Former Range senator Tony Perpich dies

State Sen. Tony Perpich (DFL-Eveleth) in 1970

Last Saturday, former Iron Range State Sen. Tony Perpich (DFL-Eveleth) died in his Shoreview, Minn., home at the age of 84. He had battled heart disease.

Perpich grew up part of a politically charged first generation Croatian immigrant family raised in the mining location of Carson Lake. With his brothers, he helped reshape Iron Range politics in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Perpich won his eastern Mesabi Range State Senate seat the same year his older brother Rudy Perpich was elected Lt. Governor and his brother George was elected Senator in the neighboring central Mesabi district.

“The Perpich Brothers” became central figures at the peak of Iron Range political influence, and played a significant role in shaping the current system of taxing mines to pay for local economic development and public works. Along with then State Reps. Joe Begich, Doug Johnson, Bill Ojala and others, the DFL delegation in the 1970s actively fought the mining companies for more money for local communities. This was arguably the last time local legislators and the mining companies have had anything more than a minor skirmish.

As this Star Tribune obituary describes, Perpich was the quieter of the three political brothers, but was known as being deeply thoughtful. My friend former State Rep. Tom Anzelc, a close family friend of the Perpiches, described him as the compassionate brother, philosophically liberal and kind. A dentist like Rudy, Tony was also a carpenter who built his own home in the woods outside Eveleth and a cabin in Ontario.

In the long saga of 20th Century Iron Range politics, no battle was more storied or closely fought than the endorsement fight between Tony Perpich and Jim Oberstar after John Blatnik’s retirement in 1974. With ballot after ballot stretching into the early morning hours, Perpich eventually won the endorsement. However, he lost the primary under the heavy influence of Blatnik on behalf of his aide Oberstar. During my upbringing around Iron Range politics characters were often sorted based on which side they were on during that showdown.

Perpich stepped down from the legislature in 1976, earning a reputation as an independent minded legislator who did not bow to the influence of lobbyists. Then on he lived a relatively quiet life with his wife Irene Kosiak, a physician, and his daughter Julie. He leaves them behind, along with three grandchildren. His brothers Joe, a Maryland psychiatrist, and George also survive him.

 

Comments

  1. David Gray says:

    I never had a chance to vote for Tony but I remember voting for Rudy.

  2. Bob Haapala says:

    I think you meant Bill Ojala, not Dave.

  3. Another correction: Perpich actually won the convention DFL endorsement against Oberstar after a long, dragged out vote that lasted many rounds. Oberstar and his supporters rejected the endorsement and ran in and won the DFL primary. Blatnik’s endorsement was a critical factor in the primary win, but the other big issue was abortion — Oberstar was anti-abortion and Perpich pro-abortion. The election was one of the first after Roe versus Wade, and abortion was a hot issue in the DFL at the time.

    • Blurgh. This is what happens when you write too fast on a busy day. Corrected. And I knew that, but my brain again took a shortcut. Thanks Gerald.

    • David Gray says:

      That’s interesting given that Rudy was pro-life.

      • Abortion has been a major complication for politicians of both parties ever since Roe v. Wade. The decisions involved are easy for politicians who hold personal positions at the two poles of the issue, but much harder for politicians who hold more middle of the road positions, since in the eyes of the committed partisans on both sides there is no middle of the road in an issue they both see as completely black and white.

        The Perpich family, like many Catholics involved in public life, was buffeted heavily by the Roe v. Wade decision.

        George Perpich became a convinced advocate of the right of women to make their own decisions about abortion. His wife, Connie, became the public affairs director for the MN state chapter of Planned Parenthood.

        Rudy Perpich was personally opposed to abortion. However, once in office, Rudy became effectively an advocate of the position that politicians should not intervene in the decisions of women about abortion, specifically not vetoing a 1978 bill providing state coverage of abortion under various state insurance plans. In 1978, he lost a re-election attempt when he was opposed by a more committed anti-abortion candidates. In the 1982 DFL primary against Warren Spanhous, who was pro-abortion, Rudy was supported by anti-abortion forces as the lesser of two evils. Essentially, he continued to maintain the position that he was opposed to abortion, but that it was not his decision to force his beliefs on other people, especially women, and regularly failed to support anti-abortion efforts in the state.

        Tony had a position much like many Catholic Democrats, including John Kerry, Ted Kennedy, Joe Biden, and most recently Tim Kaine, in that he personally opposed abortion but felt that he could not impose that belief on women making choices about their own lives. Consequently he was seen as a pro-abortion candidate, compared with Oberstar’s firm opposition and demands for changes in the law. That probably was the straw that broke the camel’s back in the 1974 primary, although the strong and active support of John Blatnik for his hand-picked successor was probably the most important factor.

        Conversely, there used to be a lot of GOP politicians who were openly pro-abortion, including former governor Arne Carlson. The growing strength of anti-abortion forces in the GOP has pretty much made the GOP the anti-abortion party, to the extent that in 2010 the anti-abortion forces decided to abandon lifelong anti-abortion Democrat Oberstar in favor of his GOP opponent on the probably correct basis that although Oberstar was in fact anti-abortion, if his party held power they would block any anti-abortion laws, whereas a GOP congress might well pass them. Anti-abortion positions have become so much the standard in the GOP that many previously pro-abortion GOPers have switched to being anti-abortion, former president George H.W. Bush and current president Donald Trump being classic examples.

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