How to Get Mangled in Minnesota Politics: Sandy Keith Succumbs to Sympathy Vote

The Keith victory party fizzled on primary election night in Minnesota. The 400 assembled politicos had spent the night mumbling over their drinks in gloomy groups of three or four, as early returns indicated that the convention-endorsed Democratic ticket was taking the worst beating in memory. Their candidate for governor, 37-year-old A. M. (Sandy) Keith, entered the room shortly after 11 p.m., and the faithful desperately attempted a raucous cheer. Keith smiled gamely as he conceded defeat, but his wife had obviously been crying.

Her ambitious husband's political career may well be ended, but she could have been weeping for Minnesota Democrats too. The once-proud party of Hubert Humphrey, created in 1944 when he merged Democrats and Farm-Laborites into the Democrat-Farmer-Labor Party, had been humiliated by one of its own, Governor Karl F. Rolvaag. Rolvaag, dumped by the party organization, decided to run for a second term anyway, and clobbered Keith in the September 13 primary by a margin of more than two to one to become the now-chastened Democrats' candidate for Governor. The blow to party prestige was compounded that night as Rolvaag's running-mate defeated the party convention's candidates for Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General.

Minnesota politics has slithered into the national press twice this year -- in June when the DFL convention refused to renominate Rolvaag, endorsing instead his Lieutenant Governor, Keith, and three months later when Rolvaag won the primary so decisively. Actually neither event was in the least surprising at the time it occurred.

What shocked almost everyone, however, was the Governor's decision to take on his own party leaders. Rolvaag was on a plane to Cincinnati well before the convention officially rejected him. After a Governors' conference there he retreated to Florida, apparently a defeated old man licking his wounds far from the secene of his humiliation. Vice President Humphrey, the party's titular leader, publicly advised him not to run against Keith, and it seemed inevitable that Rolvaag, a faithful D.F.L. drone for 18 years, would abide by the party's decision.

But two weeks later Rolvaag was back in Minnesota, a declared candidate and almost instantly a sure winner. He had a simple but ultimately devastating slogan -- "Let the people decide." The usually accurate Minnesota Poll, operated by the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, showed in late July that the party rank-in-file would decide in favor of Rolvaag by a margin of more than 20 per cent.

The governor's triumph over the party pros, who were sure they could dump him, can be explained in two words -- sympathy and money.

The conventional explanation DFL-ers gave for jettisoning Rolvaag was his "bad image." The governor unquestionably appears dour, remote, and uninspiring to the public. His face looks terrible on television, and he is a nervous public speaker who mumbles choppy, barely coherent answers when grilled on panel shows.

While the party pros were right in appraising Rolvaag as less than charismatic, they failed to see that he is a very easy man to feel sorry for. By re-entering the race, Rolvaag became a courageous underdog fighting the undemocratic party leadership. Still his campaign would never have succeeded had his opponent been anyone but lieutenant governor Sandy Keith -- a perfect villain for the drama.

All of Keith's vote-getting virtues have a treacherous potential for turning into liabilities. This year he decided to make youth and "dynamic leadership" his selling points. But the backlash from older voters, repulsed at seeing the middle-aged Rolvaag displaced by his ambitious lieutenant governor, largely accounts for Keith's failure.

With ostentatious casualness he registered on the official ballot as "A.M. ('Sandy') Keith." His main campaign brochure featured a carefully cropped photo of Keith beside the late President Kennedy waving triumphantly at a D.F.L. rally.

Keith is well-educated (Amherst and Yale Law) and speaks eruditely. He challenged Rolvaag to debate him in public or at least discuss his stand on substantive issues like Minnesota's taxation system. In the emotion-charged campaign atmosphere the Governor's refusal to do either went virtually unnoticed.

Even Keith's good looks and aggressive manner turned against him. A Republican leader called him a "smiling Barracuda" in June and the label stuck. Keith couldn't escape the role of the brash subordinate turning against his boss.

Sympathy Remains

The initial burst of sympathy for Rolvaag might have faded away by election time were it not for his remarkably well-financed campaign organization. During the two weeks after the convention, Rolvaag formed a coalition with a Minneapolis trucking executive, Robert Short. Short -- who has owned things like the largest hotel in Minneapolis and the Los Angeles Lakers -- has been looking for years for a chance to snatch a major political office. He lingered in the shadows of the June convention as a possible compromise candidate for governor in case the Rolvaag and Keith factions became deadlocked.

When Rolvaag offered Short the lieutenant governor slot on his "independent" ticket, the bandwagon was rolling. Rolvaag soon had the influential support of Twin Cities labor unions. The "Short for Lieutenant-Governor" and "Rolvaag-Short" campaigns were models of logistic efficiency. Billboards, bumper stcikers, newspaper ads, television and radio spots saturated the state.

While Rolvaag's campaign flourished financially, Keith's never got off the ground. The whole D.F.L. endorsed slate bemoaned its lack of funds. Keith even had to cancel a television appearance the week before the election when the dollars ran out. The rats with money may have left Kenth's ship simply because it was sinking. More likely, they deserted him because of his connection with what Minnesotans -- particularly Republicans -- loosely call "the insurance scandal."

The "insurance scandal" has been a political football in the state for more than a year and a half. What actually happened remains obscure even now. It began in early 1965 when rumors circulated through Minnesota insurance offices that the American Allied Insurance Co., a St. Paul firm which insured high-risk drivers was financially unstable and that three Chicago brothers were diverting most of the premiums into their own pockets.

Rolvaag's administration did nothing but deny rumors until June when they took the insolvent firm to court and ordered them to cease doing business. At first it seemed that the Democrats were going to use the case simply to show off the investigative powers of an obscure attorney general--Robert Mattson--who would be up for reelection in 1966. But in late October a federal grand jury charged 17 involved in the case, including Rolvaag's state insurance commissioner, with fraud. Republicans wanted to know why Rolvaag hadn't acted earlier, and the case was swept under the carpet where it will officially remain until the post-election trial of the accused.

Insurance and Keith

While the American Allied case became a general embarrassment to all Minnesota Democrats, it was always agony for Sandy Keith. From April, 1964 to February, 1965, Keith had been employed --at $500 per month -- as general counsel and vice-president of U.S. Mutual, a subsidiary of American Allied. Even his friends admit he was guilty of incredible naivete and poor judgment in accepting the job. Republicans made it clear that the American Allied case would be their big issue this fall and Keith's vulnerability helped scare away D.F.L. financial support for the primary battle.

Why with Keith so vulnerable did the Democrats refuse to endorse Rolvaag in June? The roots of their decision to dump the Governor go back to the early '60's -- the golden days of Minnesota politics.

Minnesotans tend to be a proud, even chauvinistic group. They glory in their lakes, their baseball team, their culture (Minneapolis' Gutherie Theater), and their "heartland of America" state character. Minnesota politics, particularly with Hubert Humphrey's vigorous D.F.L., always seemed a bit more exciting and nationally important than anyone else's.

In A Thousand Days Arthur Schlesinger called the Minnesota delegation the key to Kennedy's victory in the 1960 National Democratic convention. The D.F.L.'s national power was graphically shown as the governor, Orville Freeman, now Secretary of Agriculture, nominated Kennedy, Senator Eugene McCarthy nominated Stevenson, and Humphrey remained a candidate himself.

By 1962 the once-mighty Democrats were in trouble at home. For the first time since 1954 they did not control the governorship (a tremendously powerful position in Minnesota where the legislature is elected without party designation). Furthermore, they had little chance of defeating powerful incumbent Elmer L. Anderson.

The most rampant Republican rumors allege that the Democrats calculated they had no chance and preferred to sacrifice Rolvaag rather than a promising young man like State Attorney General Walter Mondale (now U.S. Senator). It's more likely that Rolvaag, lieutenant governor for the last eight years, seemed the strongest candiate despite his inability to stir up anyone's enthusiasm.

Rolvaag didn't really win the 1962 election; Anderson lost it with a campaign that even he privately admitted was remarkably inept. Anderson had won in 1960 largely because of the votes he picked up in the traditionally Democratic iron ranges in the state's far north. In 1962 Anderson foolishly attacked a northern Minnesota DFL congressman -- John Blatnik -- so sacrosanct that he is running this year without opposition.

The Democrats sent up as a trial balloon, a charge that Anderson had ordered concrete to be poured in freezing weather. This reportedly resulted in substandard construction of a stretch of Highway 35, which he wanted finished before election time. The governor's loud and righteous denials turned the accusation into the campaign's biggest issue and led to his defeat.

As it was Rolvaag won by 91 votes out of more than 1,200,000 cast -- and that was after a four-month recount. The victory soured as soon as Minnesotans became convinced that the Democratic charges about Highway 35 were fabricated. Rolvaag's showing in public opinion polls was abysmal -- often fewer than 40 per cent indicated approval.

Rolvaag's record as governor has been good and getting better. At first his skirmishes with holdover Anderson appointees who refused to resign made him seem ineffectual. But in 1964 and 1965 he accumulated a strong list of legislative achievements including better mental illness programs, a fair-employment act, and a system of state junior colleges. Rolvaag has delighted Democrats and infuriated conservatives with his rigid opposition to a state sales tax and flashed impressive. executive power this spring by vetoing a legislative redistricting bill and getting a new version which he signed within two weeks.

But he struck out as a party man. He appointed his own associated to key positions instead of party stalwarts. Always remote to the DFL hierarchy, Rolvaag particularly annoyed the regulars by refusing to stump for legislative candidates in 1964.

In July, 1965, the D.F.L. executive committee met at Sugar Hills, a northern Minnesota resort, and decided that Rolvaag could not win and should not run in 1966. No written resolutions came out of the conference but when word of what had happened there leaked to the Minneapolis papers in September, Rolvaag was as good as dumped.

The D.F.L. convention nine months later was gruelling and bitter but still something of an anti-climax. Keith needed twenty ballots to win its endorsement but Rolvaag didn't even stay for the finale. The governor hoped to block Keith and force the convention to adjourn without endorsing anyone, but even six months of vigorous Rolvaag campaigning in early 1966 and growing apprehension over Keith's dangerous liabilities couldn't turn the Democrats from the course set at Sugar Hills.

While the Democrats were clawing at each other's throats, Minnesota Republicans were proving very agreeable opponents. The Republicans' campaign mistakes have balanced out the D.F.L. internal split so thoroughly the November 8 gubanatorial election could end in another dead heat.

The Republicans began by coosing the weakest of three potential candidates for governor. Anderson, the self-made loser in 1962, was still the party's strongest man and could have beaten either Rolvaag or Keith. But the former governor played his cards wrong again. He feigned non-candidacy through most of 1966, hoping finally to be the compromise choice of a deadlocked convention. It didn't work.

Instead they picked Harold Levander, a relatively unknown St. Paul lawyer who is running for statewide office for the first time. Levander held on to his support among rural conservatives at a long confused convention in late June. But Rolvaag had not yet declared his candidacy and Republicans wasted their convention time attacking Keith's "craven ambition" and "assassination of a friend."

In some ways Levander's campaign has been shrewdly planned. During the D.F.L. primary struggle he made the traditional trips to the outstate boondocks, solidifying his rural strength. That left 85 per cent of his campaign time in September and October for wooing the big city votes in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Levander has the kind of qualifications that win elections in Minnesota. He has a solid record of athletic, scholastic, and business success -- all within the state. He is Swedish -- ethnically perfect for Minnesota's heavily Scandinavian population (though on this score no one can match Rolvaag, this score no one can match Rolvaag; gid pioneer classic Giants In The Earth). Levander also has a reputation for forceful oratory; he was a star schoolboy orator and later taught public speaking.

But the stream of campaign rhetoric emanating from Levander headquarters has been surpassingly banal and has prevented his campaign from generating any real momentum. He started by labeling the Republican ticket the "integrity team." That did not catch, but Levander went right ahead and made his main campaign slogan "Let's be proud of Minnesota again." In an attempt to humanize their candidate the Republicans borrowed a leaf from John Lindsay's book and started issuing pamphlets asking, "What kind of guy is Harold Levander?"

The Republicans' big hope for victory has always been the insurance scandal. Three weeks ago Levander added sensational new fuel to a fire Republicans have been stoking for the last year and a half. He demanded the Rolvaag explain a $2000 campaign check from the notorious American Allied insurance empire dated January, 1965 -- just before the furor began.

The charge might be crushing proof of D.F.L. corruption if the party had accepted the money. It didn't Levander is trying to prove that they held the check until American Allied was declared insolvent in August, 1965, but he doesn't appear to have any way to make the charge of an "illegal contribution" stick.

Rolvaag, meanwhile, has been widely non-campaigning. He doesn't answer Levander's charges or even recognize his opponent by name in speeches that monotonously tick off his achievements of the last three and a half years.

The D.F.L.'s biggest and still unresovled problem is naturally party unity. After the primary Keith brooded at his home in Rochester for three days. Bowing to party pressure he then announced his support of Rolvaag "for the good of the party." Since then he's made several appearances at D.F.L. rallies and spoken half-heartedly in support of the now official ticket. Humphrey, who wisely sat on the sidelines during the primary fight, has returned to lend his waning prestige to Rolvaag's campaign and patch up the party's wounds.

But Keith and his band of young Turks and old liberal idealists are anything but placated. Their big worry, observers say, is not Rolvaag, but Short, who clearly has his eye on the governorship in 1970. Short is a new-style politician like Pennsylvania's Shapp, with money and ambition, but little else.

If Rolvaag wins narrowly and Short wins big next Tuesday, as both very likely will, the victory will have a double irony. For Rolvaag it will mean being saddled once again with a lieutenant governor who wants to use the position as a stepping-stone to the governorship. The plight of DFL's intellectual aristocracy is even worse though, for if the Democrats win, leadership of what once was a potent arm of liberalism will fall to a crochety maverick they tried to repudiate and an opportunist they throoughly mistrust