A Political Life

The McGowan-Nolan Family Page

A POLITICAL LIFE- The People I Met Along the Way By Martin J. McGowan Jr.


My life has been filled with politics. My father was a politician who operated in the background. I picked up my interest in it from him in childhood and have been involved in it one way or another ever since.

    My first political involvement came in the presidential election in 1928. That was the year Al Smith was the Democratic candidate, the first Roman Catholic to be a serious contender for the office. He opposed Herbert Hoover, a former Secretary of Commerce who gained considerable fame for being in charge of food rationing for the nation during World War I and who was credited with saving many Belgians from starving after the war. The two candidates were a striking contrast. Hoover was a straight laced rotund individual from Iowa who wore high, starched collars. Smith was a cigar-chomping New York pol with the accent to match. Oddly enough, though my father had headed food rationing in Minnesota under Hoover, his political loyalty won out and he favored Smith.
I once asked my father why we were Democrats and why we should vote for them over the Republicans. He said that was because the Democrats had just as good candidates as the Republicans.

    My part in that campaign was to wear a little plastic tab that stuck in my hat band proclaiming my support for Smith. This also produced some childish banter with my school mates, since I was eight years old at the time. The usual canards were heard that the election of Smith would bring domination of the federal government by the Pope in Rome. This was hard to take for a Catholic family like the McGowans living in the small town of Appleton, Minn., populated largely by Norwegian Lutherans, German Lutherans, Methodists and Congregationalists.

    By the age of 10 my father, a widower since my mother died when I was 18 months old, started taking me to political picnics. I recall attending one picnic not far from Appleton held in honor of John Van Dyke, one of the Democratic candidates for governor. In those days there were really four political parties in Minnesota. There were the Republicans, the rather new third party, the Farmer-Laborites, and two factions of Democrats, the Regulars and the Rumpers.

The latter group was also known as the Moonan-Regan faction, for the two Irish politicians who headed it. Although my father was Irish, he was affiliated with the Regulars, who were headed by Joe Wolf, the Democratic national committeeman for Minnesota, who had control of the political patronage--the jobs--and this in turn gave my father the political power in west central Minnesota. Those who wanted postal jobs or other plums in the area came to him and he made the recommendation to Joe Wolf whether or not the appointment would be made.

Strangely enough, not too many years later when my father wanted a job as head of the Minnesota Soldiers Home, he did not get it. But he did get his sister named postmaster of Appleton, a position she held for 17 years. About 30 years later I had the same position over political appointments in the area as the state representative for Swift county. Eventually, political patronage was abolished for postal appointments and merit and seniority were used to make these appointments within the Postal Service.

Although my father didn't get the political appointment he wanted, he did get to be named a presidential elector for Franklin D. Roosevelt in the election of 1932. At that time the names of the electors appeared on the ballot for each party and technically voters voted for them and not the candidate. In a policy enshrined in the federal constitution from colonial days, the electors then met and exercised their good judgment on who should be named president. There were seldom any surprises in the outcome. today the names of the elector do not appear on the ballot, just the candidates for president and vice president of each party. However, the electors still hold their meeting and make it official who won the election.

In high school I was active in student government as class president and member of the student council. At this time my father started taking me to political conventions, local and state. There was one state Democratic convention at Duluth where my father took me to some of the hotel rooms where. the politicians met and talked over convention proceedings. He pointed out some people-the lobbyists--and said, "See those people. If you went to the Republican state convention they would be there, too." These people were playing both sides of the fence, being ready for which ever side won the election.

In college I was active in student government at the University of Notre Dame. I was affiliated with the group that won the student government election my sophomore year. We elected a handsome, burly, blond tackle on the football team as class president. His campaign manager gave me the reward of promoting the Sophomore Cotillion, the big formal dance of the year. My job was to hire a big name band for the dance. I bought my first formal wear for that occasion and took the sister of a classmate from Indianapolis to the dance. We had the usual pictures taken and it was a smashing success. During my college years my father let me submit some editorials for publication in our family weekly newspaper, The Appleton Press. I thought these were very scholarly works but when I read them years later I found they were pedantic and could be called examples of Afghanistanism. That is a malady in which editorial writers wrote about things which were far away from anything of local interest, as far away as Afghanistan. I am surprised my father let them be published for in actuality they were quite stupid. For instance I extolled the virtues of the government of Italy run by Mussolini. I thought that if he could make the trains run on time in Italy he must have something to offer. Actually, his government of state syndicalism, a merger of government and business, turned out to be corrupt. I also predicted that Malenkov was the man in the Soviet Union who would become the new leader after Stalin. He was the head of government briefly but faded from the scene early and is now just a footnote in history.
After college, I joined my father on his newspaper in Appleton. I was rejected for military service in the Coast Guard and later in the regular army draft, because of my history of asthma and hay fever. I tried enlisting in services in Canada, but they said that if the United States didn't want me, they couldn't use me either. So I became a Linotype operator on the paper because the regular operator had left. I decided that since my father had put me through college at a great sacrifice, the least I could do was help him out in a pinch. So I was one of the few young men in town, most of my class having gone to war with the local National Guard company.

    By this time the Democratic and Farmer-Labor parties merged into one DFL Party and I became active in the Young DFL organization. In 1944 the two parties merged in Swift county. Former Gov. Elmer A. Benson, my fatherís closest personal friend in Appleton, headed the Farmer-Labor group and some older Democratic party regulars were in charge of the Democrats. Each group held separate conventions at the same time in the Swift county courthouse. I forget which delegation made the first overture, but the two groups met in the court room and elected officers. James Youngdale was named party chairman and I was elected county secretary, a post I held for 19 years. I also was elected secretary of the Seventh District DFL for one term.

    There was quite a bit of preparation back stage in the merger of the two parties. Hubert Humphrey was the power of the Democrats of the day, supposedly opposed to the left wing tendencies of the Farmer-Laborites under Gov. Benson. Elmer Kelm, a Democratic national committeeman, is given most credit for bringing the two parties together. After the merger, Gov. Benson said he regretted that he ever had a part to play in the merger. Maybe he felt that way in part because Hubert Humphrey was given so much credit--and Gov. Benson so little--for the merger. There was no love lost between the two since the impression was given that Humphrey had beaten back and dominated the left wing forces some called Communist.

A few years later when Henry Wallace became the nominee of the Progressive party, Elmer Benson was the titular head of that party. Gov. Benson and James Youngdale, head of the county DFL party, tried to take that county organization into the Progressive party. That is a separate story, but my father and I discussed what we should do. Despite my fatherís personal friendship for Gov. Benson, we decided to stay with the Democratic party. This led to a disruptive county convention at which that earlier merger was torn asunder and two conventions were held simultaneously in the Swift county courthouse. I was with Youngdale as the legitimate county chairman when the meeting was called to order but then I walked across to the Democratic side of the hall when the meeting continued. Two competing delegations were sent to the district party convention but the Progressive faction was shut out and met outside on the lawn.

My father once suggested that I consider running for Congress. I was recently married and my family was growing. I also felt I was a bit young to run. Jim Youngdale did run and almost made it as an outsider. My father died in 1954 and finally in 1958 when the incumbent state representative from the county, A. I. Johnson, then the speaker of State House, left his seat to run for Congress, I filed. He lost, but I won his seat and held it for eight years until I moved out of the district to St. Paul. I ran for the state house seat in the Como-St. Anthony district for an open seat, while still an incumbent from Swift county, but my votes for a rural constituency were not appreciated by the residents of an urban district and I lost. That ended my political career, but I wished my father was still alive to see me serve in the legislature.

Go to Next Section:  Elmer Benson

Return to Home Page