The last two years of Al Quie’s term as governor of Minnesota were considered, at that time, the most brutal government fiscal crisis since the Great Depression. Unfortunately, the budget crisis the legislature is now facing has by all accounts surpassed that faced by Quie in 1981 and 1982. There may, however, be a positive lesson from how Quie handled that crisis for our present leaders as they struggle to find a solution to our present budget crisis.
“Ya, and I used to be Queen Elizabeth!” A Montana Shop clerk in the little hamlet of Elliston on the Continental divide, July 20, 1983.*
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. At the end of the 1970s and entering 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 percent 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 with spending controls but after several special sessions to meet the state’s obligations it became clear that tax increases were unavoidable. The state enacted an income tax surcharge and an increase in sales tax. Though this decision to increase revenue was a difficult one, Quie was always quick to point out that he fixed the problem leaving nearly a half billion dollar surplus for his predecessor.
He had promised in his election that he would manage the state budget without increasing taxes or leave office. To his defense, during the 1978 election no one anticipated the depth of the coming economic crisis he would face in the second half of his term. Nonetheless, 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 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.
The choice not to seek reelection allowed him 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 story in his self-published book Riding the Divide; as a review it is a delightful read if you’re into trail riding.
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 is 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 and after the last few years of trying to resolve the difficult budget crisis, it was almost sweet relief to be the unknown mountain man.
Governor Quie can still be seen even today in his late 80s riding in reenactments of the Jesse James Gang raid on the streets of Northfield. I wonder whether the lesson from this story for our politicians today facing an even deeper financial crisis is that someday they too will be forgotten. Minnesotans simply expect our elected leaders to do the job they are elected to do, no matter how difficult. Under that standard, Governor Quie will long be remembered as one of our great statesmen despite unpopular 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