In a connection to place, history and politics, there probably is no more of a unique connection than Duluth and one of Minnesota’s greatest environmental champions who is one tough Finn by the name of Arlene Lehto. She was raised on a resort on the shores of Lake Superior not far from Silver Bay in the 1940s and 50s. Growing up by the crystal-clear waters that would roar upon the shores near her family resort, she gained a deep spiritual connection to the lake. She would marry and leave the lakeshore for a while, but when she returned some 11 years later she found the lake polluted by the nearby Reserve Mining operation.
It was then that Arlene learned to put her tenacious Finn attitude to work through community organizations, helping start and lead the organization named Save Lake Superior. As an older student at the University of Minnesota Duluth, she surprised many by winning a seat in the Minnesota House in 1976. She would play a critical role in the eventual lawsuits that forced Reserve Mining to clean up their operations.
What few may not know about Arlene is that when the DFL convention came to Duluth in 1982, she played a critical role in advancing the role of women in politics. This convention would go down in history for endorsing a young wealthy activist by the name of Mark Dayton for his first statewide race against then U.S. Senator David Durenberger. It was also the place that Paul Wellstone gave his first fiery speech to a DFL convention that vaulted him into the position as a favorite amongst the liberal factions in the party as he sought endorsement for the little-known state auditor’s position.
Back in that era, the DFL conventions were raucous events as competing interests jostled for power. Nothing was scripted and nothing went off as expected. The ‘82 convention did endorse the establishment’s favorite, Warren Spannaus, then Attorney General, as a gubernatorial candidate to take on then faltering Republican Governor Al Quie. His prospects looked good except for the reality that he would face a primary challenge from former Governor Rudy Perpich. Surprising many, Perpich selected a political unknown by the name of Marlene Johnson as his running mate to help energize the then growing feminist faction within the DFL. If elected, Johnson would be the first woman Lieutenant Governor in the state. Many ‘82 feminists convention delegates felt that Spannaus should also select a woman running mate, but he took what he perceived to be the safe route by selecting a farmer from St. Peter by the name of Carl Johnson.
Arlene, an elected state representative from Duluth at the time, chose to take on the “good old boys” network by challenging Carl Johnson for the lieutenant-governor nomination. She would, of course, lose, but it showed the fighting spirit she had throughout her public service. It also showed that DFL party conventions were never scripted and full of excitement.
How things have changed since the DFLers were in Duluth in 1982. This last week both political parties held their conventions. The DFL again in Duluth, and the Republicans in Rochester. From all news reports, the DFL event was very scripted without any surprises or challenges to the establishment. Even the one contested race for Secretary of State had resolved itself on the first ballot without much bloodshed. The party endorsed sitting U.S. Senator Franken and Governor Dayton without any acrimony. The party also avoided a debate on expansion of the dangerous sulfide mining in northeastern Minnesota that many thought would fracture the convention’s harmony.
By contrast, this year’s Republican Convention in Rochester looked more like the 1982 version of the DFL Convention. I know, because I happened to have been a delegate at both events. Typically the Republican Conventions I have attended since being elected as a Republican Representative in 1994 with only a few exceptions have been highly scripted events with little concern of primary contests following the convention. Typically there was little discussion of platforms with carefully choreographed proceedings.
That was not the case in this year’s Rochester Convention. There were several contentious floor debates and even several challenges to the rulings of the chair, some of which the convention surprisingly supported. Strangely, despite the acrimony in the convention, the Republicans left their Rochester united in their desire to win elections similar to that of the past DFL acrimonious conventions.
The delegates surprisingly endorsed a political outsider for the U.S. Senate in James McFadden, who had committed what used to be an unpardonable sin in the Republican Party by indicating his desire to go to the primary regardless of what happened at the convention. Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson grabbed the delegate’s endorsement for governor despite a sure promise of 3 challengers in the primary. Though Johnson will be facing a primary, he was given a big boost by a strong endorsement speech after the 4th ballot by one of his opponents, State Senator Dave Thompson, and then probably one of the most ill-timed blunders in state convention history when his other remaining opponent at the convention, former House Minority Leader Marty Siefert, gave a strange non-withdraw speech indicating he would press on to the primary to a chorus of boos.
Not surprisingly, just like in the days Arlene first cut her teeth in statewide politics, we are facing serious questions about mining and the protection of the Lake Superior watershed. It was clear from the rhetoric, whether scripted or not, from both conventions this year that the development of the dangerous sulfide mining in Northeast Minnesota will be a major issue in this election. It is rare when an environmental issue is a central part of a statewide election, but, similar to 1982, mining will be one of the major narratives that play out through this election. Therefore, Arlene Lehto’s above words on citizen action are certainly no less true today. As conservation voters we need to be fully informed as we enter the debate. Therefore, to engage in meaningful citizen action on mining learn the facts regarding this new dangerous sulfide mining at the Mining Truth website and strap in for one interesting election cycle.
*TPT video interview for Women’s History Month broadcast February 2014