My history with the Farmer Labor Caucus
I served on the Minneapolis City Council from 1973 to 1975. I lost my bid for re-election in 1975 in a close election even though I had successfully authored such outrageous ideas as: the Gay Rights Ordinance that made affectional preference a protected class in the Minneapolis Civil Rights Code; an ordinance that allowed renters to pay delinquent utility bills and deduct that amount from their rent; downzoning to prevent two-and-a-half story walk-ups from taking over our neighborhoods; and numerous anti-war resolutions. I unsuccessfully attempted to introduce rent control to preserve low-income housing, and I unsuccessfully attempted to pass a resolution calling for a feasibility study to investigate the viability of municipal ownership of the electric company.
I called a meeting in the winter of 1976 of some of the people who had supported me and worked on my campaign and other progressives in Minneapolis to form a caucus within the Democratic Farmer Labor Party that would argue for municipal ownership of the electric company, rent control and other progressive ideas within the DFL. We agreed to call ourselves the Farmer Labor Association (FLA) based on the principles of the original 1934 Farmer Labor Party platform that said: “Capitalism has failed and should be abolished. We mean to establish a Cooperative Commonwealth.” And, we noted in our literature that Governor Floyd B. Olson at that convention said, “I am what I want to be. I am a radical. I’m not a liberal.” We had tremendous support for this in precinct caucuses and at legislative district conventions.
At the State DFL Convention that summer, we were able to elect Alice Tripp as a national delegate to the 1976 Democratic Party Convention where she railed against Wall Street when she nominated Fred Harris, the Native American populist from Oklahoma for President on national television. Alice and her husband, John, had been active in the Powerline struggle—resisting the State of Minnesota using eminent domain to run high tension powerlines through farmland in the Western part of the state. Two Carleton college professors took an interest in the struggle, interviewed participants and wrote a book about it: “Powerline.” One, Barry Casper, became Alice’s running mate when she ran in the DFL Primary against incumbent Governor Rudy Perpich in 1978. The other was Paul Wellstone.
At the 1978 DFL Convention we nominated Nat Forbes to run for state auditor.
He had been a leader in the 1976 taxi strike in Minneapolis. The FLA had become a potent enough force within the DFL that they were willing to concede us the bottom of the statewide ticket to keep us in the party. At the next DFL state convention to endorse statewide candidates in 1982, the FLA put forward Paul Wellstone for auditor. He lost to Arne Carlson, but eight years later he beat Rudy Boschwitz and won his seat in the U.S. Senate.
In many ways the 1990 campaign of Paul Wellstone spelled the end of the FLA.
We didn’t want to remind people that Paul came out of the Powerline struggle and the FLA. We wanted him to win, so we didn’t want to embarrass him by making him explain his radical roots. Good friends of mine in the Communist Party would try to quiet me when I tried to remind them that the FLA ’34 Platform said, “Capitalism has failed and should be abolished.” In any case, Wellstone’s successful campaign made oppositional politics irrelevant. Paul always believed he was going to win. “I can feel it in my fingertips,” he said. People on the left were holding their breath, but, even though they loved Paul, they believed it was just another hopeless leftist cause. When it was over, the reason for the existence of the FLA was over as well.
The hard working, grimy, ugly caterpillar had produced a butterfly, but the caterpillar was gone. The gnarly, homely bulb had produced a flower, but the energy it took to produce such a flower exhausted the bulb and it could not produce another.
Now is the time to start all over again.