Budgeteer shook state politics

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Starting in 1967 Dick Palmer, then associate publisher of the Budgeteer with his father, Herb, as publisher, wrote the highly popular "Action Editor" column.

"It was an ombudsman-type thing and I solved lots of problems, hundreds of problems, for people who were getting pushed around, weren't getting the right answers to questions," Dick Palmer, who now lives in Superior, told the Budgeteer in an interview last week.

Action Editor fielded questions such as whether the city's fluoridated water would hurt tropical fish (answer: no, but they might develop strong teeth), whether a landlord can charge extra for a relative staying in a spare room (no), whether a city employee was out of line in rejecting a citizen's idea ("The person in City Hall who gave you the double-talk ... should have his fanny kicked but good.") and whether the Budgeteer could help a woman who sponsored a promotional "bra party" but didn't receive her promised free bra. ("We called the gal in Superior and told her about your problem. She told us that she was unable to supply you with a free bra because you are a 40 double D but she agreed to give you a check.")

Dick Palmer's reputation as the go-to guy helped pave the way for his political career. In 1970, at age 40, he ran for state Senate in the 59th District. Back then Minnesota had a nonpartisan legislature; the Republican and Democratic-Farmer-Labor parties were active, but legislators were officially Conservatives or Liberals. Liberals had long been the minority in the Senate and were eager to gain control.

"Of course I was in a pretty strong DFL area, but I was a conservative and so I ran as an independent," Palmer said. He solidly won over incumbent Liberal Francis "Frenchy" LaBrosse by 3,300 votes.

Palmer had promised to vote independently on each issue, but caucus with whichever party that won the majority. As it turned out, that year the Senate was perched in exact balance, 33-33. Palmer was the undeclared senator who would tip the scales. Both sides furiously courted him.

Meanwhile LaBrosse filed charges that Palmer had violated the state's fair campaign practice laws. This was over an opinion piece in the Aug. 27, 1970 Budgeteer, "Frenchy fears losing his lucrative seat," suggesting LaBrosse's campaign was funded by special interests: medical, mining, steel, liquor and timber. The column was also a response to savage attacks on Palmer by the pro-LaBrosse newspaper that bordered the Budgeteer's West Duluth turf, the Proctor Journal.

Following his own leanings and alienated by LaBrosse's lawsuit, Palmer aligned with the Conservatives. "If I were to do it over again I think I would have gone with the Liberals, but I wasn't as smart as I am now," he laughed.

But once he got to the Capitol, then-Lieutenant Governor Rudy Perpich (years later to become governor) refused to allow Palmer to take his oath of office. LaBrosse's lawsuit was the rationale, which Minneapolis Tribune reporter Steven Dornfeld would later call "somewhat flimsy grounds." In an unprecedented move, Perpich gave himself the deciding vote.

"The result was near chaos," reported Time Magazine (Jan. 18, 1971) as the issue drew national attention. The state Supreme Court justice walked out, refusing to swear in any of the senators unless Palmer was included. Instead, a Liberal senator who qualified as as a notary public administered the oath. The Conservatives walked out en masse. The Senate was in disarray for a week until the state Supreme Court ruled that Palmer had to be seated.

"Rudy was a good guy, really a nice guy, but he was a hardcore Liberal, an Iron Range Liberal, and he didn't like me because I controlled the Senate," Palmer said.

As for the offending Budgeteer article about LaBrosse, the Palmers testified in district court that Herb wrote and printed it without Dick's knowledge. Herb's source on LaBrosse's alleged special interests was another Liberal, State Rep. Willard Munger, whom LaBrosse had defeated in the 59th District Senate race in 1964. Munger testified he had just given Herb Palmer "tips" and didn't expect them to be printed without verification.

Proctor Journal publisher John Benson acknowledged in court that he had a personal vendetta against Dick Palmer stemming from when they both served on the Proctor City Council. In February 1971 LaBrosse, hospitalized by a severe heart attack, dropped his suit in exchange for an apology in the Budgeteer.

"If nothing else, the Palmer-LaBrosse fight has brought to light the fact that weekly newspapers bring a touch of frontier journalism to politics in northern Minnesota," wrote Gene LaHammer in the Duluth Herald.

Dick Palmer served out his two-year term but declined to run again after the 59th was redistricted, or, as he charged at the time, gerrymandered by the Democrats. "My existing district of 56,000 people was split into three different districts, taking away 95 percent of my former constituency," he told the News Tribune. "I could not honestly and objectively service the needs of people residing some 150 miles from my home."

Today he fondly accepts his meteoric political career and its brevity that allowed him to focus again on the newspaper. "I'm happy with it. My life was the Budgeter," he said.

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