RIP, Irv Anderson, Minnesota’s classic rough-and-tough legislator

Irv Anderson
Irv Anderson

When Irv Anderson ran the Minnesota House, the calendar on the wall may have read 1994, but the style said 1950.

Anderson could slam doors so hard they’d shake, and he could make knees tremble. The former speaker of the Minnesota House died at the age of 85 this week. Services for the man who was quick to anger and never afraid to confront will be held Saturday in International Falls.

Tough as he was, in his last years in the House, there was affection for the old legislator. Age and affliction had turned Anderson into “a sweet man,” said Rep. Alice Hausman,  a St. Paul DFLer who in 1997 was among those who helped orchestrate the coup that knocked Anderson from the speaker’s chair.

“At the end, we all just had this affection for the history he represented and for his knowledge,” said Hausman.

In fact, for a few years, Anderson’s rough-and-tough style suited the institution.

“The whole Legislature was a throwback,” said Hausman, who was first elected to the House in 1989.

Testosterone-filled Capitol atmosphere
Hausman was shocked by the testosterone-filled atmosphere of the Capitol when she first walked into the place. She had come out of the medical business, where men and women had equal power and status. In that environment, people shared thoughts; they didn’t try to overpower with bravado.

Bullying was not only accepted in the Minnesota House, it was expected.

“What was happening in the Legislature would not have been accepted in any other workplace,” said Hausman. “It was totally male-dominated.”

Hausman, by the way, believes in studies that show that 40 percent is the tipping point in workplace style.

“Until women reach a 40 percent threshold, there have been studies that show that the institution transforms them,” said Hausman. “When women reach 40 percent, they transform the institution. We’re still hovering at the 15 to 20 percent level.”

Anderson, for a few years at least, was the alpha male.

But throughout his career, the tough guy who knew legislative rules backward and forward, would  offend one too many people — and down he’d go.  Ultimately, the most remarkable thing about Anderson was that he’d always get back up.

Plenty of downfalls
Look at the downfalls.

First elected to the House in 1964, he rose to become majority leader, one step away from becoming speaker.

But in 1980, that step was denied him when a group of mostly metro-area DFLers teamed with Republicans to reject Anderson and support St. Paul’s Fred Norton.

Things got even worse for Anderson when, in 1982, he was defeated in the DFL primary by a political novice, Bob Neuenschwander.  Neuenschwander’s victory could be traced to the legislative race eight years earlier, when Bob Lessard, who eventually would win a seat in the state Senate, had taken on the brusque Anderson.

“Bob was really popular in that race, and Irv was Irv,”  recalled Neuenschwander.

“On election night (in 1974), it appeared that Bob had won the election. Everyone went home thinking Bob had won. But the votes from Red Lake didn’t come in until the next day,” he said, recalling Anderson’s legendary close ties to tribal leaders there. “When they came in, Bob didn’t get a single vote, and Irv won the election.”

The state, Neuenschwander said, didn’t have any desire to investigate the matter, and Anderson went back to St. Paul. Lessard — and his followers — were convinced the election had been stolen and never forgot it. 

In 1982, Lessard, who’s won his state Snate seat in 1976, urged Neuenschwander to run against Anderson.  Neuenschwander had had a couple of unpleasant experiences with Anderson, so he was ready to give it a shot.

“Irv got the endorsement of every city and county official in the district,” said Neuenschwander, “because they were all afraid of him. He got the endorsement of the MCCL (Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life). I was a taxidermist and a firearms dealer, but he still got the endorsement of the NRA.”

But Neuenschwander pounded on doors throughout the sprawling district.

“I spent $12,000 of my own money for a seat that I think paid $14,000 at the time,” he said.

He defeated Anderson in the DFL primary, which in District 3A is the same as winning the general election. He beat Anderson again in 1984 and 1986, each year his margin of victory increasing.  In 1988, Anderson ran for a county commission seat — and lost that, too.

In 1990, Anderson, describing himself as “the New Irv,” again took on Neuenschwander in the primary. Neuenschwander believes he was defeated by the pro-life MCCL, which urged DFL voters in the primary to cross over and support Republican gubernatorial candidate Jon Grunseth in his race against pro-choicer Arne Carlson.

“They wanted two pro-life candidates  — Gov. [Rudy] Perpich and Grunseth — running for governor,” said Neuenschwander. “They really made a push for Grunseth. I ended up losing 1,700 votes to people who crossed over to vote for Grunseth.”

‘The New Irv’
Anderson won the primary and returned to St. Paul, and in 1994 “the New Irv” became the House speaker.

There were admirable qualities about Anderson. His lunch-bucket sensibilities — he was an old union guy — matched well with DFLers from the Iron Range. He was a progressive on issues ranging from taxation to education to health care. And he was a brilliant tactician, using the rules he knew so well to get the legislative outcomes he wanted.

But his old-boy, in-your-face style was an affront to many, especially the women and the more sensitized men who kept moving into the House.  And his strident pro-life positions on abortion set him at odds with most in the DFL caucus.

“It wasn’t just the abortion issue,” said Hausman. “It was about who you recruit as candidates. He was recruiting people who were strongly pro-life in pro-choice districts. His ideology was putting the party in a weakened state.”

In 1997, a group of mostly metro-area DFLers, inspired by such legislators as Hausman and Rep. Mindy Greiling of Roseville, led the revolt against “the New Irv.” He was dumped from power, replaced by Phil Carruthers, a more 20th-century male, by a single vote.

At least some DFLers from the Range still grumble about Anderson’s downfall, saying it was all about style, not substance of leadership.

“Carruthers was smooth,” sneered Rep. Tom Rukavina, who’s from Virginia and the old school. “But a baby’s bottom is smooth, too.”

Rukavina doesn’t think there’s a coincidence that soon after Carruthers was named speaker, the DFL lost its majority standing in the House.

Anderson stayed in the House, an aging and ailing institution to the end of 2006, when he retired. On occasion, Rukavina recalled, he’d still stand and raise an issue on rules, but mostly he was a gentler soul in those last years in the House.

For his part, Rukavina doesn’t really believe that all that much has changed now that Rep. Margaret Anderson Kelliher is in charge.

“Speakers are speakers,” he said. “The style may be different with Margaret. It’s not as, ummm, direct. She doesn’t swear at me and pound on the table.”

Rukavina started laughing.

“And when I do that, it takes her longer to get over it than it did when I swore at Irv.”

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