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Minnesota governor lost 4-month recount by only 91 votes but classily stepped aside

Recount cost Elmer L. Andersen a second term as governor

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The year was 1962 and Elmer Andersen, eventual publisher of the Princeton Union-Eagle, was seeking re-election as Minnesota's governor. 

He had been in office for two years and was looking forward to the first four-year term ever for a Minnesota governor after the Legislature changed the term length. He held a lead of 52% to 48% in the final poll before the election and had been been endorsed by a majority of the state's newspapers.

In the final week of the campaign, U.S. Sen. Hubert Humphrey (a Democrat, while Andersen was a Republican) led, as it turned out, a bogus accusation by the DFL concerning a section of I-35 near Hinckley, alleging that Andersen wanted to hasten the road's completion and have a dedication the Thursday before the election. A highway technician named Bob O'Donnell reported that he'd found some substandard concrete and then Humphrey had his office report in the final week of the campaign that federal highway funds to Minnesota would be suspended until questions about I-35 were answered.

As it turned out, Humphrey had no authority to suspend funds. But damage had been done to Andersen's campaign with only a week to go before the election. Later on O'Donnell, the highway worker who initiated the charges, was suspended for two weeks for making false statements. And then he quit his job.

Early returns from the Nov. 6 election showed Andersen ahead by 737 votes out of 1,267,502 that were cast. Then opponent Karl Rolvaag, who had been lieutenant governor for eight years (back then the governor and lieutenant governor ran separately), took the lead and by Friday of that week, Andersen again had a lead. By Saturday Rolvaag was back in the lead. Near the end of November the state canvassing board decided, after amended returns, that Andersen had won by 142 votes. 

A three-judge panel was organized to oversee a recount and that counting began on Dec. 20. Tom Swain, who had been Andersen's chief of staff during part of his two-year term, told me in an interview this week that the Republicans had 100 counters, the Democrats 100, and there are 100 who were neutral. 

"They were deployed all over the state," Swain said. "We told our people that if there was a flyspeck on a ballot, challenge it. And I'm sure they (Democrats) did the same."

The Republicans challenged 97,000 ballots and that figure was reduced to 2,000 by the three-judge panel. On March 20, 1963, more than four months after the election, the panel declared Rolvaag the winner by 91 votes, about 1 per county, Swain told Star Tribune writer Curt Brown in a piece about the 1962 recount that ran in last Sunday's paper. 

"So for all those people who think their votes don't count, just go back and look at that one from 1962," Swain said in Brown's story. 

During the recount Andersen stayed in the governor's office and Rolvaag, with a new lieutenant governor in place, spent his time in a tiny State Capitol basement office as he awaited results of the recount.

The decision by the three-judge panel came on a Friday and Andersen and Swain had lunch at the St. Paul Athletic Club, talked the situation over and decided to accept the decision despite top Republicans wanting Anderson to appeal the result in court. 

"The public would have been upset," Swain told me. "That would have been inappropriate (to stay in office  for the legislative session while an appeal was settled in court). It was handled in an upright manner."

Back in the summer of 1977, a year after Andersen had purchased the competing Princeton newspapers — the fledgling Princeton Eagle of which I was editor, and the Princeton Union — and then combined them into the Union-Eagle, he called me into his office in downtown Princeton and asked my thoughts after one year with the new paper. We talked for about an hour and part of our conversation included him reminiscing about the recount that cost him a second term as governor.

He told me that in the intervening years, during which, by the way, he had become a very successful businessman, he occasionally thought of the recount but thought his concession had been handled correctly, that it had been good for the state for him to move on.

Swain, with a 57-year perspective, agrees. "I don't like to lose," he said, "but it was a good process. There were good people on the three-judge panel and their (Democrats) attorneys were good people. It was absolutely the right thing." 

Swain, who served a term as mayor of Lilydale across the river from St. Paul after being elected at age 85, bemoans the loss of civility in government and says public service is very important (he's still on the Lilydale planning commission at age 99). He thought the comments on Thursday by President Trump, alleging voter fraud, were horribly out of line and that his friend Elmer would say the same. And he's worried about divided government, both nationally and in Minnesota. 

"Sure, we disagreed with Democrats on some things back then," he said, "But you got together and compromised. One of the great pleasures of my life was serving with Elmer who died in 2004. He would try to bring the two sides together."

On Saturday, March 23,1963, the day after the decision was made to accept the recount decision, Andersen held a press conference and his remarks were later printed in a pamphlet titled "After the Most Careful Consideration."

"Today ends one chapter, admittedly a shorter chapter than I had intended," he said. "But there are more to be written. I am disappointed but not the least discouraged. I am deeply grateful to the people of Minnesota for the privilege that has been mine to serve as governor . . . My main activity will continue to be in the field of community and public service, as it has been for some years."

Andersen wasn't above coming up with a light moment as the press conference ended. "What is your greatest regret?" someone asked. He thought a moment, chuckled, and answered, "Not staying."

Wouldn't it be refreshing to hear something like that from the current resident of the White House if he loses this election?


Nov. 11, 1965 —Dave Duncan, with 567 yards and 6.6 average per carry, led the PHS football team in rushing. Steve Cartwright averaged 28.5 yards on his 10 pass receptions and scored two touchdowns.

Nov. 11,  1970 — Princeton finished in fifth place with a 3-4 record in the Rum River Conference football standings after losing 35-22 to Elk River. The Tigers were 4-5 on the season, the first sub-.500 season since 1965.

Nov. 12, 1975 — The Jaycee City Basketball League opened its fourth season of play with 10 teams . . . The Harlem Diplomats played to a good-sized crowd and beat a basketball team made up of Princeton teachers at the high school gym.

Nov. 13, 1980 —  Pam Jenson and Kelly Talberg were chosen all-conference in volleyball . . . Les Nelson and Jason Boser were all-conference in football. Steve Wankel led the rushing stats with 883 yards, averaging 5 yards a carry.

Nov. 14, 1985 —  The girls swim team placed sixth in the section meet, the best PHS finish ever, as Kelly Keen and Holly Bowen each had a fourth place. Each set a school record and Keen tied one of her records.

Nov. 15 1990 —The girls swim team placed 12th in the section meet and freshman Kari Oliver, with a sixth in the 500 freestyle, was the lone PHS swimmer in the finals.

Nov. 16, 1995 — Katie Westling was all-conference and the MVP for the girls tennis team . . . Princeton finished 11th in the section swim meet as two relay teams and Stephanie Green (500 freestyle) broke school records.

Nov. 9, 2000 — Princeton (8-3), with five turnovers, lost 21-7 to Cambridge in the Section 7AAAA football championship game. The offenses for both teams, averaging over 300 yards per game, were both held in check. Paul Gibbs, who ran for more than 1,300 yards during the season, scored Princeton's touchdown and ran for 95 yards . . .PHS grad Phil Trier was named defensive player of the week in the MIAC as St. John's beat Hamline 61-0. He had four tackles and two sacks . . . PHS grad Amanda Gray, playing for the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, placed second at No. 4 singles in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference meet.

Nov. 17, 2005 — PHS grad Adam Miron was named the MIAC defensive player of the week for his linebacker play in a 24-22 win for Gustavus over Bethel. He had 14 tackles and recovered a fumble . . . The PHS football team (5-7) lost 42-22 to Holy Angels in a quarterfinal game of the state tournament. Quarterback Scott Roehl scored twice and also threw for 177 yards, Grady Milesko catching 6 passes for 110 yards.

Nov. 18, 2010 — Claire Barthel qualified for the state swim meet after placing fifth in the 100 backstroke at the section meet, earning the trip by beating the state qualifying time.

Nov. 12, 2015 — .The girls soccer team placed fourth in the state tournament, winning its first game and then losing 3-0 to Benilde-St. Margaret's and 3-2 to Mahtomedi. Named to the all-tournament team in Class A were McKenzie Eckert and Hannah Sandin. Maggie Peterson was named to the all-state first team for 2015 by the coaches association with 21 goals and 10 assists.

(Dorr is the former editor of the Princeton Eagle (2 years) and Princeton Union-Eagle (31 years), and has covered sports in the area for the past 53 years.)


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