Minnesota’s Native Son

by Erin Ghere

When Hubert H. Humphrey was a mid-century politician, party endorsements were a toss-up, children grew up idolizing their national leaders and many people wore their politics on their sleeves.
When Humphrey was a politician, it was a position of passion, honor and respect.
This year, the election will most likely be decided by only a minority of the American people who have watched two mainstream candidates run to supposedly bring honor back to a scandal-tarnished White House.
American voters will choose from candidates who have faced only minor competition since they filed for election nearly 18 months ago.
But Minnesota voters are not making that choice so easily — a drastic change after nearly 30 years as a Democratic stronghold.
State voters are sitting on the fence, seemingly unable to decide between Republican Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Democratic Vice President Al Gore.
The indecision is something new for Minnesota given its strong Democratic history.
Humphrey perpetuated much of the image of a Democratic Minnesota. The state has gone Democratic in nine of the past 10 presidential elections. But in half of those, a Minnesota native — Humphrey or Walter Mondale — was on the ballot.
Humphrey, “one of the most influential U.S. senators of his or any time, vice president and almost president,” changed Minnesota politics dramatically and was instrumental in passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, said University political science professor Virginia Gray in her book, “Minnesota Politics and Government.”
“Events in his life … by chance allowed him to be a very unusual and influential politician,” explained Steve Sandell, Humphrey Forum director at the University.
It was the Depression era he grew up in. It was the national leaders he looked up to. It was his understanding of both Northern and Southern points of view. And it was the less popular causes — like civil rights — that he championed.
That well-rounded background allowed Humphrey to be “certainly one of the four or five most influential legislators of the 20th century, and maybe our nation’s history,” Sandell said.
Growing up in the Depression
Humphrey was born in May 1911 in Wallace, S.D. His father owned a small drugstore in nearby Doland.
The Depression hit Doland’s farming economy hard. Humphrey’s father looked to Franklin Delano Roosevelt to pull the country and his family out of the economic crisis.
Humphrey followed his father’s lead, and would later jumpstart his political career as FDR’s Minnesota campaign manager in 1944.
After high school, he attended the University, but the Depression forced him to drop out.
To help his father’s drugstore, Humphrey obtained a pharmacy degree in six months and worked with his father for the next several years.
Then married and with a child, Humphrey returned to the University in the late 1930s to finish his degree.
Older than most of his classmates, he befriended mainly graduate students and some young faculty members, including future Minnesota Govs. Orville Freeman and Harold Stanson, Sen. Walter Mondale and Minneapolis mayor Arthur Naflalin.
“The University was, for those who graduated then, a gateway to the world,” Sandell said. “They left the University to enter a world of war and challenged a type of democracy that was still weathering the storm.”
It was where Humphrey’s got some of his passion, fervor and excitement, Sandell added.
A grassroots beginning
Upon his commencement in 1939, Humphrey moved to Louisiana for graduate school. There he got a firsthand look at a society separated by race and attitudes of segregation, Sandell said.
Humphrey later returned to Minnesota and — only 19 days before the primary — jumped into the 1943 Minneapolis mayoral race. He lost, but quickly realized the only way to win was to secure the farmer-labor vote.
It was a realization that made Humphrey a dominant figure in Minnesota politics for the next 30 years.
Along with famous Minnesotans — former Sen. Eugene McCarthy, Naflalin and U.S. ambassador Max Kampelman — Humphrey combined the state’s Democratic and Farmer-Labor parties.
The farmer-laborites were coming off violent strikes in the 1930s in which some of their own men were killed, Sandell explained.
And the Democratic party was “thoroughly out of character with the rest of the state,” Gray said. It had only won more than 12 percent of the vote in three gubernatorial elections in a 28-year period.
The melding of the two parties led to a modern DFL which holds six state congressional seats, one of its U.S. Senate seats, and control of the state Senate.
“It was probably the most important purely political contribution anyone has made to Minnesota politics,” Sandell said of the merger.
It also characterized Humphrey as a strong leader, but not without a human dimension.
“(Humphrey) was not known for keeping the troops in line or punishing dissidence. His leadership, rather, was exercised through rhetoric and, particularly, enthusiasm,” Gray said.
His “Midwest appeal was so absolutely genuine and his disappointments were evident,” Sandell said. “People felt that they could empathize with him.”
It was that leadership and down-to-earth likability that was the catalyst for Humphrey to win the next Minneapolis mayoral election.
Championing civil rights
Facing a city separated by race, Humphrey initiated civil rights in Minnesota. He eliminated gambling and prostitution in a corrupt police department and implemented a Fair Employment Practices Act.
In 1948, Humphrey was appointed to the Democratic National Committee’s platform committee. There, he pushed for a civil rights plank but was refused.
Instead, he was allowed 10 minutes to address the national convention. He gave a powerful speech, Sandell said, and after passing by a single vote, the committee agreed to add civil rights to its platform.
The party’s Southern democrats, nicknamed the Dixiecrats, promptly withdrew from the convention and formed their own party, said University history professor Hy Berman. That withdrawal was the beginning of their transformation from southern Democrats to Republicans.
“It was a turning point in the history of politics and the history of the nation,” Berman said.
Even with the turmoil, Humphrey took the civil rights plank and rode it through to the vice presidency.
From 1948 to 1964, he served Minnesota in the U.S. Senate. There he was instrumental in passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It had passed the House before President Kennedy was killed in November 1963, but the Senate was another matter.
President Johnson championed the bill as Kennedy’s legacy and Humphrey overcame a filibuster by southern Senators to pass the “premier piece of civil rights legislation in the 20th century,” Sandell said.
The win also solidified Humphrey as Johnson’s vice presidential choice. Unfortunately, Sandell said, it was then when his luck ran out.
His dedication to Johnson — who the public blamed for the Vietnam War — and concern for civil rights, the country’s anti-war sentiment, and recent assassinations of prominent leaders, including Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, “made politics for a liberal impossible,” Sandell said.
Humphrey was deserted by liberals for supporting the war, by laborites for civil rights and by students when they became disillusioned.
When Johnson announced he would not run for reelection in 1968, Humphrey won the Democratic nomination but lost to President Nixon.
He returned to politics in 1972 and served in the U.S. Senate until his death in 1978 but with little national prominence.
A changing nature of politics
Since Humphrey’s time, party strength and impact has waned significantly, Berman and Sandell agree.
Party conventions just aren’t the same, Berman said.
There was a time when party platforms were argued over, when presidential nominations were a surprise and when conventions weren’t seen as four-day paid advertisements.
“Political issues counted then,” he explained. “The conventions resolved political issues.”
Today conventions are too scripted to create the kind of change the 1948 Democratic convention caused, he continued. “No convention today would have that kind of impact.”
At that time, a party’s nominee would be a surprise, often a close fight between several candidates that came down persuading state delegates even on the convention floor.
Today, party nominees are decided during primaries. For each primary win, candidates get a number of delegates. In the end, the numbers are tallied and there are no surprises.
The media are now forcing candidates to announce their running mate before the convention as well, Sandell said.
There are several reasons for the change, Sandell explained. But the biggest, he said, is the lack of leadership from political parties.
Parties can no longer deliver voters or money, Sandell said. Latching on to the party does not give candidates the same respect it once did, and party endorsements don’t hold the same stature.
Sandell pointed to recent Minnesota elections as examples. In this election’s U.S. Senate race, the DFL endorsed state Sen. Jerry Janezich, but Mark Dayton won the primary.
Most people can’t name state or national party leadership any longer, he added — a staunch difference from the days of Humphrey’s charisma.

Erin Ghere welcomes comments at (612) 627-4070 x3218. She can also be reached at [email protected]