Flashback Friday: US Senate Race in 1978 Pitted Johnnie vs. Tommie

September 22, 2017 10:19 AM

Saturday marks the annual St. John's/St. Thomas football game, which this year is being played at Target Field.

The game between the two MIAC archrivals didn't come until later in the season in 1978. St. Thomas won that matchup 21-3 on Nov. 11 in Collegeville.


The biggest Tommie-Johnnie contest that fall, though, had wrapped up several days earlier.

It came in the special election for one of Minnesota's two U.S. Senate seats. It was the seat that had belonged to former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, who had died that past January after a battle with cancer.

His wife Muriel was appointed by then-Gov. Rudy Perpich to take his place until a special election was held, but Muriel was not going to be a candidate in that race.

Instead, it pitted Democratic businessman and former sports franchise owner Bob Short, a St. Thomas graduate, against Republican David Durenberger, a St. John's alum whose father George had been a longtime athletic director and coach at the school.

Short, who had owned the NBA's Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers and Major League Baseball's Washington Senators/Texas Rangers, had just emerged from a brutal DFL primary. He defeated the DFL's endorsed candidate Donald Fraser, who later became mayor of Minneapolis.

It was a race in which the more conservative Short and Fraser clashed on several issues, including abortion and Fraser's position on restricting the use of motorboats and snowmobiles in the Boundary Waters.

"I always got the feeling Bob was swimming a little upstream," said Durenberger looking back. "It's hard when you're taking on the party like he was. He won the primary, which showed Fraser was probably too liberal for a lot of Democrats in the state at the time. But he had an uphill climb.

"I know I was the beneficiary of a number of Fraser supporters who had probably never voted for a Republican in their lives. But they were upset about how the primary ended."

That race ended Sept. 12, meaning the matchup between Short and Durenberger was just getting started 39 years ago this week.

"There's no doubt (the primary) damaged my Dad," Short's son Kevin said. "It was bloody and divisive. The party had been thrown into such turmoil that it was hard to put back together."

It was proving a tough year to run as a Democrat in Minnesota regardless.

President Jimmy Carter's popularity was falling, and there were lingering bad feelings from the year before when DFL Governor Wendell Anderson had resigned, then was appointed by his successor Rudy Perpich to fill the state's other Senate seat.

That seat was vacated when Walter Mondale stepped down after his election as Carter's Vice President.

Both Anderson and Perpich were also up for election in 1978, challenged by Republicans Rudy Boschwitz and Al Quie.

Durenberger said the governor's race had actually been his first choice, but the party seemed settled on Quie as Perpich's challenger.

"I wanted very much to be governor, but I was lucky to become a Senator," he said. "I wouldn't trade the three terms I served for anything. It was an experience beyond belief. But at the time, the governor's race was the one I was most interested in."

Election night proved a difficult one for all three DFL candidates on the ballot. Short, Anderson and Perpich each went down to defeat. Durenberger garnered more than 61 percent of the vote in his race.

It was a tough setback for Short, who had been involved in Democratic politics for years, and had served as the treasurer of the Democratic National Committee during Humphrey's run for President in 1968.

"My Dad always wanted to be a politician," Kevin Short said. "He grew up a poor Irish kid in Minneapolis. And (former Farmer-Labor Governor) Floyd B. Olson was his hero. My Dad idolized him.

"It's funny because most people in 1978 only knew my Dad as that super-conservative rich guy, but my family had a long background with the Labor Party."

Short said his father was proud to be a graduate of St. Thomas. Though he doesn't recall his Dad holding Durenberger's St. John's degree against him during the campaign.

"I don't think that really came up," he said. "They were focused on other things."

Short died of cancer four years after the race. After his years in the Senate, Durenberger went on to chair the National Institute of Health Policy at ... gulp .... St. Thomas.

Though he said he's always made clear what side he's on when it comes to the Tommie-Johnnie rivalry.

"It never came up much in all the time I was there," said Durenberger, who retired in 2014. "Except for this time of year. Then I was always the guy wearing red when everybody else was wearing purple. I'd always sit on the visitor's side when the games were at St. Thomas."

He added, "I made no bones about it. I've always been a Johnnie."


Frank Rajkowski

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