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Wendell Anderson: A shooting star who fell to earth

Anderson, who died Sunday at age 83, was Minnesota’s first made-for-television governor. But his “Minnesota Miracle” was followed in 1978 by the “Minnesota Massacre.”

Wendell Anderson in a photo from 1971.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Wendell Anderson was a political shooting star who flashed brilliantly across the sky, but came crashing to earth all too quickly – a victim of his own ambition and hubris. 

Anderson, who died Sunday at age 83, was Minnesota’s first made-for-television governor.  Youthful and handsome, energetic and articulate, the 37-year-old former Gopher and Olympic hockey player from St. Paul’s East Side stood in stark contrast to the gray eminences who preceded him. 

First elected to the Minnesota Legislature in 1958 at age 25, Anderson emerged from a large and talented field of DFL gubernatorial candidates in 1970, embraced a plan by the nonpartisan Citizens League to overhaul the state’s school finance system and convincingly won election over Republican Attorney General Douglas Head. 

Confronted with a Legislature controlled by Republican-oriented Conservatives (legislators were elected on a nonpartisan ballot until 1974), Anderson forged ahead with his plan to dramatically increase state taxes for K-12 schools, reduce their dependence on locally levied property taxes and narrow the per-pupil funding disparities among schools.

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Anderson ultimately won passage of a bill that raised state taxes by a hefty $580 million a year. But victory came only after he vetoed the Conservatives’ first tax bill, barnstormed the state to sell his plan and hung tough through a 157-day special session, the longest in state history.

Dubbed the “Minnesota Miracle,” Anderson’s landmark law helped propel DFL legislative candidates to victory in 1972, giving his party control of both houses for the first time in state history. Over the next few years, Anderson and his allies ushered in a torrent of environmental, labor and consumer legislation that had been bottled up for years.

Anderson was ably served by his staff, headed by Tom Kelm, his powerful chief of staff.  They enlarged the governor’s staff to more than 50, three times larger than that of his predecessor, to shepherd the Anderson agenda and keep close tabs on state agencies.

For all of his skill in front of large crowds and television cameras, Anderson was a very private person who wasn’t particularly comfortable with small groups or individuals he didn’t know.

During my early days covering him for the Minneapolis Tribune, I recall being summoned to the governor’s office for what turned out to be an unusual reason. Some well-intentioned aide thought he should try to establish some rapport by telling me a joke, which he appeared to read from a notecard. (My private reaction: Don’t give up your day job, Governor.)

Gov. Wendell Anderson 1973 Time cover
Gov. Wendell Anderson 1973 Time cover

However, Anderson and his team focused much more on trying to polish his image and control his media coverage. To avoid questions about the controversies of the day, they kept news conferences with the Capitol press corps to a minimum. Instead, they produced a weekly radio program for a statewide network as well as video clips for outstate TV stations. It was a pretty slick PR operation for its day.

Their biggest public relations coup was landing a glowing story on “The Good Life in Minnesota” in Time magazine in 1973. A now-iconic cover photo showed a beaming Anderson, clad in a plaid shirt and holding a rather puny northern pike. The pose was both imitated and mocked for years.

Anderson clearly had national political ambitions. He sought to enhance his standing by securing the chairmanship of the Democratic Governors’ Conference, traveling to both Russia and China, and devoting major portions of his second inaugural address in 1975 to foreign policy, defense spending and global energy needs. For state legislators in attendance, they must have thought they had fallen asleep in St. Paul and awakened in Washington.

By the time of the 1976 Democratic National Convention, Anderson no longer was being coy about his political aspirations. Tapped to head the convention’s Platform Committee, he appeared on a network TV interview program and was asked about his interest in serving as Jimmy Carter’s running mate.

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“If it were offered to me, I’d think very seriously about it for two or three seconds, and then say yes,” Anderson responded. If asked his advice, the governor added, he would recommend Minnesota Sen. Walter Mondale.

Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey and Gov. Wendell Anderson with King Carl Gustaf
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey and Gov. Wendell Anderson with King Carl Gustaf of Sweden, center, from a 1976 photo.

Mondale ultimately got the nod and won election with Carter, creating a Senate vacancy. Such a possibility had been anticipated – to the point that the Minnesota Senate twice passed a bill providing for a special election. But the bill was blocked by Anderson’s allies in the House.

Still, Anderson could have appointed a caretaker to serve the remaining two years of Mondale’s term and run in 1978. Although he was enormously popular, Anderson apparently liked the idea of a sure thing – resigning the governorship with the understanding that Lt. Gov. Rudy Perpich would appoint him to fill the vacancy.

It was, however, a risky strategy. In the previous 45 years, six governors had appointed themselves to the Senate and all six were defeated in the next election. Anderson suffered the same fate in 1978 as the Republicans captured the governorship and both U.S. Senate seats in what came to be known as the “Minnesota Massacre.”

Wendy Anderson was a star in Minnesota, one of our most effective governors ever. And he could have been a star in Washington, if only he hadn’t been in such a hurry.

Steven Dornfeld covered Anderson’s six years as governor and his unsuccessful Senate campaign in 1978.