One of the most colorful characters to ever represent Minnesota in the U.S. Senate was Magnus Johnson. He was like a prairie cyclone at political rallies and county fairs with a booming voice and, smashing his fist on the podium, he could be heard a mile away long before modern speaker systems. He was a radical prairie populist farmer described by one snobbish eastern paper has “uncouth . . . he is a radical and his suits are always wrinkled.”
“It is time you took the bull by the tail and looked him straight in the eye.”
Magnus Johnson, US Senator from Minnesota
He may not have been popular out east, but this Swedish farmer shocked Minnesota politics in 1923. Johnson emigrated to America at 20 years of age in 1891. He started out as a lumberjack in Wisconsin until he saved enough money to purchase 40 acres of wooded land in Meeker County. He soon turned the 40 acres into a farm and expanded it to 320 acres by 1914. It was then he was elected to the Minnesota House under the banner of what was known as the “Nonpartisan League”. This was a conglomeration of prairie populists who strongly supported progressive legislation for the protection of farmers and workers. In 1918 he was elected to the Minnesota Senate and in 1922 unsuccessfully challenged Governor J. A. O. Prues. Johnson was one of the first to run under the banner of the “Farmer Labor Party”.
The U.S. Senate candidate in 1922 for the Farmer Labor Party, Dr. Henrik Shipstead, shocked the dominant Republican Party of Minnesota by beating incumbent Frank Kellogg. It was a combination of the progressives leaving the Republican Party in the post-Roosevelt years, women gaining the right to vote, and prohibition that brought about the surprising Republican defeat. Kellogg had supported prohibition on the federal level, which caused him to lose favor from brewers in his hometown of St. Paul and the many nationalities in Minnesota that enjoyed an occasional brew.
Later in 1923 the Republican Party received another shock with the death of US Senator Knute Nelson. He was the one Minnesota politician able to fuse prairie populism and Republicanism in the previous decades. He was immensely popular in Minnesota as the first Scandinavian US Senator in America and a Civil War veteran who was venerated by his fellow Minnesotans. He was so respected that one of the two statues guarding the front steps of our state Capitol is Knute Nelson.
Governor Prues was the logical candidate for the Republicans in the special election to replace Nelson in 1923. He was former secretary to Senator Nelson and a popular governor. Unfortunately, the same national conditions that brought down Kellogg in 1922 opened the doors for a Magnus Johnson victory in his rematch with Governor Prues in a special election for the U.S. Senate.
Unfortunately, Senator Johnson never impressed anyone as an effective legislator. His medium was rhetoric on the speaking stump and not the art of governing. His prairie prophecies and mixed metaphors did not translate into effective governance and he lost the regular election the next year. He did serve one term in Congress in 1932 and campaigned for governor in 1936. Sadly, he was struck by a car in the 1936 campaign and died trying to campaign from his hospital bed.
Unfortunately, the 2011 legislative session reminds one of Magnus Johnson. Long on rhetoric and short on governing. With only two weeks of the regular legislative session to go it doesn’t appear that the legislative leaders are anywhere close to finalizing their budget. They appear to be gearing up to drop their last best offer on the governor’s desk with only a few days before the end of session with the hopes that he blinks. The governor reminded the legislature in a recent press conference that he did not become a US Senator and Governor by “blinking.” It appears that the governor will have to learn how to officially call a special session if things don’t change soon.
The Republican leadership of both the House and Senate has developed their respective proposals for funding environment and conservation agencies. The conference committee has met once to take testimony from state agencies but has made no steps toward resolving any differences. Neither the House nor Senate proposals are all that positive for protecting our great outdoors. In addition to the substantial reduction in general fund expenditure for the key agencies overseeing our natural resources and environment, there are some really bad policy proposals. The bills weaken permit standards for large feedlots, exempt large ethanol facilities from environmental review, threaten the future of wild rice to benefit mining, allow greater phosphorus pollution into Lake Pepin, repeals protections for the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area, weakens pesticide application standards, and weakens wetland replacement requirements just to name a few.
To paraphrase old Magnus Johnson, legislative leadership needs to take the bull by the tail and get rid of some of his bad policy.