1990 Minnesota election scandal parallels Alabama saga

Screenshot from a WCCO-Twin Cities newscast on election night 1990.

It’s hard to remember sometimes, but there was a time when watching the news wasn’t actively disgusting all the time.

But I do recall the first time a news story completely grossed me out. It was in 1990. I was just a kid, but I liked the news. That was the year the Republican candidate for governor, Jon Grunseth, withdrew from the race nine days before the election.

Grunseth was mixed up in a sex scandal, one that included not only standard-issue affairs, but also charges of swimming naked at a hotel pool party with teenage girls nine years earlier. It was an explosive story that shook up a tight race between Grunseth and the Democratic-Farmer-Labor incumbent Gov. Rudy Perpich. (My grandpa was a huge fan of Perpich, a fellow Iron Ranger. That was the year I saw him run out into a parade to shake Rudy’s hand, the only time I ever saw him run).

The Minnesota Republican Party, then still known as the Independent Republican Party, or “IR,” was divided over what to do. Some wanted to stick with Grunseth, calling the charges politically-motivated. Others wanted to replace him with a write-in candidate. Grunseth said the old transgressions were in the past and he was ready to move forward, until another more recent mistress was revealed.

Grunseth then withdrew from the race, setting up the GOP endorsement of a write-in candidate, State Auditor Arne Carlson. In a stunning turn, the state Supreme Court allowed Carlson to be added to the ballot. And though the drama seemed to portend an unexpected hold for Perpich, Carlson narrowly prevailed — mostly on the grounds that he wasn’t one of the candidates associated with what had been an unpleasant campaign.

In fact, 1990 was one of those strange years in Minnesota politics. Carlson won despite liberal upstart Paul Wellstone’s surprising win over Republican U.S. Senator Rudy Boschwitz on the same ballot.

It occurs to me how much the story of Justice Roy Moore in Alabama reminds me of Grunseth’s woes. If anything, the Republican nominee in the Alabama special election faces worse allegations, including child molestation and predatory behavior against teenage girls years ago.

One key difference is that Moore denies the allegations, despite the large number of named sources who confirm them. And Moore indicated he won’t step aside. But I still don’t think Alabama Republicans are stuck with either a Democratic victory or a poisonous Moore victory.

Given Alabama’s overwhelming Republican majority a concerted campaign could transfer enough support to the new candidate to prevail.

Lots of talking heads say the Republicans don’t have options here, but they do. Either elect the moderate Democrat, or elect a write-in Republican — as conservative as you like — not tainted by vile charges of unspeakable crimes.

It’s time for the news to uplift, rather than disgust. Alabama can do something. And so can we all.

NOTE: This post has been edited to add additional information about the 1990 campaign and to correct a typo.


  1. One interesting fact about the girls who accused Grunseth was that they had been, in times past, next door neighbors of Arne Carlson.

  2. Also the state supreme court allowed Carlson to appear on the ballot., which really angered Rudy Perpich.

    • That’s right, I had forgot to mention that. That was a remarkable ruling. I don’t think that happens in most other states.

      • The same judicial precedent was applied in the 2012 State House of Representatives District 7B election in Duluth after yet another sex scandal. After incumbent Kerry Gauthier, who had been caught in a sex act with a 17 year old boy at a highway rest stop in West Duluth, resigned his position, the DFL was allowed to replace him on the ballot with Erik Simonson. With the shoe on the other foot compared to the 1990 governor’s election, the GOP opposed the change in court, but the courts followed the Carlson precedent. Duluth conservatives then tried to get Duluth City Councilor Jay Fosle on the ballot as an independent, since the GOP had nominated a place holder candidate earlier in what was expected to be an uneventful re-election of an incumbent. The court ruled that inserting a new independent candidate on the ballot was a different issue than the replacement of a party nominee who had resigned, as was the case with Carlson and Simonson, and conservatives were forced to run Fosle as a write-in. Simonson won easily, despite the Duluth News Tribune’s endorsement of Fosle.

        Presumably this type of replacement remains the law in Minnesota, and we will probably see it again in the future.

        As David implies in the Carlson case, many people in Duluth suspected politically inspired hijinks in the Gauthier case as well, since although the incident had occurred weeks earlier, the police and the Duluth News Tribune both happened to reveal the incident only after it was too late to replace Gauthier in the conventional way.

      • Perpich had a legitimate beef. Under the law Carlson didn’t belong on the ballot. By all rights Perpich should have won that election.

        • I agree. However, the courts in MN don’t, and that is the last word on the subject, barring federal appeal, which is unlikely to succeed since while the federal court has ruled it has an interest in voters’ rights it has avoided intervening on pure rules issues, including some that are pretty controversial.

          The truly ironic thing for Perpich is that after trailing earlier he had pulled even with and passed Grunseth in polls BEFORE the sex scandal broke, and had a reasonable expectation he would win. The switch actually probably helped the IR, although many current GOP activists would probably say Carlson was not a Republican in their estimation.

          The other recent election where a similar issue of replacement on the ballot came up was in the 2002 Senate race, when the courts allowed Walter Mondale to replace the deceased Paul Wellstone. In many states that would never have been allowed, and has not been allowed in the past. In that case the election worked out for the GOP, with Coleman winning over Mondale after he had been trailing Wellstone. Most people think the heavy politicization of Wellstone’s memorial service, including loud booing of visiting GOP office holders, was the key in turning Minnesotans against the Mondale, who led fairly comfortably in early flash polls, but the gathering push for Bush’s Iraq invasion probably played a part as well.

      • Mike Worcester says

        If memory serves, Rudy Perpich never spoke to Chief Justice Peter Popovich again owing to that ruling.

  3. In a totally irrelevant side note, the defeat of incumbents Perpich and Boschwitz allowed the Fargo paper to use what is my favorite political headline of all time: “In Minnesota, It’s Goodbye Rudy Tuesday.”

  4. Love this thread!

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