Ethnic Influence in Politics Diminished

Jansen, Bob. “Ethnic Influence in Politics Diminished.” Bismarck Tribune, 16 February 1982, 11A.

Answer, true or false:

1. You must claim Norse ancestry to win statewide elective office in North Dakota.

2. North Dakota was always the bastion of Reagan-like conservatism that it appeared to be during the 1980 election.

End of quiz. No. 2 definitely is false; No. 1 is also false, but more true than No. 2.

It is legend that at one time, having a Norwegian name like Christianson, Johnson or Erickson was a significant advantage in North Dakota politics.

While perhaps not a necessity, “It’s been a fact of North Dakota political life that a Scandinavian name has been an asset, not a liability,” says P.V. Thorson, associate professor of history at the University of North Dakota.

Other political observers don’t dispute that claim. But most feel it apparently no longer is the case.

Says Secretary of State Ben Meier, “That was years ago; now it doesn’t make much difference.”

Meier observes that “Today, if he’s the right candidate, with TV and radio I can promote him.”

Lloyd Omdahl, director of the University of North Dakota bureau of governmental affairs, says there may be some advantage in having a short and simple name.

Examples are the surnames of two recent North Dakota governors, William Guy and Arthur A. Link.

Holding that office currently is Gov. Allen J. Olson, a man of Norwegian ancestry. “Olson (the name) is both short and Scandinavian,” notes Omdahl.

One reason there have been so many state officials with Scandinavian names is simply that the Norsemen are the most numerous of all ethnic groups in the state.

It is estimated that approximately 30 percent of North Dakota’s residents are of Norwegian extraction. And that doesn’t count the Swedes, Danes, Icelanders and Finns.

Also, folks of Scandinavian ancestry have tended to run for and be elected to office in greater proportion to their numbers than other ethnic groups.

Thorson estimates that for most statewide offices, about 45 percent of the candidates have been of Scandinavian ancestry.

Immigrants from Norway and other Scandinavian countries began coming to these parts about a decade before North Dakota became a state. It took them a while to learn the language and ways of this new country.

Thus North Dakota’s first chief executive, John Miller, was a Yankee, born in New York state.

Some 32 years later, the governor’s chair was filled by Ragnvold A. Nestos, a Norwegian-born, church-going Lutheran who spoke with an accent.

Since Nestos in 1921, half of North Dakota’s governors have been of Norwegian extraction, Thorson says.

Nestos was immediately followed by Arthur G. Sorlie, who also was of Norwegian stock.

John Moses, who was elected governor in 1938, 1940 and 1942, was born in Norway. A 6-foot-4 giant, he immigrated to North Dakota in 1905.

Historian Elwyn Robinson recalls that politician Moses “campaigned tirelessly, speaking three or four times a day in English, Norwegian and German.”

Thorson attributes the political activism of Norwegian immigrants to their education and a spirit of nationalism they brought from the old country.

That, along with economic hardships that inspired them to seek social reform, drew the Norwegian-Americans into the political arenas.

Thorson notes that although Norway had adopted a constitution in 1814, it wasn’t until 1905 that it was free of ties to Sweden. To a degree, Norway had been under foreign rule for more than 500 years, and countrymen highly prized their late-coming independence.

Thorson, on the other hand, has a theory that the Germans from Russia immigrated to North Dakota because they didn’t want to be involved in politics. Instead, they preferred to preserve their German identity.

Meier, who grew up in a Logan County family that spoke only German at home, says it also may be that the German-Russian immigrants worked so hard they didn’t have much time for things like politics. Nearly all were farmers, and Meier says they had to concentrate on work because their land was some of the poorest in the state.

Also, during this century, America has been involved in two world wars against German people. Historians suggest that may have at times influenced the level of political activity of this state’s residents who have such ancestry. North Dakota traditionally has tended to vote Republican, although that trend had lessened in recent years until the Reagan landslide of 1980.

However, Meier says party affiliations - like ethnic allegiances - aren’t as significant as they once were. “North Dakota people are not so much followers anymore, they’re thinkers,” he says.

Obvious to both Omdahl and Meier are the conservative voting patterns in areas settled by the German-Russians, evident in Grant, Emmons, McIntosh, Sheridan, Mercer, Kidder counties and to a lesser extent in Stark County.

Although McIntosh County, for example, cast 86 percent of its votes for Reagan in 1980, Meier says its German-Russian areas used to be even more conservative than they are today.

Omdahl says the bureau of governmental affairs has been able neither to accurately “quantify the worth of names” nor correlate nationalities with political parties.

Although the German-Russians established a consistent conservative voting record, Omdahl says it is impossible to discern from that “what is Russian and what is German.”

Polish, Bohemian and Czech immigrants more often tend to be Democrats. Omdahl says that may be in part because, before coming to North Dakota, many of them worked for a time in large cities where the “Democratic machines got to them.”

One political figure who observers say may have gleaned some advantage from a Norwegian name is Byron Knutson. He defeated an endorsed Democratic candidate for the Public Service Commission in the 1974 primary election and came close to wresting the seat from its longtime occupant, Ben Wolf, in the general election.

Two years later, Knutson defeated the incumbent insurance commissioner, J.O. Wigen. Knutson is an aggressive campaigner, but had no professional insurance experience.

But there is no proof that significant numbers of people voted for Knutson, a Democrat, solely because he had a Norwegian name.

Unlike Knutson, most of the early Norwegian-Americans in North Dakota were Republicans.

The late Ed Lian of Fairdale said Scandinavian immigrants, because of President Abraham Lincoln, “associated the Republican Party with the free, and the Democratic Party with the slave owners, as the Democratic Party was strong in the South and the Republicans under Lincoln were the spokesmen for the free people.”

Lian in 1937 became one of the first Democrats elected to the Legislature from Walsh County. He says he and other Norwegian-Americans turned to the Democrats because “the Republicans had no men or ideas to pull us out of the Depression.”

Although he couldn’t communicate well with them, it was the Bohemian Democrats in southern Walsh County that swung the election to Lian.

One of Lian’s favorite anecdotes relates to Norwegian ethnic pride. He recounted in his unpublished autobiography the incident of a Norwegian artist named Gullickson who fashioned for the Legislature a painting portraying the nation’s first Congress, with Thomas Jefferson reading the Declaration of Independence.

“Now the painting was good, but Gullickson was so intensely Norwegian he had painted a Norwegian Viking ship instead of the three Spanish ships that had brought Columbus over,” Lian said.

Despite protests, the painting was hung in the Senate chamber. After adjournment, Gov. William Langer, a German Catholic, had it removed to a storeroom.

Although they proportionately rank next to Scandinavians in the state’s population, comparatively few people of German ancestry have held elective office.

Meier and former Rep. Otto Krueger are about the only wellremembered figures of German-Russian extraction. William Langer - controversial former attorney general, governor and U.S. senator - and former Gov. Arthur A. Link also are of German stock.

Now, on to question No. 2.

For a time during the early years of this century, nearly everybody in North Dakota was a “progressive,” or at least said they were.

Progressives favored reform. As historian Elwyn Robinson notes, “North Dakota had long been struggling against boss-controlled government and the exploitive practices of the railroads, the moneylenders and the grain trade.”

Primarily through the efforts of the progressive Nonpartisan League, North Dakota has the only state-owned bank and state-owned mill and elevator in the nation.

Similarly, immigrant farmers were active patrons of cooperatives like grain companies, livestock associations and the “community stores,” where produce could be traded for other goods.

“If he (the immigrant) came from privation, some hardship and a lack of opportunity, he was more inclined to support these self-help projects,” says Link, whose parents came to America from Germany in 1900.

“As a rule, rather than ethnic background, the social and economic background had a greater bearing on their participation in community self-help efforts of this kind,” Link says.

The Nonpartisan League, organized largely among rural North Dakotans who were undergoing severe economic problems, was to a degree an extension of earlier efforts at socialism.

Examples of influential political figures who were much more leftwing than officials of today include Henry Martinson, A.C. Townley, Arthur Le Sueur, Henry Teigan and Ella Reeve Bloor.

Martinson, who died in November at age 98, was a staunch socialist who also was active in the Nonpartisan League and left-wing groups like the United Farmers League.

Socialists, headquartered at Minot, were an active political force beginning in about 1912, and Martinson was party secretary for many years.

Other Socialist Party leaders were Le Sueur, a Minot lawyer-banker, and Teigan, a former schoolteacher, who, after heading the Socialist Party in North Dakota, presided over the national Nonpartisan League organization.

Townley, a socialist organizer, was instrumental in starting the NPL and was its head between 1915 and 1922.

Martinson, in a 1976 interview with North Dakota History magazine, said there at one time were 400 to 500 members of the Socialist Party in Minot, as well as followers in Fargo and other areas of the state.

He noted the influence of Le Sueur and Teigan. “The fact that those people were well-known leaders in the community helped, too, because the people looked up to them,” Martinson said.

The Socialists were able to elect Le Sueur mayor of Minot and another party member, Dewey Dorman, street commissioner.

The Socialist Party was at its peak in 1912, and Le Sueur was one of 55 socialist mayors in five states.

Later, there were inroads made by the Communist Party in northwestern North Dakota, particularly among Finnish immigrants in the Belden area of Mountrail County.

Ella Reeve Bloor, a communist organizer known as “Mother Bloor,” had set up headquarters in Minot and made her most significant gains in the Depression years around 1930.

The Belden Hall, built by Finns, was the scene of numerous speeches by communist candidates, including the national party’s candidate for vice president. Mountrail County consistently gave the Communist Party its largest vote totals in the state.

Mike Jacobs, who wrote a chapter on politics for a Mountrail County history book, attributes the Communist Party success to depressed economic conditions and the search for a political system that would provide a solution to people’s problems.

“The wide distribution of the Communist Party vote indicates that the group’s appeal was not just to a single ethnic group,” wrote Jacobs. “Although Belden’s Finnish community formed a bulwark of the group’s support, votes throughout the county responded to the campaign mounted by Communist Party candidates.”

Most of the candidates on the Communist Party’s state election ticket in 1930 were also Mountrail County residents. When Mother Bloor ran for Congress two years later, she polled 678 votes statewide, 75 of which came from Mountrail County.

Jacobs says the Communist Party’s successes ended with the emergence of a candidate who offered economic reform without economic restructuring. That candidate was Langer, under the banner of the NPL.

Today, although names of communist or socialist candidates for national office may appear on the election ballot in North Dakota, they receive very few votes.

But despite that and the near sweep by Republicans in the Reagan landslide of 1980, North Dakotans can’t be labeled as being of one, conservative mind.

U.S. Sen. Quentin Burdick and Rep. Byron Dorgan, both Democrats, are viewed as either moderates or even liberals, depending upon who is doing the viewing.

Democrat Kent Conrad is the state tax commissioner and party member Bruce Hagen holds one of three seats on the Public Service Commission.

The state Democratic-NPL Party speaks with optimism about winning a majority of seats in the state House this year, despite being outnumbered 73 to 27 during the 1981 session.

John Moses
Henry Martinson
William Langer
Ben Meier

Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller