Flashback Friday: Perpich Pulled Off Comeback in Return to Governor's Chair 35 Years Ago

November 03, 2017 11:30 AM

Thirty-five years ago, Rudy Perpich made it back to the governor's chair.

This time, the native iron ranger got there all on his own.


On Nov. 2, 1982, Perpich easily defeated Republican Wheelock Whitney , capturing 58.76 percent of the vote, for election as governor of Minnesota.

It was a position he'd held before, but he had not been elected to the job then.

He'd served as Lt. Governor to Wendell Anderson and took over the governorship when Anderson resigned in 1976 to be appointed to the U.S. Senate seat vacated when Walter Mondale was elected vice president.

The backlash that greeted that move was thought to have played a role in the defeat of all the major DFL candidates on the ballot in 1978, including Perpich, who lost to Al Quie and was swept out after just two years on the job.

"I can remember driving back from northern Minnesota to St. Paul with Rudy late one night," recalls Marlene Johnson, his pick for Lt. Governor in 1982, "and we picked up a hitchhiker. Imagine that, right? We actually picked up a hitchhiker, and the guy got in the car and said 'Rudy? I'm so sorry you lost in 1978!'

She added, "That was kind of a common theme he was hearing, so I think he really did feel like there was a road back for him." 

His son agreed, saying his father felt like he never had a chance to put his own stamp on the governorship his first time around.

"He was always policy-driven," Rudy Perpich Jr. said. "Even when he was in the (state) legislature, and when he'd tell people he wanted to be governor, they'd laugh at him. There'd never been a governor from northern Minnesota before. There'd never been a governor of Slavic descent.

"Then, when he actually got there, it was because he'd taken over from Wendell Anderson. He had to keep Wendy's cabinet. The budget had already been mostly locked in. He only had two years. There wasn't time to put in his own people. He just didn't have a lot of room to maneuver."

Perpich said his father knew he wanted to make a run at regaining the governorship. But, at the time, the odds were stacked against him.

"It was very much a shoestring campaign," his son recalls. "He didn't really get into the race until late spring. He didn't have much money. Really, it was just a lot of volunteers and enthusiasm."

"I don't think very many candidates are driving themselves around today the way we were then," Johnson added, "but we were a pretty under-financed campaign."

Indeed, there'd never been a governor in Minnesota who'd served non-consecutive terms. In 1982, he'd have to challenge the DFL's endorsed candidate, state attorney general Warren Spannaus, in the primary just to earn the right to run against Whitney.

Quie had opted not to seek re-election.

"The primary was really the big election," his son said. "I remember he went to bed that night thinking he'd lost. Votes came in more slowly back then. Everything was hand-counted. He was losing when he went to bed. Then I remember he got a call saying things had changed. He had to get up and go down to a victory celebration."

In the general election, Perpich chose Johnson as his Lt. Governor pick, making her the first woman to hold that position.

"Since then, we've all been women," Johnson said pointing to both herself and subsequent successors. "So he was a real change agent. He was a trailblazer in many ways."

The victory party that night was held at the Sawmill Saloon in Virginia on the Iron Range.

"We've proven we can win a campaign and win an election," Perpich told the crowd on hand. "In the very near future, we're going to prove Rudy Perpich will be the governor of the entire state of Minnesota, not just a regional governor."

Yet for his fellow Rangers, the fact that one of them was returning to the governor's office was a definite cause for celebration. Perpich got his start in politics on the Hibbing School Board in the mid-1950s - where he'd pushed for equal pay for women teachers.

"That was his base," his son said. "Those were his people. I just remember the crowd that night. It was so packed in there. We entered from the back and we were trying to get up to the stage as a family." 

He added, "We had to go single-file and it took forever to get there. People were so excited and so was he. The governorship was back within his reach. He knew he'd have the chance to make a good run at making a lot of his dreams come true."

Perpich went on to win re-election in 1986, and served as governor until he was defeated by Arne Carlson in 1990. In that time, he helped push through policies like open enrollment in Minnesota schools and advocated a larger role for the state on the national and international stage.

He helped start the Center for Victims of Torture in St. Paul, worked to land Minnesota its first Super Bowl, which it hosted in January 1992, and got Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to stop in the Twin Cities on his U.S. visit in 1990.

RELATED: A Look Back: History-Changing 1992 Super Bowl Halftime Show in Minneapolis

"He always liked to have a number of projects going at once," his son said of his father, who died of cancer at the age of 67 in 1995.

"Because he said you never knew what was going to work. Sometimes you'd bang your head against the wall and you'd just move on to the next one. But sometimes - like with the Gorbachev visit - it worked out," he said.

"He always moved very fast and had a lot of ideas, but he did that because he knew time was limited. Four-year terms might seem like a lot of time. But it's really not," he added, "and my Dad had so much he wanted to get done."


Frank Rajkowski

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