Those who followed St. Paul politics in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s will surely recall Mary Jane Rachner, who officially changed her name in 1994 to Maryjane Reagan.
She was a perennial candidate for office who often voiced controversial opinions on women’s equality, gay rights — and mathematics teaching. She died last month at age 87, and was remembered with a death notice last weekend in the Pioneer Press.
After running for virtually every office in sight — governor, Congress, Legislature, school board, Minnesota secretary of state, even for president on the 1988 New Hampshire primary ballot — she was finally elected to the Ramsey County Soil and Water Conservation Board in 1996. She was re-elected twice, most recently in 2006.
She had a doctorate in education from the University of Minnesota and taught in the Minneapolis schools for 14 years, until 1964. But she suffered memory and personality changes after an accident, and became known as a political gadfly prone to making politically incorrect marks.
Running for state representative in 1990, she put up a billboard saying: “Straight Power.” It was vandalized with paint balloons. Her campaign slogan was: “It ain’t no sin to let her win.” At that point, she was 0-for-9 in election campaigns, dating to 1972.
Working as a substitute teacher in Minneapolis in the 1990s, she described her classroom methods: “In my last class, during math I divided the girls and boys into separate groups. I gave the girls catalogs and order forms, to order clothes for their arithmetic lesson. The boys did their lesson using baseball and sports statistics. That made it, in my opinion, more interesting.”
School officials responded that such an approach was inappropriate, and publicity about the matter led to her dismissal as a sub.
In 1994, she filed to run for two offices — secretary of state and Ramsey County commissioner. That turned out to be illegal, so she withdrew from the statewide race.
“I thought I was such an obscure and loose-cannon candidate that they might not notice,” she said at the time. But they did.
She legally changed her name to Reagan in 1994, telling the court referee that she didn’t want to be called Rachner anymore because the Star Tribune had embarrassed her. She was particularly hurt when the newspaper ran an editorial the previous year warning people not to vote for her in the school board election. She said she wanted to continue running for election and be listed on the ballot as Maryjane Reagan. She hoped to honor former President Reagan but admitted the former president might not be thrilled with her decision.
She continued her long run of campaign tries in 1996, running for a seat on the Ramsey County Soil and Water Conservation Board. Covering the races on that election night, I noticed that she was winning by a landslide and called her for a comment. But she’d fallen asleep in front of her television and didn’t know she’d won.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” she said, suddenly awake about 10 p.m. “I’m so glad to hear that.”
She remembered that she’d had quite a checkered history in politics, and often was removed physically from City Council chambers and school board meetings over the years for talking out of turn.
But that night, Reagan said that those were “the olden days” and that she “hopes she can be a good team player” on the soil board.
By all accounts, she was. Tom Peterson, district manager, worked with her from her first days on the board in 1997 and through re-elections in 2002 and 2006.
“She was a wonderful person, and I give her a lot of credit for serving,” he said. “She wanted to participate as a citizen and did so well.”