Monday, May 30, 2011

The tourist attraction that partly explains Minnesota politics

Progressives are holding a convention in downtown Minneapolis in the middle of June.  Those attending the Netroots Nation need only walk about 15 blocks from their convention center to see the city's best landmark.  It is a bridge over the Mississippi River built of locally-quarried stone in a series of 23 arches.  Those of us who love bridges often claim that there is no such thing as an ugly bridge but even by the lofty standards of bridge aesthetics, the Stone Arch Bridge is a stunner.

Begun in January 1882, the bridge was open to traffic by November 1883.  Using 100,000 tons of limestone and granite, it took less than 23 months to build at the bargain price of only $650,000.

Upstream to the left--East Bank straight ahead

"In its heyday, forty-eight passenger trains crossed the Stone Arch Bridge each and every day bringing thousands of travelers into and out of the central business district of Minneapolis. But as air travel replaced passenger train travel, the bridge went into decline. By 1980 it had become little more than a fenced off, derelict structure surrounded by crumbling, abandoned flour mills.
In 1994 a partnership of public agencies rehabilitated the bridge for pedestrian use. Today the Stone Arch Bridge is the jewel of the brilliantly redeveloped Minneapolis Riverfront. Thanks primarily to the Minneapolis Park Board, our grandchildren, as well as our grandchildren’s grandchildren, will one day be able to stroll across the Mississippi River on James J. Hill’s monument to the railroad age.
When The Stone Arch Bridge was built in the 1880s, engineers thought that it would be impossible to build a stone arch bridge for rail traffic. They believed that vibrations from passing trains would cause the stone to crumble. Now that over 125 years have passed, the Stone Arch Bridge is one of the oldest surviving bridges over the Mississippi River."
See also: "Hill's Folly" The Building of the Stone Arch Bridge by Ray Lowry
Stone Arch Bridge Historic Great Northern Railroad Mississippi River Crossing

So what does the Stone Arch Bridge have to do with Minnesota politics?

One of the characteristics of Minnesota that many comment on is the presence of so many folks of Scandinavian heritage.  The usual explanation is that the Nordics felt at home in a land that had severe winters.  This is mostly rubbish because many such people were quite happy to escape brutal winters if they could.  The real reason the Scandinavians came to Minnesota is because they perceived economic opportunity.

The curved roadbed on the west side of the Mississippi

Enter James Hill and his bridge.  Because Hill was not able to buy the all land necessary for the turn into his proposed Minneapolis station, the turn would have to start on the bridge itself.  Suddenly, the proposed bridge morphed from a straight series of stone arches such as had been built since the Roman aqueducts into this construction headache.  A bridge with a curve is about 50 times more technically difficult to build than one in a straight line.

Enter the Swedes.  The reputation of Swedes as genius builders had been given a major boost with the arrival of John Ericsson--the guy who built the USS Monitor in 100 days and saved the Union blockade during the Civil War.  This guy was amazing--think da Vinci with actual skills. And while there has been some debate over the claim that the Swedes built Chicago, there is no debate over who built Minneapolis.

Still the world's fastest airplane
While obviously not all Swedes had Ericsson's skills, it is just as obvious that when it comes to building difficult things, the Swedes are pretty damn good at it.  There is even a example of an poor first generation Swedish American making a major splash in transportation technology.  Clarence Leonard "Kelly" Johnson came from an impoverished mining town in Michigan yet became USA's foremost aeronautical engineer designing such aircraft as the U-2, the SR-71, and the F-104.

In their culture, the ability to build complex things has been a treasured trait since Viking times.  In fact, the ability to build objects that employ curves marks the difference between a master builder and a mere apprentice.  So when Hill's builders asked their Swedish crews if they could make a stone structure go around a corner, the response was some variation of "Ja sure, no problem."

One of Minnesota's richest men had discovered that Swedes made difficult problems disappear and suddenly it became a lot easier for them to get good jobs in Minnesota.  And when the Swedes showed up, the Minnesota economy became increasingly reliant on a strategy of prosperity through doing the very difficult, very well.

While the Swedes were far from the largest ethnic minority in 19th-century Minnesota, (that designation belongs to the Germans who also have a reputation for doing the very difficult very well), they became especially dominant in politics.  Part of this stemmed from the sort of folks who showed up--one immigrant from Sweden had been a founder of the Social Democratic Party.  His son would serve five terms in the USA House as a Progressive Republican and would become one of the founders of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party.

By 1899, the Swedes in Minnesota had elected one of their own as governor.  Named John Lind, he was from Smaland--a rocky corner of the country that is known for its inventiveness to this day (IKEA is headquartered in Smaland.)  Lind served as a Republican in the United States House of Representatives from March 4, 1887 to March 3, 1893 in the 50th, 51st, and 52nd congresses. He had a falling-out with the Republicans after serving in the U.S. House. Lind ran for governor as a Democrat and served as the 14th Governor of Minnesota from January 2, 1899, to January 7, 1901. He had also been endorsed by the Populists and Silver Republicans.

In 1905, the first Minnesota-born Swedish-American by the name of John A. Johnson became governor.  But the star of Swedish politics would be the fiery orator named Floyd Bjornstjerne Olson.  (Even in her old age, my first generation Swedish-American mother could barely speak of Olson without tearing up.  And the truth was, he was half Norwegian.)
In 1919, Olson was hired as an Assistant Hennepin County Attorney and, by the following year, had himself become the Hennepin County Attorney after his former boss was fired for accepting bribes.
During that same time period, he made his first foray into politics when he helped form the "Committee of 48," an organization that attempted to draft Senator Robert M. La Follette, Sr. to run for president on a third party ticket. The effort proved unsuccessful, but La Follette would later run on the Progressive Party ticket in 1924. That same year, Olson ran in the Democratic primary for the local seat in the House of Representatives, but lost.
As Hennepin County Attorney, Olson quickly earned a name for himself as a stern prosecutor who relished going after crooked businessmen. He took on the Ku Klux Klan in a well publicized case that brought both respect and death threats and was re-elected to the position in 1922 and 1926.
Candidate for governor
In 1923, Olson brought a case against the leaders of the Minnesota Citizens Alliance, a conservative business organization dedicated to preserving right-to-work laws, after they hired a hitman to dynamite the home of a union leader. Olson's vigorous pursuit of the Citizens Alliance made him a hero to the local labor movement, which encouraged him to run for the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party's gubernatorial nomination.
Having secured the endorsement of the Hennepin County Farmer-Labor Central Committee, Olson narrowly won the nomination in a bitterly-fought primary. Buoyed by the presidential campaign of Senator La Follette, who endorsed Olson and vice-versa, he received 43% of the vote, losing to Republican candidate Theodore Christianson's 48%. The Democratic candidate came in a distant third with 6%.
Four years later, in 1928, the new "Farmer-Labor Association" (which had changed its name to avoid being linked with local communists) attempted to draft Olson to run for governor again. Although the party committee once again endorsed him and this time guaranteed that he would not face a primary battle, Olson declined to run. In the U.S. presidential election, 1928, the Farmer-Labor candidate lost in the Republican landslide that accompanied Herbert Hoover's election to the presidency.
By 1930, however, the stock market had crashed and the Great Depression had begun. After the party's newspaper urged that Olson be drafted, he easily won the nomination. Forming a coalition of farmers, organized labor, and small businessmen, Olson swept to a landslide victory in the election, receiving 59% of the vote in a four-way race and winning 82 of the state's 87 counties. more
From immigrants who mostly voted for Republicans to passionate fighters for worker's rights who built and defined the Farmer-Labor Party, the Swedish-American population of Minnesota has evolved over time.  There were still some Republicans of course, but even they tend be more enlightened than most.  For example, Minnesota's 30th governor, Elmer L. Andersen, was elected as a Republican the same year Kennedy was elected President.  (Psst--Andersen was also half Norwegian.)
A progressive Republican, Elmer served in the Minnesota Legislature from 1949 until 1958. Among the many causes he championed were educational programs for exceptional children, recognition of alcoholism as a health problem, the Metropolitan Planning Commission in the Twin Cities, and the Fair Employment Practices Act (Minnesota was the fifth state to pass legislation around this issue).
In 1960, the year Minnesota helped elect John F. Kennedy to the Presidency and re-elected Senator Hubert H. Humphrey, Elmer ran for governor, winning by more than 20,000 votes. 
He lost his reelection bid two years later in the closest margin ever in United States history. The election was held on November 6, 1962 but the results were not known until March 21, 1963. After recounts and court challenges, it was determined that then-Lieutenant Governor Karl Rolvaag had defeated Andersen by 91 votes out of nearly 1.3 million cast. Rolvaag collected 619,842 votes to Andersen's 619,751.
Andersen remained in the Republican Party for the rest of his life, but he became unhappy about how conservative the party had become. Even in the 1960s, his views were in the minority of the party.
In a 2003 interview with the Saint Paul Pioneer Press he said, "I remind people I want to be known as a liberal Republican. If that's a dirty word, so be it." In 2004, he broke with party ranks to endorse John Kerry in his bid to unseat George W. Bush as president of the United States.
He was so disenchanted with the Bush administration that he wrote a commentary in the Minneapolis Star Tribune claiming that President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney "spew outright untruths with evangelistic fervor" and calling Cheney an evil man who was the real decision maker in the administration. 
University of Minnesota
Few Minnesotans have held the University of Minnesota closer to their hearts than Andersen. He served on the Board of Regents from 1967 to 1975, as Chair from 1972 to 1975. From 1968 to 1988 he was a Trustee of the University of Minnesota Foundation, presiding over it from 1978 through 1981. (Imagine a Republican today so passionate about public education.)
Voyageurs National Park
One of Elmer Andersen's proudest achievements came in April 1975, when the U.S. Congress passed the legislation establishing Voyageurs National Park—thousands of acres of forests and lakes along Minnesota's northern border. Along with people like naturalist Sigurd Olson, legislator Willard Munger, and famed aviator Charles A. Lindbergh, Elmer Andersen had devoted thousands of hours doing the hard work of persuading landowners, timber industry leaders, politicians, and citizens of the value of this park to future generations. For his work, Elmer Andersen will always be remembered as the "father of Voyageurs National Park."
"It is flattering to have been called the father of Voyageurs Park. I think that I made a difference. But so did many, many other people, more than I could possibly name, who kept the dream alive until it came to fruition. Some of the real heroes were people in the region who opposed their friends or employers to support the park. The park also had help from another real hero—Charles Lindbergh....Charles A. Lindbergh's name deserves a prominent place in the annals of Voyageurs National Park. The man who did so much for the development of aviation also did much for his home state, for the cause of wilderness preservation—and for me." more
What tied the technologically and politically progressive Swedes together is the desire to limit the predatory characteristics of finance.  To build something very difficult, you need patient capital.  Ericsson and Johnson found their patient capital in the military but for a society to really flourish, patient capital has to be found in many places.  This means things like usury laws, democratic controls on money creation, the right for labor to organize politically, and strict regulation of the moneychangers.

Minnesota is a VERY harsh place to live.  Imagine taking your children on a camping trip to the Arctic.  Now imagine that you must survive with the tools you can carry in the back of a wagon.  When you have finally figured out how to turn fertile soil into a means to existence and the other strategies for survival, the crooks come along to cheat you.  Now imagine the passionate debates about how to protect yourselves from the crooks and how to become a valid citizen in your new home.  The debates really got going with the Crash of 1873 and ended 100 years later with the governor of Minnesota (another Swede) on the cover of Time Magazine bragging about the good life in Minnesota.

And then in a decade, it all came apart.  In 1984, Walter Mondale, a product of the progressive traditions of the Minnesota Democratic Farmer-Labor Party was nominated for President.  He would debate President Reagan twice.  I remember watching in rage and frustration as Mondale managed to lose these debates to a man who was beginning to show early-stage Alzheimer's disease.  What so infuriated me was not that Mondale lost, it was because he never once defended the 100 years of progressive victories that brought him to that moment.  (If Mondale had been a Swede, I would have died of embarrassment on the spot. As it was, it almost happened anyway.)

By destroying even the prospect of patient capital, Reagan was undoing the economic systems that allowed for the creation of difficult things.  USA technological leadership would soon be a memory.  Mondale never challenged the assumptions of Reagan's new economic order--he only promised to do it better and make it slightly more humane.  Promising to be Reagan-lite meant Mondale would lose 49 states.

If you stand on the Stone Arch Bridge today and look downriver, you can see one result of Mondale buying into the reactionary economic bullshit that Reagan managed to peddle in those debates.  It is a brand new bridge.  And why is there a new bridge carrying the traffic of I35W?  Because the old one, only 40 years old, had collapsed into the Mississippi in 2007 killing 13.  The Minnesota that the Swedes helped build employing a culture that believed in building it right--and then taking care of it once it was up--was now symbolized by a twisted wreckage.

And the Republican governor, a vile little weasel with a slum-lord's mentality sat at the desk once occupied by towering progressives like Lind, Olson, and Anderson and denied that his hack appointments in the Transportation department had ANYTHING to do with a bridge falling into a river.  The little weasel is running for President these days.  We are so lucky...NOT!


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  3. This is nothing but politics at its worst...What say you?
    The great Tim Pawlenty did this to that state.Its political to get Obama out.Never did they do this when Reagan or Bush were running things.It will all backfire.
    The great Tim Pawlenty did this to that state.Its political to get Obama out.Never did they do this when Reagan or Bush were running things.It will all backfire

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