State Sen. Gordon Rosenmeier dedicated 30 years to the Minnesota state Legislature. He was instrumental in the formation of the community college system, the state planning agency, the Met Council, and the state’s pollution control agency, three years before the federal government developed the EPA. And all of Rosenmeier’s years were at a time when legislative elections were nonpartisan. Legislators ran without disclosing their political affiliation.
“Rosenmeier met and usually voted with the conservatives in St. Paul but once described himself as a ‘flaming liberal’,” said semi-retired journalist Steven Dornfeld. “Rosenmeier had close personal friends in both camps.”
Dornfeld received a grant from the Minnesota Historical Society to write an article on Rosenmeier for the society’s magazine. Research through 15 boxes of society records, the files at the Minnesota Legislative archives, and Central Lakes College Rosenmeier library records contributed to Dornfeld’s article. The former political writer and editor for the Minneapolis Tribune and St. Paul Pioneer Press spoke at a meeting of the Rosenmeier Board Monday night at Central Lakes College in Brainerd.
“Rosenmeier admired his father Christian’s 10-year tenure in the state Legislature but hadn’t planned on running for office himself. He graduated from the University of Minnesota, then attended law school in California and returned to Little Falls to join the family firm. About a month after he returned, Christian died. Friends encouraged him to run for his father’s seat. Finally, Gordon accepted the challenge, but lost the election. When the victor died in office eight years later, Rosenmeier ran for the Little Falls seat and won.
Dornfeld first covered the Minnesota Legislature while he was in college, in 1967 and 1969.
“In that last year, I was on National Guard duty, up here at Camp Ripley, and that year’s Legislature couldn’t balance the budget, couldn’t agree on other final bills,“ Dornfeld said. “I was worried a bit, that I was going to miss the end of session, but I shouldn’t have been. Gov. (Harold) LeVander called a special session and it lasted until October. I had plenty of time to cover the ending.
“I started with the Minneapolis Tribune in 1971, the year after Rosenmeier lost his seat to DFLer Win Borden. I’d heard stories about the senator during my years in college and there were lots of stories about him floating around. I was told that because of his 30 years, eight consecutive terms, and all his committee chairmanships, he could get just about any bill passed through that he wanted. Sen. Wayne Popham told me he was legendary for doing his homework. Sen. Keith Hughes said that dealing with Rosenmeier was sometimes like walking the plank, especially if it was something the senator didn’t want.”
Rosenmeier was instrumental in the formation of Minnesota’s community college system, the modernization of the state Senate, and the development of professional Senate research staff. He had always wanted state senators to be elected in districts with established boundaries, regardless of population, and house members elected to represent a specific number of voters and wanted to retain or regain the strength of rural, outstate voting blocs. He suggested that the Minneapolis-St. Paul area be allowed no more than 35 percent of legislative seats, a position he lost to time and population shift as well as the U.S. Supreme Court one-man, one-vote decision in 1964.
“Rosenmeier felt strongly about state’s rights, that state government should be a strong balance to federal power,” Dornfeld said. “He was a hunter and fisherman and felt strongly that the land and waters should be taken care of. His support of the Pollution Control Agency’s creation in 1967, three years before the federal government Environmental Protection Agency, demonstrated his commitment to the environment and that states should take a lead role. That same year, he thought the more than 200 communities grown up around the Twin Cities could be better organized and empowered by a regional, metropolitan area government. The Met Council resulted. Rosenmeier was originally opposed to the council but changed his mind as long as members were appointed and not elected. He thought competition with locally elected officials would be an unnecessary hurdle to the new governing board.
“In 1969, Judiciary Committee Chair Rosenmeier heard a bill that would relax restrictions on Minnesota’s abortion laws, three years before the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. The senator was in favor of the bill and it passed out of committee by a close vote. It would be one of the issues that would lead to the end of his 30-year term. Twenty-seven-year old Winston Borden challenged Rosenmeier in 1970. Borden supported water fluoridation (a big issue in 1970 Brainerd). Borden won by 3,200 votes.
“Except for Nebraska in 1934, Minnesota was the only state from 1913 to 1972 that held nonpartisan legislative elections, something that Rosenmeier believed in and fought for during his time in the Senate,” said Dornfeld.
“When he was first elected in 1940, his seatmate was a liberal senator, Bill Novak. They spent a lot of to time together and when Rosenmeier had to be gone on legislative business during session, Novak took care of his correspondence and his legislation. It’s hard to imagine that in today’s political climate. I think he would be very frustrated with how elected officials deal with each other these days. And I think he would say ‘I told you so’ when candidates began identifying with political parties. The state Legislature made it more permanent with legislation in 1972.
“Rosenmeier left the Senate and returned to his law practice after that last race,” said Dornfeld. “I didn’t find anything that suggested he was that politically active afterward. This is the man who never ran for majority leader while in office, or higher office during or after. I’ve found nothing that indicates he worked as a lobbyist or traded on old relationships. He had hunting and fishing cabins near Little Falls and on Leech Lake, he spent time in community activities, and just lived his life.”
In October, 1988, Rosenmeier and old friend Louis Filippi met with Brainerd Community College officials to talk about establishing the Rosenmeier Center for State and Local Government, to be housed at the college. Three months later, Rosenmeier, 81, entered the Little Falls hospital with pneumonia. He died on Jan. 17, 1989.
Dornfeld said “Gordon Rosenmeier’s story deserves to be told and I feel privileged to have the opportunity. Former Gov. Rudy Perpich called Rosenmeier a ‘visionary,” and there is plenty of evidence to support that view.”
DAVID ALLAN PUNDT member of the board of directors for the Gordon Rosenmeier Center for State and Local Government.