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Summer’s flurry of campaign activity preceding the Aug. 12 primary election and the Nov. 4 general election has spurred longtime political activist Jack Puterbaugh, an Isanti County native, to reflect on how the political structure has changed over the years.
Puterbaugh, now a resident in assisted living at the Walker Place in Minneapolis, loves to tell stories from his personal political history. He has authored 61 history columns, which have been published in the Isanti County News, and he has been a featured speaker in his Minneapolis living complex.
Strike up a conversation and Puterbaugh can talk for hours about his ties with the Minnesota DFL Party, his appointment as a state liquor commissioner, his work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and his years as a classroom teacher.
The political landscape has changed considerably, Puterbaugh said. He said television is currently the driving force for most campaign spending. TV was used as early as 1954 in Minnesota, Puterbaugh said. The introduction of big money by large donors has also taken over many campaigns, he said.
“People dislike and mistrust government,” Puterbaugh said. This public feeling has been caused by gridlock, more on the national level than at the state level, he added.
Puterbaugh’s favorite time to follow political history in the state is from 1938 to 1963. Harold Stassen, a Republican, was elected governor in 1938 and Puterbaugh recalls that Stassen was the youngest governor, at age 31, to be elected in Minnesota. Stassen served as governor until 1943. C. Elmer Anderson (Not the founder of ECM Publishers, Inc.) was elected lieutenant governor in 1938 at age 26.
Puterbaugh said Stassen announced in 1942 that if re-elected, he would serve through the legislative session and then resign to serve in the U.S. Navy. Stassen resigned and Lt. Gov. Ed Thye became governor. After service in World War II, Stassen was president of the University of Pennsylvania. In popular culture, his name has become most identified with his fame as a perennial candidate for other offices, most notably and frequently president of the United States.
Thye served as governor from 1943-47 and then was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 1947 and served in that post until 1959.
Puterbaugh’s recollection of gubernatorial years in Minnesota continues with Luther Youngdahl being elected governor in 1946. Anderson was again elected lieutenant governor. Anderson was re-elected to that position again in 1950 with Youngdahl re-elected governor that year. Supreme Court Justice Harold Peterson was selected the DFL candidate after many ballots, Puterbaugh said.
Anderson became governor in 1951 when Gov. Youngdahl was appointed to a federal judgeship, which he held until 1978.
During these years, the governor and lieutenant governor were elected separately. Governors and lieutenant governors did not begin running as a team until 1972.
Anderson served as governor until 1954 when he was defeated by Orville Freeman. Karl Rolvaag was elected lieutenant governor in 1954 and continued to hold that office until 1962, when he ran for governor and defeated then Gov. Elmer L. Andersen in a very close election decided after a recount by only 91 votes. It was often said: “What’s the difference between a Swede and a Norwegian? 91 votes.”
Puterbaugh notes that Freeman and Rolvaag were the only two World War II veterans who became governor.
Freeman was a Marine and Rolvaag a tank man serving under Gen. George Patton, Puterbaugh recalls. Both were commissioned officers and were injured in the line of duty, he said.
Much of the information Puterbaugh gleaned about Rolvaag came during his years of working for Rolvaag when he was lieutenant governor.
Following military battles, Freeman and Rolvaag fought battles for transportation. Freeman was involved in the resolution of the Interstate Highway Act, which included 903 miles of interstate highways on 90, 94 and 35. Total cost was to be $1 million a mile. A decision was made under Freeman’s leadership to purchase right of way for metropolitan interstate roads.
“Democrats are not always the big spenders,” Puterbaugh said, chuckling.
Freeman attempted to gain a fourth term in 1960 but was defeated by then Sen. Elmer L. Andersen. Then Sen. John F. Kennedy won the state of Minnesota by 25,000 votes and Freeman lost to Andersen by 25,000 votes.
Puterbaugh calls Andersen “as a very decent person.” He said one of his first bills adopted as governor pertained to welfare, which was later recognized by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who named the human services building in Andersen’s honor.
During the 1950s and early 1960s, Puterbaugh said state politics was heavily nonpartisan. Caucuses then were labeled Conservatives and Liberals, Puterbaugh said.
Campaigning was very different in the 1950s and ‘60s, Puterbaugh said, with 12 state television stations organizing a program to meet state political candidates. Puterbaugh also recalls a statewide sample ballot being sent out to every household in the state. The mailing contained a perforated His and Hers ballot.
Looking at the major state election races in 2014, Puterbaugh said he sees “no big uprising” against incumbent Gov. Mark Dayton or against incumbent U.S. Sen. Al Franken.
“Things can change overnight, however,” Puterbaugh said. He does foresee more influence of the Tea Party this election round.
Talking about President Barack Obama’s terms in office, Puterbaugh said the record is still out.
“Our government is in trouble,” Puterbaugh said, noting that “the failure to get together and compromise on issues is very disheartening.”
Puterbaugh continues to follow politics by reading a daily newspaper.
“Some people go to the movies; I follow politics,” Puterbaugh said. Other than being a DFL activist, Puterbaugh said he ran for public office only once and lost in an attempt to win a Braham School Board seat in 1976.
Through his DFL ties, he had opportunities to meet former Presidents Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy. Puterbaugh, because of his position with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was also on the advance team preparing for then President Kennedy’s visit to Dallas, Texas, in 1963.
Puterbaugh has a large collection of newspaper clippings, photographs and other political items, such as a book signed by former President Truman. He also has a signed letter to his father from former presidential candidate Wendell Willkie. He has given other political memorabilia to the Isanti County Historical Society.
Howard Lestrud can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.