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A bipartisan high tide: the Nick Coleman era in Minnesota politics

State senators conferring, left to right: James Ulland, Nick Coleman, Robert Ashbach, Harmon Ogdahl

The year was 1973.

A new crop of Republicans had just been elected to the Minnesota State Senate, 13 of them in all.  

Across the aisle, Majority Leader Nick Coleman was eyeing the Republican newcomers to determine which of them might be potential partners during the upcoming legislative session. Several of the thirteen held some promise for Coleman. They included Otto Bang, an insurance agent from Edina; John Keefe, an attorney from Hopkins; Doug Sillers, a farmer from Moorhead; and Bob Dunn, a lumber dealer from Princeton. At one point or another during their legislative careers, each would collaborate with the majority leader, who added the term “DFL” to his title when party designation took effect in the Senate, later in the 1970s.

“Knowing there were several key issues that needed bipartisan support … Coleman wanted to reach out across the aisle,” recalls John Milton, who served in the Minnesota Legislature during those years. Milton’s recollections from that era are collected in his new book “For the Good of the Order, Nick Coleman and the High Tide of Liberal Politics in Minnesota;  1971-1981.”

Fierce battles, but compromise was possible

That 10-year period may have been a high tide of liberal politics, according to Milton; in many ways it was also a high tide of bipartisanship. The 1970s were characterized by fierce political battles at the Capitol, but compromise was possible when House and Senate members, who sat across the aisle from each other, got down to the business of legislating. The rigid ideological divisions that exert such a stranglehold on Minnesota politics today had not yet emerged.  

Coleman, a St. Paulite proud of his Irish Catholic roots, was elected majority leader in January 1973,  after his party group, then called the Liberals, took control of the state Senate for the first time in modern Minnesota history. His election marked the start of Liberal/DFL domination  of the Senate that would continue for the next 28 years until the DFL winning streak was finally broken by the Republicans in 2010.

In 1970, Coleman had come close to gaining the Senate’s top post when that year’s election produced a 33-33 tie between the Liberals and the Conservatives in the Legislature’s upper body. One successful Senate candidate, Richard Palmer of Duluth, initially claimed to be an Independent, but later said that he would caucus with the Conservatives. Palmer became the subject of a court battle when Lt. Gov. Rudy Perpich refused to accept his election certificate. Eventually, the State Supreme Court declared that Palmer should be seated, giving the Conservatives a one-vote majority and control of the State Senate.

The ‘Minnesota Miracle’

Despite the bitter partisan fight that initiated the 1971 session, that year would see the enactment of the one of the state’s most far-reaching policy initiatives — a new financing plan for public education that came to be known as the Minnesota Miracle.

In 1970, Coleman’s Senate colleague, Wendell Anderson, had been elected governor.

Soon after he took office, Anderson proposed a major overhaul of state’s system for funding K-12 education.  Minnesota’s newly elected chief executive wanted to equalize per-pupil spending between the state’s rich and poor school districts by shifting much of the burden for public education from the local school districts to the state as a whole. That shift would mean a huge increase in the state’s budget, which Anderson proposed to fund through a whole array of new taxes on incomes, inheritances, cigarettes, and liquor.

Anderson’s education funding proposal created a firestorm of controversy, which continued through much of 1971. In August, with the House and Senate both controlled by Conservatives, the Legislature adopted its own  plan, calling for a major budget increase to equalize state education funding.

Negotiators appointed

Anderson promptly vetoed the Legislature’s plan, saying that it did not go far enough in meeting his policy goals. Then, in an effort to keep the concept of equalization alive, legislative leaders from both party groups appointed negotiators to meet with the governor and his staff to hammer out a new funding agreement.

The negotiators included Senate Minority Leader Coleman and his House counterpart, Martin Sabo.   Their efforts resulted in a new tax bill that eventually cleared both houses,  and was signed into law by Anderson at the end of October. 

That measure’s revenue package totaled $580 million. It included a 22 percent increase in state income taxes, a 5-cent per-pack increase in the cigarette tax, a 25 percent increase in the liquor and beer tax, and a boost in the state sales tax from 3 percent to 4 percent. 

While the Conservative caucus leaders supported the 1971 tax bill, a majority of their members did vote against final passage. Even so, 30 of the House’s 70 Conservatives and 12 of the Senate’s 34 Conservatives took a public stand in support of one of the largest tax increases in the state’s history.

One observer who followed the evolution of the Minnesota Miracle credited that era’s atmosphere of bipartisanship for the legislation’s success. 

“It is remarkable that after the chaos in January, both sides were able to get together and pass the landmark legislation,” recalled Steve Dornfeld, who followed the issue as a reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune. “I think it was possible because there was still an atmosphere of civility in the legislature and because the leaders — especially Senators Holmquist and Coleman were good friends with considerable mutual respect.”

New issues emerge

Minnesota’s political leaders were justly proud of their education funding plan, which would have far reaching consequences for this state. But new issues soon emerged that threatened to disrupt traditional political alignments at the Capitol.

On Jan. 23, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark Roe v Wade decision, which gave women a constitutional right to terminate their pregnancies during their first trimester. The decision was written by Justice William Blackmun, a St. Paul native, with concurrence by his fellow Minnesotan, Chief Justice Warren Burger. Both Blackmun and Burger had been appointed to the country’s highest court by a Republican president, Richard Nixon.

The 1973 decision pushed abortion on to the center state of American politics, where it would remain well into the 21st century. Initially, the issue cut across party lines, with partisans on both sides staking out “pro choice” and “pro life” positions.

For a DFL Catholic like Nick Coleman this new, highly emotional controversy was particularly troubling. “Roe v. Wade put Coleman in the middle of a fight he had not chosen,” noted John Milton. “Coleman’s Catholic heritage and religion, and his personal distaste for abortion, pulled in the direction of the ‘pro-life’  position, but he could not accept the church’s opposition to family planning, which he saw as the obvious way to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and women having to face the choice.  In addition, Coleman’s civil libertarian views argued against imposing his personal values on all others.”

Sister was a lobbyist

Coleman faced the issue in his own family, where his sister, Rosemarie, was a key lobbyist for the state’s leading “pro-life “organization, Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life (MCCL). But he had to listen to other voices — particularly from those in the DFL Feminist Caucus, which was pushed Coleman’s party towards a “pro-choice” position.

The issue came to a head at the State Capitol in 1973 over a resolution calling on Congress to initiate a U.S. constitutional amendment that would overturn Roe v Wade.

Coleman voted with a majority of the Senate in supporting the so-called Human Life Amendment on final passage, but did join with his pro-choice colleagues in an unsuccessful effort to narrow the scope of the amendment. The pro-choice contingent, at least on certain of the limiting amendments, consisted of several influential Republicans including Minority Leader Robert Ashbach, George Pillsbury and Harmon Ogdahl. At a later time, it would unthinkable for a member of Ashbach’s legislative caucus to be viewed as anything but a “pro-life” stalwart.  But in 1973, it was still possible to be a Minnesota Republican and pro-choice.

Another hot-button issue

While Coleman departed from many of his liberal colleagues on abortion, he did take on another “hot button” social issue that would later provoke a sharp political divide in Minnesota. During the 1973 session, he championed an amendment to the state’s human rights statute, which gave anti-discrimination protections to people with a “homosexual orientation.” Coleman’s amendment passed the Senate on a 35 to 32 vote, with five of the “aye” votes coming from Republicans.  One of those was Doug Sillers, whom Coleman had identified early on as a potential ally.  Later, the majority leader’s amendment died when the House refused to concur, but Coleman’s effort would be applauded by the state’s emerging gay rights leaders, including his Senate colleague, Allan Spear.

Coleman continued to serve as Senate majority leader through the 1978 election. That year saw the DFL lose the governorship and the state’s two U.S. Senate seats in what came to be known as the Minnesota Massacre.

In 1980, the St. Paul DFLer chose not to run for re-election. Terminally ill with leukemia, Nick Coleman retired from the Senate in January 1981 and died three months later, on March 5.

A sharpening divide

Even with Ronald Reagan’s election as president in 1980 and the conservative surge he helped propel, a measure of bipartisanship continued in Minnesota through post-Coleman years into the final two decades of the 20th century.

But now, these early years of the 21st century have seen a sharpening ideological divide that has led to political gridlock here and in Washington. While the final days of this past legislative session did see a brief spurt of inter-party cooperation with the passage of a bonding bill and the controversial Vikings stadium plan, the high tide of Minnesota bipartisanship that characterized the Coleman years has clearly receded.

Iric Nathanson is working on a history of Minnesota politics during the last half of the 20th century for the DFL Education Foundation.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Ross Williams on 05/16/2012 - 11:16 am.

    Door Knocking

    I think we need to consider the other things that have changed since, rather than simply looking at the results at the Capitol.

    The first thing to realize is that every legislator in both parties got elected primarily by knocking on doors and talking to voters face to face. They also relied on volunteers to go door-to-door persuading their neighbors. The result was a lot of face-to-face contact between people who disagreed, most of of it focused on finding areas of agreement. The media narrative of a neat division between “conservatives” and “liberals” was greatly diluted by the reality of those conversations.

    The second thing that has changed is that people no longer live and work in the same community where they vote. Those suburban voters aren’t concerned about the quality of urban neighborhoods as places to live, only as places to drive through on the way to work. Or places to party after work. They drive on highways, or ride on express buses and trains, that effectively isolate them from any interaction with the people who live along their route. In short, they no longer see themselves as sharing any common fate with those folks.

    The third thing is that “community” is not longer defined geographically. People belong to a variety of communities of interest. Online communities are part of this, but a small part. Even before that people communities had become stratified by interest and class. Kids didn’t go to school with a cross-section of society. People don’t go to churches with a wide diversity of people. They don’t work with a wide diversity of people. And people don’t live in neighborhoods with a cross-section of the community. They don’t shop in the same stores. They don’t eat at the same restaurants. In practical terms, where people vote is largely a reflection of where they sleep.

    Its not surprising that they see their interests in the media’s ideological divide, rather than based on any personal experience. The mass media has become the only really shared experience left and the internet is slowly dismantling even that. The conflicts at the capital just reflect the general alienation of people from one another, .

  2. Submitted by Ray Marshall on 05/16/2012 - 05:36 pm.

    Nick Coleman

    Nick was also known to be the Chairman of the Payroll Caucus, that group of State Senate employees whose job it was when they weren’t needed in the State Capitol to campaign for Democratic candidates that Nick wanted to see be elected or re-elected.

    Those were different times

  3. Submitted by Tam Helmin on 05/24/2012 - 02:56 pm.

    the truth about Roe v. Wade

    To say Roe v. Wade “gave women a constitutional right to terminate their pregnancies during their first trimester” is either uninformed or dishonest. There is no first trimester limit.

    Doe v. Bolton was handed down the same day and was meant to be read in conjunction with its more famous counterpart, Roe v. Wade. In Doe, the Court defined “health” to include not just physical health, but also psychological, mental and emotional health. In fact, the decision defined the “health” exception so broadly as to encompass virtually any reason. Thus, Roe and Doe together permit abortion at any time and for any reason.

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