Minnesota’s boy wonder, Governor Harold Stassen, came close to the presidency in 1948 fueled by an image of frankness and a record of accomplishment. The farm boy from Dakota County who became a South St. Paul attorney surprisingly received the nomination of the Republican Party for governor in Minnesota at age 31. At the time, the Republican Party was in disarray, but the industrious and well-organized Stassen built a strong team on the energy of young professionals and the last vestiges of the Republican progressives like himself. He would win that election to become the youngest governor in US history and gain reelection in 1940 and in 1942.
Soon after winning the 1942 reelection, he resigned to take a senior Navy post with Admiral William Halsey’s South Pacific staff. He gained a reputation there as one of our nation’s most efficient military administrators as a major player with the fastest buildup of the largest naval force in the history of the world. He would go on to serve with the charter commission that organized the United Nations. Following the war, Stassen turned down opportunities to run for offices in his home state, setting his sights on a bigger prize — the presidency.
In typical Stassen fashion, he came up with a bold and unconventional strategy of building momentum for his unlikely 1948 presidential campaign. His goal was to use electoral success in the small number of primary states at the time (five) to convince the political bosses of the other states that he was the best candidate for the job despite his youth. The Republican insiders were mostly focusing on Ohio Sen. Robert Taft or the eventual winner New York Gov. Thomas Dewey.
As a harbinger of things to come in future presidential elections, Stassen opened a campaign office early and directly announced his candidacy for president as opposed to the usual practice of surrogates creating campaigns to draft their candidate. He also focused on building grassroots support as opposed to schmoozing party bigwigs. He would compete well in the New Hampshire primary against the New York governor, but his candidacy would catch fire with resounding wins in the Wisconsin and Nebraska primaries. These victories did ignite some excitement in the national press in the spring of 1948. Unfortunately, he would later stumble in the last primary in Oregon, giving the insider bosses room to coalesce around their choice of Dewey for president at their convention in Philadelphia.
Stassen became an early front-runner for the 1952 nomination until “Ike” officially entered the race. It was clear that the wonder boy chief clerk for Admiral Halsey was no match for the Supreme Allied Commander of Europe. Stassen would go on to serve as president of the University of Pennsylvania, but became best-known in Republican politics as sort of the Don Quixote tilting against windmills by entering every presidential primary election for the Republican nomination from 1948 through 1992. That repetition somewhat obscures his excellent record as Minnesota’s governor, where he developed well-regarded labor rights legislation supported both by labor and business and created a forerunner to the Office of Management and Budget which resulted in substantial savings to the state during his administration such that he was able to reduce taxes at a record amount for the time.
There is not much political similarity between Stassen and our present Governor Mark Dayton. They are from different parties, Dayton perfected the use of primaries to launch and sustain his political career, and Dayton became governor at over twice Stassen’s age. Nonetheless, Governor Dayton strives to follow in Stassen’s footsteps by leading with a straightforward frankness, demonstrating a willingness to differ from his party’s orthodoxy, and leading with bold ideas. This similarity was demonstrated with Dayton’s budget proposal this year and was further supported this week by his State of the State address to the Legislature.
Regardless of what you think of Governor Dayton’s other initiatives, his proposals in the area of conservation investments have been a refreshing reprieve from over a decade of raids, shifts and gimmicks that have led to significant challenges in protecting our great outdoors. This week the team at Conservation Minnesota has been able to complete our traditional annual report analyzing the Governor’s budget and found a refreshing amount of transparency in his proposal. Our past reports have chronicled a steady decline in conservation investments over the last decade, but Governor Dayton’s budget begins to reverse some of those effects.
Prior to 2002 about 2% of the state’s general fund was commitment to conservation investments. By the end of the last budget cycle, that commitment plummeted to around 0.7%. Even though the Governor’s budget does not increase this percentage, the Governor’s proposal stops the bleeding and starts an honest discussion about how to protect Minnesota’s lakes, precious lands, and way of life. To learn more details about past challenges in conservation funding and our analysis of the Governor’s budget proposal, you can find it in our full report at www.conservationminnesota.org/nogimmicks. You will also find our recommendations for how the Legislature should work to strengthen the proposal.
Therefore, the conservation community appreciates Governor Dayton following in Stassen’s footsteps by submitting a “forthright, courageous and constructive” budget proposal to the Legislature in the conservation area. We hope the Governor’s budget will be a springboard for an constructive discussion of how we can recapture the lost commitment to the protection of our great outdoors, energy independence and our way of life that are huge economic engines to our state. We desire to avoid our past experiences where we have felt like we were tilting against windmills through the legislative process.