Send In the Outsiders

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.

There are no definitive answers as to why a particular
upper-Midwest state should take such a shine to stoic politicians
like Walter Mondale and Hubert H. Humphrey as well as political
outsiders, though interesting theories abound. A 1999 Minneapolis
StarTribune article surmised that the state’s penchant for
extremely individualistic candidates could be traced to the state’s
very first peoples, the Ojibwe, Dakota, and Winnebago tribes. These
Native American groups practiced a form government that valued
local control and progressive meritocracy.

An Associated Press (AP) article published shortly after
Ventura’s election theorizes that perhaps it has something to do
with the ethos set by Minnesota’s early European immigrants, the
Swedes and the Norwegians. Noted the AP in a 1998 article:
Minnesotans
have a Norwegian word, Janteloven
, which translates
roughly — very roughly — as: ‘Don’t think you’re wiser or better
than us; you aren’t.” Simply stated: Minnesotans don’t take kindly
to political analysts who get too comfortable in their
predictions.

Others credit Minnesota’s populace — through disposition or
sheer luck — for creating a warm incubator that cuddles third
parties and other colorful characters that slip through the cracks
in other states. Unlike many states, Minnesota offers its voters
same-day registration, is a leader in voter turnout, has tough
campaign finance laws, and a tradition of widely broadcasting
debates with multiple candidates. No matter the reason, one thing
is certain: it will surprise everybody but Minnesotans if
in 2009 the state’s newly-elected junior senator champions a bill
by saying it’s ‘good enough, smart enough, and doggone it, people
like it.’

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