Minnesota State Senator Anton J. Rockne took pride in the nickname “Watchdog of the State Treasury.” Yet as America’s Great Depression deepened in 1932, he fought against programs for the poor and his opponents branded him “Commander-in-Chief of the Hunger Brigade.”
Friends and foes alike called him “A.J.” or “Rock,” and the latter term most accurately described his character. Anton Julius Rockne was born in Fillmore County in 1868. After earning a law degree from the University of Minnesota, the budding attorney moved to Zumbrota in 1894. Rockne purchased the Zumbrota News in 1897. He became less involved with the paper after three years, bringing in E.F. Davis as partner and editor-manager.
An interest in politics led him to run for office. In 1903, voters elected Rockne to the state House of Representatives where he became House Speaker six years later. The Zumbrota lawyer became a state senator in 1915. As a conservative Republican, A.J. Rockne believed government power should be limited. He ably resisted its expansion.
In 1915 Rockne became chairman of the state legislature’s important Senate Finance Committee. He made it his business to see that Minnesota tax money was spent carefully. By 1930 he ranked among the state’s most powerful political figures. Rockne thus became a central figure in Minnesota politics during the uncertain years of America’s Great Depression.
The Great Depression was in its third year by 1932 and showed few signs of ending. Minnesotans elected Floyd B. Olson of the Farmer-Labor party as governor in 1930 and again two years later. They hoped his socialist-progressive policies would boost the slump-ridden economy. A.J. Rockne, however, blocked the governor’s plans. He used his power to tie up legislation in committee and prevent it from reaching a vote in the Senate.
Olson believed publicly funded programs would improve the economy, help those in need and halt farm foreclosures. In June 1932 Olson told an audience that Minnesota had reached such an economic crisis that only the government could cope with it. Those were fighting words to the “Watchdog of the Treasury.” Rockne worked to crush Olson’s programs. The popular governor and the powerful senator conducted a verbal slugfest before a watchful state.
The Farmer-Labor Leader, the weekly newspaper of Olson’s party, attacked Senator Rockne on March 15, 1933. The Depression was worsening, the Leader claimed. The poor were even more desperate. Rockne, the report argued, made matters more difficult by working against the governor’s plans. The Leader proclaimed that the senator’s finance committee dealt “with the frozen blood in the veins of tiny babies.”
Rockne’s friends rallied to his defense, but the senator faced public pressure. He allowed some of the laws that had been delayed by his committee to be brought to the legislature, but he still fought the governor wherever he could. The senator tried to stop a request for five million dollars for more relief plans. That move led Governor Olson to make a radio attack against his opponent in late December 1933. Olson called Rockne a defender of “property rights against human rights” and leader of a “dying” social order. A.J. Rockne fought back with a radio reply that detailed his opinions, but a second broadcast speech by the persuasive governor took his opponent’s case apart. The state senate passed a relief bill.
Rockne’s stubborn resistance to programs designed to help victims of the Great Depression damaged his public and political image statewide. But Anton J. Rockne was far from finished. He remained a powerful force in the senate chairing the finance committee until his retirement in 1946.
Upon his retirement at age seventy-six, A.J. Rockne had served during twenty-two sessions of the Minnesota legislature, House and Senate combined, tied for the most in state history. His thirty-six years of Senate service is also a record. He died on May 2, 1950.
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