Send In the Outsiders

Why does Minnesota elect so many eccentrics?


| February 2005


If not Senator Dayton, how about Senator Franken or Senator Keillor? If Governor Ventura sounds reasonable, why not Senator Ventura? In most states (save California), the idea of entertainer-politicians is regarded as being a little... Californian.

Not in Minnesota. Within 90 minutes of Wednesday's newsflash that Senator Mark Dayton would not seek re-election in 2006, the national press and the political blogs were abuzz with plausible replacements -- the short list included a number of career politicians, but also a handful of Minnesota cultural icons, including Garrison Keillor, Al Franken and Jesse Ventura. Though it seems, as of this writing, Ventura and Franken have opted not to run for senate in 2006, Franken has hinted heavily that he will run in 2008 against Republican Senator Norm Coleman. Garrison Keillor has not yet made an announcement. But even if none of the celebrity/entertainer options decide to run, they have been seriously considered. And that in itself says a great deal about Minnesota's politics.

The upset gubernatorial win by ex-pro wrestler Ventura in 1998 solidified this maverick reputation with the world. However, the state's preference for unexpected politicians existed long before bumper stickers across the North Star state could boast that 'My Governor Can Beat Up Your Governor.'

Consider, for example, that before the late Senator Paul Wellstone was the populist hero, he was a political wild card, an odd duck, a long shot. A former Carleton College political science professor who would've lost tenure had it not been for a student outcry, Wellstone was a short, excitable fellow who taught in shorts and sandals, got arrested at a power line protest, ran for state auditor on an anti-nuclear platform, and campaigned on a big green school bus.

Or, before him, the fiery socialist and leader of the Farmer-Labor Party Floyd B. Olson who was elected Minnesota governor in 1930, and was often criticized for associating with unsavory characters, gambling, and womanizing. Asked about his lifestyle by local reporters, Olson is said to have responded: 'That's the cross I have to bear, boys. Pray for me.'

In 1938, Minnesotans elected a 31-year-old governor named Harold Stassen -- still the youngest American ever to win a governorship. Stassen not only led a ground-up movement to modernize government, but delighted Minnesotans with his say-anything style. Or Rudy Perpich, the second-generation Croatian immigrant dentist who served three terms as Minnesota governor and made headlines in the 1970s for dining with a well-known madam and decreeing that his $17,500 salary increase be used to buy Italian bocce balls. Then there's Eugene McCarthy, the anti-Vietnam war firebrand who rose to national prominence as the 'peace candidate' for president in 1968.