Friday, November 16, 2012

George Pillsbury and the Revival of the Republican Party in Minnesota

A significant story about the virtual collapse of the Republican Party here in Minnesota appeared in today’s local newspaper – front page bottom: STATE REPUBLICANS FORESEE MAJOR CHANGES. Rachel E. Stassen-Berger, one of the few people I follow on Twitter, wrote the piece and it’s very worth reading if you’re from Minnesota (or if the Republican Party is having similar problems in your state).
by Charlie Leck

To me, it sounds like the whipping the Republican Party took here in Minnesota in this year’s election will turn out to be a good thing for Republicans and not a bad thing. It’s forcing that Party to take a careful look at itself and see some of the problems with which it has failed to deal over the last decade or two.

One of my favorite, grand, old Republicans here in Minnesota was the late George Pillsbury. I’d played a number of Wednesday afternoon rounds of golf with this fine gentleman and that had given us plenty of opportunities to chat politics. More recently, Mr. Pillsbury, knowing, from some of our chats on the golf course, that I was a committed Democrat, was willing to converse occasionally about his disappointments with the direction his Party had taken over the last decade. I had recent conversations with him about the subject; however, I also remember having such a conversation with Mr. Pillsbury and my father-in-law, Lyman E. Wakefield, Jr., over twenty years ago, when they both foresaw the developing problems that would eventually mire down their great party here in the state.

Mr. Pillsbury recognized that right-wing radicalism was not conservatism and he worried a great deal about the way his Party was inching ever-further to the right. The movement rightward reached its climax two years ago, when the state GOP nominated an unreasonable, far right-winger to run for governor and the party made it clear there was no compromising on their hard-core positions. At lot of Republicans, like Mr. Pillsbury, looked for an alternative and ran a sensible, reasonable conservative (Tom Horner) for governor as an independent. Many of the most distinguished Republicans in the state turned away from the Party’s nominee and that allowed the Democrats to take over the Governor’s Mansion for the first time in many, many years. The fiasco dealt the Republican Party a very damaging blow (including bankruptcy) from which it has still not recovered.

Shortly before the most recent election, Mr. Pillsbury died (13 October 2012). However, he foresaw what was going to happen in this autumn’s election. He knew there were so many ways for the Republicans to win and they were, instead, choosing the one route that would cause them to crash and burn (that is, the position of ultra-conservatism that locks out too many moderates and intellectual conservatives).

After his death, Mr. Pillsbury’s friend and co-author (of his book, The Pillsburys of Minnesota) wrote this of the fine gentleman’s hope for the renewal of his Party…

“His final political act said much about his abiding concern for his state and nation. Pillsbury was a Republican for most of his days. But since leaving the state Senate in 1982, he has not been a happy one.
“He strived mightily to reform today’s Republican Party, to widen its philosophical tent to include reproductive freedom for women, same-sex marriage, and wider distribution of the fruits of capitalism. He reasoned that aiding the defeat of Sixth District U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, a culture warrior and Tea Party founder, might hasten the transformation he sought.
“At age 91, Pillsbury knew he would not see the fruits of his effort. But as one whose Minnesota frame of reference reached back to Gov. John S. Pillsbury’s arrival at the Falls of St. Anthony in 1855, his sense of stewardship for his state included a long view.”

Mr. Pillsbury believed that Minnesota was a great, great state. He thought it was a fair state that gave everyone, of whatever background, a fair and just chance to succeed and find happiness and prosperity. One of the routes to such success was fair, just and reasonable politics and political discussion and debate. You’d never hear this gentlemen utter an unkind or insulting word about a Democrat. He just simply disagreed with them in some of the slightest ways you’d ever imagine.

Racial and gender justice was not a question for Mr. Pillsbury or a matter of political difference. Why, both parties stood for that! There were just different ways to get there!

Mr. Pillsbury was pleased that I was so committed to my party – and, with a broad smile on his face, he called it a good party “by-and-large!”

Now the state’s Republican Party is looking at the crash that wrecked it on Tuesday night, November 6. Reasonable party leaders are assembling and analyzing what happened. As they do, they are recognizing what George Pillsbury had been trying to tell them for the last decade or two; that is, that the Party must be an open and inclusive one and cannot take hard-core positions that exclude the brightest and best people in the state.

Stassen-Berger quotes the leader of the current state Republican Party as saying, “It was ugly, from the top of the ticket to the bottom, and all across the country. It was a bad night. We have to learn from Tuesday night and move on because the cause is important and there is no time for self-pity.”

As I read through the article I could see that the light has finally come on for many of the outstanding and upstanding Republicans. I want to say to them that they should begin by reading The Pillsburys of Minnesota and then chat with the folks who knew George Pillsbury best. Then rebuild the Grand Old Party of Minnesota the way Mr. Pillsbury had been advocating for so long. The Republican Party here must be grander, bigger, more inclusive, more compassionate, more positive and more hopeful!

There’s deep concern yet, among old-time Republicans, that the Party has fallen into the control of a very small subset of extremely conservative party members who control the endorsement process. Now, to loosen things up again, Republicans are beginning to indicate their willingness to test candidates through party primaries – something they’ve avoided like the plague for the last twenty years. This would help weed out the endorsement of quack candidates who cannot stand up under the pressure of an election campaign.

Though I certainly like the taste of victory, there is nothing I would more exuberantly cheer for than the revival of the real Republican Party in Minnesota – not the crazy one of Michele Bachman, but the reasonable and compassionate one of George Pillsbury of Minnesota.


Some references to George Pillsbury (just in case you are interested):
A Minnesota Matters post by Lori Sturdevant (who co-authored with Mr. Pillsbury their book, The Pillsburys of Minnesota): George Pillsbury: Always a Minnesota steward
A book review by Chuck Leddy, in our local newspaper, of The Pillsburys of Minnesota.
Listen to an interview on Minnesota Public Radio with Lori Sturdevant, George Pillsbury’s co-author of The Pillsburys of Minnesota.

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