and Skip Humphrey. For all his flaws, his unusual entrée into politics and unpolished approach unlocked a latent youth vote and may have changed the rules of Minnesota politics forever.

In this very Senate race, Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley won a shocking 15 percent of the vote.  Barkley is probably not on tenterhooks waiting for the result of the recount, but 15 percent is no trifle in a heavily contested election.

At first glance, Al Franken’s comedic background seems to qualify him as an appropriate heir to the “Eccentric Era,” but it’s not clear whether he will embrace the political idiosyncrasies for which Minnesota’s are proud (if not quite famous).

In an increasingly polarized political climate, the temptations to toe the party line become harder and harder to resist.  Forces greater than either Coleman or Franken will make it difficult – if not impossible – for either man to stand above his own party and blaze a solitary political path.

Perhaps the real tragedy is not that Minnesota may lose its eccentric political heritage, but that such a politician has become obsolete.

Choosing principle over party

Humphrey, Mondale and Wellstone stood in front of their party and fought for sometimes unpopular reforms. For Humphrey and Mondale, this took them all the way to the vice  presidency as well as the highest honor of all: a presidential nomination. Wellstone, too, may  have achieved these honors had multiple sclerosis not ended his presidential ambitions, and a tragic accident not ended his life.

What Humphrey and Mondale learned was that, for all their accomplishments, America was not ready for a president so ahead of the times. Perhaps the Senate, too, has now closed its doors to iconoclasts and apostates, leaders who trade party for principle.

We have entered a troubling era, and Americans express an unprecedented level of dissatisfaction with the present and anxiety over the future. Now, more than ever, we need national leaders in the mold of Humphrey, Mondale and Wellstone – men unafraid of change and reform and champions of hope.

Minnesotans should be proud of their political legacy and sad that it may have ended. Bold citizens who are willing to fight for unpopular principles – even if they are right – no longer make for great politicians.  But they do make for great leaders.

Sam Gill, a native of Minneapolis, is a political consultant in Washington. He recently received his master’s degree from the University of Oxford, where he studied political philosophy as a Rhodes Scholar.


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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 11/26/2008 - 03:16 pm.

    I’m sure it’s true that, as you write, Paul Wellstone voted against the invasion of Iraq even though he knew it might cost him the election.

    If Wellstone had lived, it might be interesting now to see a poll of Minnesota’s 2008 voters to see how many would have:

    1) Voted for Wellstone BECAUSE he was against the Iraq war

    2) Voted for Wellstone IN SPITE OF his vote against the war

    3) Voted AGAINST Wellstone because he was against the war.

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