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Pathway to the Governor's Mansion in Minnesota, Part III: Ethnic Heritage

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Or, the end of Scandinavian dominance

(Previous installments of Smart Politics' 'Pathway to the Governor's Mansion' series include reports on the political experience and geographic background of successful gubernatorial candidates in Minnesota history).

The elections of the last two governors in the Gopher State have sent important, but different messages to the nation, with the common headline being that Minnesota politics is unpredictable and does not always follow the national trend.

The election (that few predicted) of a former professional wrestler and actor in 1998 (and a former satirist and actor for Senate in 2008) have lead some commentators to dismiss the state's political outcomes with the line, "Only in Minnesota."

Moreover, the (re)election of a Republican Governor in a light blue state during a deep blue Democratic tsunami in the 2006 midterms also signaled to the nation that Minnesotans speak with a voice of their own.

But the election of Jesse Ventura and Tim Pawlenty to St. Paul has also sent another message - to Minnesotans themselves. And that is a signaling that ethnic background is much less of an important variable in who governs the Gopher State.

Prior to the election of Ventura, 17 of the previous 18 Minnesota governors dating back to 1915 were either of full or partial Scandinavian ancestry.

In fact, other than Rudy Perpich (of Croatian descent) the only other governor who was not full-blooded Scandinavian during this span was the state's 25th Governor, Harold Stassen. Stassen was part Norwegian, German, and Czech.

Overall, of the 38 men who have served as Governor, 20 have a full-blooded Scandinavian ethnic background.

But while Norwegians may have the highest national and statewide profile of all the European settlers of the Gopher State (a profile enhanced nationally by the Minnesota Vikings and regionally by Lena and Ole jokes), the Swedes have actually had the most success in gubernatorial elections.

There have been nine governors of Swedish descent in Minnesota history, with all but one elected to office in the 20th Century - beginning with the state's 14th Governor, John Lind in 1898, and ending with Arne Carlson, who was first elected in 1990.

In between, seven other Swedish-Americans were elected governor: John Johnson, Adolph Eberhart, J.A.A. Burnquist, Luther Youngdahl, C. Elmer Anderson, Harold LeVander, and Wendell Anderson.

There have been seven Minnesota governors of Norwegian descent. The first Norwegian (and Scandinavian) Governor of the Gopher State was Knute Nelson, the 12th Governor of Minnesota who was elected in 1892.

It took 28 years before another Norwegian was elected - J.A.O. Preus in 1920. Over the next forty years another four governors of Norwegian descent were elected: Theodore Christianson in 1924, Elmer Benson in 1936, Edward Thye in 1944, and Karl Rolvaag in 1962. The last Norwegian to be elected Governor of the Gopher State was Al Quie in 1978.

Another three governors of Minnesota were of both Swedish and Norwegian descent: Floyd Olson (elected in 1930), Orville Freeman (1954), and Elmer Andersen (1960).

The only other ethnicity that has been represented in the Governor's mansion by more than one governor is English.

In the state's early years, as immigrants from Scandinavia were beginning to settle the land, five of Minnesota's first eight governors were of English descent: Henry Sibley, Henry Swift (who was not elected), Horace Austin, Cushman Davis, and John Pillsbury. The last governor of pure English descent was the 18th Governor, Winfield Hammond, who was elected in 1914 (and died in 1915).

Minnesota Governors by Ethnic Heritage

Heritage
Number
Percent
Swedish
9
23.7
Norwegian
7
18.4
Other mix
7
18.4
English*
6
15.8
Norwegian-Swedish
3
7.9
Croatian
1
2.6
Dutch
1
2.6
German
1
2.6
Slovak
1
2.6
Welsh
1
2.6
Danish**
1
2.6
* One Governor of English heritage was never elected to the office: Lieutenant Governor Henry Smith became governor when Alexander Ramsey resigned to take a seat in the U.S. Senate. ** The one Danish Governor of Minnesota was never elected to the office: Lieutenant Governor Hjalmar Petersen became governor upon the death of Governor Floyd Olson. Source: Minnesota Historical Society.

While no racial minority has been ever elected to the Governor's mansion in the Gopher State, recent years have reflected greater diversity in terms of European ethnic background. Each of the last five governors have a different ethnic heritage: Rudy Perpich is Croatian, Al Quie is Norwegian, Arne Carlson is Swedish, Jesse Ventura is Slovakian, and Tim Pawlenty is Polish and German.

In addition to the three governors of Norwegian-Swedish ethnic backgrounds mentioned above, Pawlenty joins a list of six other governors who had a background of more than one ethnicity - Alexander Ramsey (Scottish and German), William Marshall (Scottish and Irish), Lucius Hubbard (English and Dutch), Andrew McGill (Irish and English), William Merriam (Scottish and French), and Harold Stassen (Norwegian, German, and Czech).

List of Minnesota Governors by Ethnic Background

#
Governor
Years
Ethnicity
39
Tim Pawlenty
2003-present
Polish, German
38
Jesse Ventura
1999-2003
Slovak
37
Arne Carlson
1991-1999
Swedish
35
Al Quie
1979-1983
Norwegian
34, 36
Rudy Perpich
1976-1979, 1983-1991
Croatian
33
Wendell Anderson
1971-1976
Swedish
32
Harold LeVander
1967-1971
Swedish
31
Kark Rolvaag
1963-1967
Norwegian
30
Elmer Andersen
1961-1963
Norwegian, Swedish
29
Orville Freeman
1955-1961
Norwegian, Swedish
28
C. Elmer Anderson
1951-1955
Swedish
27
Luther Youngdahl
1947-1951
Swedish
26
Edward Thye
1943-1947
Norwegian
25
Harold Stassen
1939-1943
Norwegian, German, Czech
24
Elmer Benson
1937-1939
Norwegian
23
Hjalmar Petersen
1936-1937
Danish
22
Floyd Olson
1931-1936
Norwegian, Swedish
21
Theodore Christianson
1925-1931
Norwegian
20
J.A.O. Preus
1921-1925
Norwegian
19
J.A.A. Burnquist
1915-1921
Swedish
18
Winfield Hammond
1915-1915
English
17
Adolph Eberhart
1909-1915
Swedish
16
John Johnson
1905-1909
Swedish
15
Samuel Van Sant
1901-1905
Dutch
14
John Lind
1899-1901
Swedish
13
David Clough
1895-1899
Welsh
12
Knute Nelson
1893-1895
Norwegian
11
William Merriam
1889-1893
Scots, French
10
Andrew McGill
1887-1889
Irish, English
9
Lucius Hubbard
1882-1887
English, Dutch
8
John Pillsbury
1876-1882
English
7
Cushman Davis
1874-1876
English
6
Horace Austin
1870-1874
English
5
William Marshall
1866-1870
Scotch-Irish
4
Stephen Miller
1864-1866
German
3
Henry Swift
1863-1864
English
2
Alexander Ramsey
1860-1863
Scots, German
1
Henry Sibley
1858-1860
English
Source: Minnesota Historical Society.

The diminishing importance of ethnic background in gubernatorial elections today can be seen by the fact that very few of the crop of 2010 candidates even mention their ethnic heritage on their campaign websites.

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4 Comments


  • I would suggest that the ethnic and cultural changes that our state and country is about to go through, has a lot to do with the fear and anxiety that many folks have about the future and their place in it.

    In a generation or so, the minority will be the majority. That fact is deeply disturbing to many in our state as well as in the country. These folks are not sure how that affects their standing in a vastly changing society and a vastly changing workplace.

    I do not profess to have the intuitive knowledge of a sociologist, but you can see so much of that anxiety and fear being acted out in the protests over the summer and the manipulation of those folks by political demagogues as well as the talking heads in both the cable and talk radio media.

  • "The diminishing importance of ethnic background in gubernatorial elections today can be seen by the fact that very few of the crop of 2010 candidates even mention their ethnic heritage on their campaign website"

    I would be interested in viewing the ethnic heritage of our 2010 candidates.

  • The election (that few predicted) of a former professional wrestler and actor in 1998 (and a former satirist and actor for Senate in 2008) have lead some commentators to dismiss the state's political outcomes with the line, "Only in Minnesota."

    I assume you mean Jessie Ventura? You know, if you forgot about his wrestling theatrics and bit-part acting, former Governor Ventura had some quite refreshing and interesting things to say. He spoke with honesty that is sorely lacking from most politicians. He did have his failure though (like most of us). Nice post.

  • I was intrigued to find that the Governor number 13 1895-99 was a Welshman named David Clough.
    I have spent years investigating my own and other people`s ancestry and family history, and whilst investigating my own families Welsh roots came across the name Clough on a few occasions around that middle and late nineteenth century. I am not sure whether Clough is a particularly Welsh name, but there are references to it in various searches of the records at that time.
    I can not say with any certainly that we are related in any sense, but it has certainly given me food for thought.

  • Leave a comment


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