Some experience required? The political pasts of Minnesota’s successful gubernatorial candidates

MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
The Governor's Residence on Summit Avenue in St. Paul.

As Minnesota heads into another campaign season, those who are paying attention to the governor’s race might note the crowded field of candidates.

It includes a former governor, a congressman, a state auditor, a state rep, a county commissioner and a mayor, but several candidates are running without having held elected office before.

As each of those candidates tries to rise to the top, expect to see them tout their credentials for the state’s top job, especially their past political experience.

How important that experience proves for this election is a question that’s up to the Minnesota voters. But a review of the résumés of Minnesota’s past governors reveals that previous political experience is a common thread  — and that some kinds of offices have produced more governors than others.

Gubernatorial resumes

In total, 37 people have been elected governor of Minnesota since statehood. (Historical aside: 39 people have actually served as governor — two governors took office after serving as lieutenant governor and didn't serve another term.)

Of those, more have come from the State Legislature to the state’s highest office than from any other elected office, according to data compiled on governors' highest profile previous jobs by MinnPost using the Minnesota Historical Society’s archives. Most recently, their ranks have included Tim Pawlenty and Wendell Anderson.

Highest-profile office held prior to being elected governor
Source: Minnesota Historical Society

As of now, DFL Rep. Erin Murphy is the only state legislator in the running for the governor’s seat, but several others had announced a run, only to suspend their campaigns later.

GOP Sen. David Osmek dropped out in January following a straw poll that suggested his support lagged. DFL reps Paul Thissen and Tina Liebling also dropped out in recent months.

Lieutenant governorship is, historically, the second most common path to being elected governor. Six governors who ascended to the job from the lieutenant governor’s seat after a resignation or death were subsequently elected, including Rudy Perpich and C. Elmer Anderson. One, Karl Rolvaag, was elected after serving out terms as lieutenant governor.

This year, talk of a lieutenant governor as a candidate ended after Mark Dayton’s second-in-command, Tina Smith, was appointed to the U.S. Senate following Al Franken’s resignation after facing allegations of sexual harassment.

Five Minnesota governors’ highest elected office before taking the helm of state government was U.S. Congress, the path Rep. Tim Walz, who represents Minnesota’s First Congressional District, is hoping to take. The most recent was Al Quie. Two, Elmer Benson and Dayton, served in the U.S. Senate prior to being elected governor.

If Pawlenty wins the race in November, he won’t be the first Minnesota governor to serve non-consecutive terms. Rudy Perpich held the post from 1976 to 1979, and again from 1983 to 1991. Alexander Ramsey, who was appointed territorial governor in 1849 later became Minnesota’s second elected governor.

Beyond those positions, other types of political experience are less common in Minnesota governors.

There is precedent for state auditors becoming governor, though, for a statewide office it’s a relatively low-profile one. Arne Carlson was elected governor in 1990. After coming in second in the primary to Jon Grunseth, he resurfaced his campaign just before the election after impropriety allegations surrounding Grunseth surfaced. J.A.O. Preus, state auditor from 1915 to 1921, launched a successful bid for governor from that office. Current State Auditor Rebecca Otto is running for governor.

And as for serving as governor without holding prior political office, that’s pretty rare. Even Jesse Ventura, who campaigned as a political outsider, served as mayor of Brooklyn Park prior to becoming governor. Just four governors, Harold LeVander (who took office in 1967), Orville Freeman (1955), Andrew McGill (1887) Stephen Miller (1864) ran without holding prior elected office. LeVander was a Republican Party activist, Freeman had served as DFL party chair, McGill served as insurance commissioner and Miller had a relatively high-profile military career and was supported by former territorial governor Alexander Ramsey. He actually became a state representative after serving as governor.

Of course, there’s one political office that seems to hold an advantage if you want to be elected Minnesota governor: current Minnesota governor. Of the 39 people who have served as governor, 24 were elected to at least one more consecutive term.

Which experience matters

In a sense, it’s not surprising that so many governors held their prior top jobs at the Legislature: the Legislature is the largest elected body in the state, meaning it’s where most of the politicians who hold state offices are.

But by another token, it is sort of surprising that being in the Legislature is a path to the governorship. That’s because it’s hard to run for governor as a state legislator.

Generally speaking, there are two related components to a successful bid for office: name recognition and fundraising. If you don’t have money, you can rely, to some extent on name recognition (see: Jesse Ventura), and if you don’t have name recognition you can rely, to a degree, on money to build it.

As people who represent relatively small districts, it’s tough for state legislators to get ahead in this game, said Steven Schier, a retired Carleton College political science professor.

“First of all, name identification is low. Second of all, they don’t have a big fundraising network,” he said.

The same can go for county and city officials. This year, there are two in the race: Jeff Johnson, a Hennepin County commissioner and Mary Giuliani Stephens, the mayor of Woodbury, are running as Republicans.

Just one elected governor launched his bid having last held office as a mayor: Ventura.

“Jesse Ventura was a celebrity. It really didn’t matter what (office) he held,” Schier said.

In addition to having lower name recognition outside the Twin Cities, metro mayors face other challenges, Schier said, in that there’s a cultural divide (perceived or not) between the metro and Greater Minnesota. In recent years as rural Minnesota has turned redder, that divide has also become a political one.

In 2010, then-Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak suspended his bid for the governorship after losing the DFL endorsement. This year, former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman announced he was terminating his campaign after finishing fourth in a straw poll.

If name recognition and fundraising are the biggest advantages, Pawlenty and Walz may be in luck.

“If you are a member of Congress obviously you have a pretty big network, and if you’re a former governor, obviously you’ve got a pretty big network,” Schier said, though he wonders how well Walz is known outside of his district.

But it’s not network or name recognition alone that matters. Indeed, if name voters remember a candidate unfavorably name recognition may work against them. Which touches on something harder to quantify.

“I think you also need to keep in mind candidate quality,” Schier said.

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