Perpich was an imposing political figure | Opinion

Editor’s Note: “Their Way” is a regular weekly column that captures the personal style of the many public officials and other people and personalities covered by former Mesabi Daily News Executive Editor Bill Hanna during his more than 40 years of newspaper reporting, writing, and editing.

“Just who the hell is this guy, this Iron Ranger?”

That’s what some of our readership at The Sentinel newspaper in Fairmont, Minn., asked when Rudy Perpich assumed the governorship in 1977.

“He’s really different, even odd” readers would usually add to their own question — sometimes with quite more colorful adjectives. Hey, southern Minnesota was very heavy Republican territory four decades ago, even more so than today.

I, too, was intrigued by this rough-and-tumble politician, whose style sharply clashed with that of his predecessor, Wendell Anderson.

Anderson’s personality was like a tranquil sky at sunset after an intense summer storm; Perpich was the thunder-bumper.

Anderson was like a Cosmopolitan martini (stirred not shaken); Perpich a beer and a bump.

The dentist from Hibbing had drilled into Minnesota’s political conscience when Walter Mondale was tapped by Jimmy Carter as his vice presidential running mate in 1976. Carter and Mondale won; Anderson then stepped down as governor with Perpich ascending to the governorship; Anderson was then appointed to Mondale’s U.S. Senate seat.

Perpich had little name recognition beyond the Range as lieutenant governor. But as governor he became known statewide immediately. And he was a fascinating addition to the political scene.

Perpich was a roll-up-your-sleeves and get-at-it governor. He didn’t probe a problem, he attacked it.

When there was a power line dispute in southwestern Minnesota, Perpich left St. Paul’s government bubble to talk with the people directly affected. And he did so without telling media or even his staff. Can you imagine owning and living on a farm homestead, hearing a knock on the front door and opening it to find Minnesota’s governor standing there? “Hi, I’m Governor Perpich. Just wondering about your thoughts on this power line issue.”

He was the Solitary Governor seeking answers.

I proposed a special page on the new governor. My editor and mentor Jack Weaver, who also believed that state government was local news, said go for it.

Staff photographer Bob Schroeder, a pro’s pro who had a wonderful journalistic eye and respected those of us who crafted words for a living, was up for the 250-mile round trip. It gave him a chance to retell his Korean War stories and me an opportunity to once again listen with interest as if they were being heard for the first time.

I had been to the State Capitol building several times before. It’s an incredibly wondrous living, breathing historic structure.

Just like Rod Stewart sang, “Every picture tells a story … story,” every nook and cranny of the State Capitol tells stories upon stories — and not all of them rated “G,” which only adds to the building’s luster and lore.

But there was something quite special about this State Capitol trip. I was excited about an interview with the state’s 34th governor — the first Roman Catholic and first Iron Ranger to hold that prominent position.

Once ushered into the governor’s office, Perpich and photographer Schroeder immediately hit it off. He seemed a bit more wary of the reporter.

But the governor and I, too, soon developed a good rapport. Until … that question. The one that was oh so poorly phrased, but received a response I still hold as a cherished memory and a reply I’m sure would forever trigger hearty laughter from Bob Schroder.

“Governor, some people say you shoot from the hip ….,” began the question that would never be completed.

Gov. Perpich raised up his big frame at the same time the volume of his already powerful voice was turned up a few decibels.

“What do you mean I shoot from the hip,” the governor bellowed at me.

Talk about shooting the messenger.

The governor’s desk was, thankfully, heavy and big — too heavy to tip over on me and so big it provided me with a welcome boundary between the governor and a young reporter.

I admit to being a bit startled. Little did I know at the time, however, it would be a good primer for more than 30 years of political journalism on the Range that was waiting.

The interview finished, Bob and I left the governor’s office. To his credit, Bob held back his laughter until we were outside the Capitol.

“I wish I had taken a photo of you when the governor responded to your ‘shoot from the hip’ question,” Schroder said while laughing like a hyena.

Schroder basically said I was like a deer caught in headlights and the governor had made me road kill.

“But you hung in there kid,” the photographer said.

There were no Korean War stories on the drive home, only gales of laughter from Schroeder as we relived “the question” and the governor’s response over and over and over again.

The photographer couldn’t wait to get back into the newspaper plant to pass on the story of the young reporter and governor and to laugh anew.

The reporter couldn’t wait to find a stool at a local watering hole to have a beer and a bump in honor of and tribute to the new governor and an interview question that unintentionally really stirred the pot.

Next Week: George McGovern lost the 1972 presidential election to Republican Richard Nixon in an epic landslide. He carried only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. McGovern couldn’t even carry his own state of South Dakota. A year later he looked back on that election during an amazingly frank and friendly interview with a first-year reporter in his Mitchell, S.D., office.