Last week some 400 of Minnesota’s political and community leaders gathered at the University of St. Thomas to celebrate the 90th birthday of former Gov. Al Quie. They were regaled with many stories of his years in Congress and his one term as governor of Minnesota from 1979 to 1982. Woven throughout the celebration were important lessons for any aspiring political leaders today.
Quie’s years in the governorship was no easy ride through the park. He faced a severe budget crisis and relentless partisan bickering. What stood out at the celebration was that each person remembering the events surrounding his governorship noted how he humbly rose above those attacks to find a path forward for the state he loved.
The last two years of Al Quie’s term were especially brutal as the state faced the most severe fiscal crisis since the Great Depression. Soon after Governor Quie entered the State House from a long distinguished career as a congressman from Minnesota’s First District, signs of impending crisis were appearing on the landscape. Starting in 1980, out-of-control inflation and interest rates started wreaking havoc on Minnesota’s economy, particularly in the agricultural, construction and manufacturing sectors. Further compounding the problem for state government was the fact that their budget lacked good internal controls and sufficient reserves to handle the escalating shortfalls. As the 1981 Legislature assembled, it was facing a 16.8% shortfall in revenues to meet the $8 billion budget. During 1981 and 1982, Quie was forced to call six special sessions that strained the patience of this kind and gentle Lutheran farm boy.
At first Republican Quie hoped to be able to solve the budget deficit without raising taxes as he promised during the election, but it was clear that the problem would not be solved with just spending controls. The state enacted an income tax surcharge and an increase in sales tax.
Quie was an exceptional man of honor and earned a reputation as a statesman in his elected service. Therefore, the choice not to seek a second term because of inability to fix the crisis as promised was simply a manifestation of his character. It would also be fair to say that the bruising six special sessions in his last two years and the political strife wore him out.
One thing the environment community may not know today is that Minnesota’s nation leading wetlands protection law was significantly enhanced during Quie’s term on the guidance of his DNR Commissioner Joe Alexander.
The choice not to seek reelection in 1982 allowed Quie to fulfill a personal goal he had dreamed of for years but had put off due to pressing matters of state. He grew up riding horse on the rural landscape of Rice County where his imagination would often take him to the long trail rides of our pioneer forefathers on the western frontier. From the seeds of this imagination grew a dream to someday ride the Continental Divide from Montana to New Mexico. Taking several weeks at a time over a nine-year period, he was able to accomplish this astounding goal riding with many of his old boyhood and newfound horse enthusiast friends. You can read about this journey in Quie’s self-published book Riding the Divide; as a review it is a delightful read.
One of the enchanting stories from this trip occurred toward the end of the first leg in the Montana Rockies soon after leaving office. While visiting with Governor Schwinden of Montana at one of the last governors’ conferences Quie attended, he confided his desire to ride the Continental Divide. The Montana governor was fascinated with this quest and told Quie to give him a call when he reached the little town of Elliston on the Continental Divide Trail because it was just outside of the Montana capitol. Schwinden said he’d love to come visit Quie’s posse if he could. After several weeks on the trail in the days before the proliferation of cell phones, Quie entered the little hamlet of Elliston, which was made up of a saloon and a little grocery store. Not having shaved or showered for several days, he looked more the role of a mountain man trapper wandering in from the back country than that of a former governor.
Entering the little store he realized there was no public phone. He approached the proprietor behind the counter who was showing her years and asked kindly if she could call the governor of Montana for him, explaining to her that he himself was a former governor of Minnesota. Her response, looking at this disheveled grizzly bear of a man in riding clothing, was “Ya, and I used to be Queen Elizabeth!” While it was a humbling reminder that he was no longer in power, after the last few years of trying to resolve the difficult budget crisis it was almost sweet relief to be the unknown mountain man.
I did not get a chance to fully express my appreciation to Quie at his birthday celebration. He truly set a standard of humility and statesmanship that should be looked to by today’s leaders. He set the standard for what Minnesotans expect our elected leaders – have strong convictions, respect the convictions of others and work to find common ground for the good of this beautiful state. Under that standard, Governor Quie will long be remembered as one of our great statesmen despite the difficult decisions he had to make three decades ago.
*Riding the Divide by Al Quie with Carol Pettitt, self-published August 2003. Also quotes obtained from Riding into the Sunset: Al Quie a Life of Faith, Service and Civility by Mitch Pearlstein