Floyd B. Olson

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Winning Nomination

Floyd B. Olson built, almost singlehandedly, a major political party. He got the progressive state income tax enacted. Imagine the state being financed today by the property tax as it was. He boosted the spirits of the people during the depths of the Great Depression. He altered the political culture to enable ordinary folks to get elected to public office.
~Robert J. Duckstad, Minneapolis, MN



Runner-up Nominations

As the most popular governor for most of the 20th Century, his charisma and image of helping out the common man in the Depression left an impression on a generation of Minnesotans. He success as a third-party politican was unique in the state at the time but it was not an uncommon occurrence in other parts of the U.S. to have radical leaders springing up in state and local governments. Over 200,000 visitors viewed his body when it lay in state in the State Capitol.
~Brian Pease

Governor Olson was a populist who fought vigorously for the common people of Minnesota during the Depression -- giving hope to many, and at the same time demonstrating that our democratic system can work.
~Steve Carlson, Edina, MN

Floyd Olson was a symbol of the free thinking and independence of political opinion in Minnesota and many politicians after him, Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, Walter Mondale, Paul Wellstone and I would argue Harold Stassen, David Durenberger and even Jesse Ventura remained influenced by his populist independence and appeal. Olson set the tone for Minnesota as a state with a dynamic political testing ground for new ideas and progressive politics.
~Robb Mitchell, Minneapolis, MN

A Farmer-Labor governor, he helped stamp Minnesota as a progressive state committed to social justice and progress for all.
~Frank Haigh, White Bear Twp, MN

Floyd B. Olson represented the progressive tradition of MN politics and formed a rural-urban coalition -- the Farmer-Labor party--that set the stage for Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and Eugene McCarthy.
~Ted Kunze, Slayton, MN

Floyd B. Olson came to our state's top office at a historical juncture in our civil society. Propelled forward by popular movements and broad social demands of working people, he mapped out a decent, supportive social contract. Minnesota is a good place to live. We try to take care of each other. Floyd Olson showed us how.
~Eric Joselyn, Philadelphia, PA


Contents

History

(1891-1936)

A man of the people makes it to the top

The 1920s and 1930s were hard times for Minnesota's farmers and laborers. Drought and the Great Depression had brought prices for farm goods to a low, and in the city jobs were scarce. Unions had not yet taken hold in the state. Out of this struggle came a radical political movement called the Farmer-Labor Party, and from the party came one of Minnesota's most popular governors-Floyd Bjornsterne Olson.

Born in north Minneapolis, the son of Scandinavian immigrants, Olson worked his way through a year at the University of Minnesota before heading to the Pacific Northwest to find work. He returned to Minneapolis, where he completed a law degree at Northwestern College of Law. In 1920, he became Hennepin County attorney, a position he held for ten years. He made a name for himself as a tough-talking, no-nonsense prosecutor by taking on graft among city officeholders and by challenging the Minnesota Citizens Alliance, a grassroots antiunion movement. In 1930, he was elected governor of Minnesota on the Farmer-Labor ticket.

During his time in office, Olson fought successfully against a relatively conservative legislature for unemployment relief, the enactment of a state income tax, and a moratorium on farm foreclosures. He used his broad public appeal and natural oratorical talents to reach out to Minnesotans in person and via the emerging medium of radio. Through the strength of his personality, he helped make the Farmer-Labor Party the most successful third party in America's history. Many expected him to run for president, but cancer cut his life short. Biographer George H. Mayer said, "His pragmatic approach to problems melted the hostility of hard-headed conservatives, while his persuasive friendliness converted suspicion into open enthusiasm. An hour's conversation often won Olson a lifetime friend."


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