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For the Good of the Order, Nick Coleman and the High Tide of Liberal Politics in Minnesota, 1971-1981

In January 1973, Nick Coleman became the first Democrat in 114 years to lead the majority in the Minnesota Senate. He provided the vision and leadership required to enact the Minnesota equivalent of Lyndon Johnson’s social and economic programs known as the Great Society. Many have identified this outpouring of legislation as the "Minnesota Miracle." It was also the high tide of liberal politics in Minnesota, a cresting of voter support that sent Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, and Walter Mondale to national prominence.

In his foreword, Mondale wrote: "The author spared nothing in his search for answers to important questions that arise in our state legislatures. His reporting is based on exhaustive research, and, though his analysis and conclusions may seem controversial to some, they will surely stimulate critical thinking and debate. This book is a welcome addition to the history of our state and nation."

Milton’s biography was praised in early reviews . . .

"To the small group of us who share an obsession with Minnesota politics, it was a very, very big deal when Republicans took over the Minnesota Senate in 2011 -- the first such power switch in 38 years.

"So it was surprising for this political junkie to learn that the man on the other end of that streak, the late Senate Majority Leader Nick Coleman, was himself a streak-breaker. When he took office in 1973, there had not been a Democrat in his job since statehood in 1858.

"Showing visitors a portrait of his long-ago predecessor, he would say, ‘That's Sen. Richard Murphy, the last Democrat to lead the Senate majority. I wonder what horrible things he did for us Democrats to have to wait so long to get back into power.’ Then, writes John Watson Milton, Coleman's tenor cackle would quickly end the discussion.

"Milton's book, For the Good of the Order: Nick Coleman and the High Tide of Liberal Politics in Minnesota, 1971-1981, breathes life into an important political figure and a dramatic era. Coleman's death from leukemia in 1981 at the age of 56 means that many of us know the Coleman name through his sons, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and veteran newspaper columnist Nick Coleman.

"Nicholas David Coleman was a political original -- an Irish Catholic St. Paulite who found a home in legislative politics. By all accounts, he had the gift -- smart, eloquent, funny, emotional and wise in the maddeningly obscure ways of the State Capitol. He was a liberal JFK man who was elected to the state Senate in 1962, fell just short in a run for his party's nod for governor in 1970, became majority leader in 1973 and served with style, wit and considerable success until he decided against running for re-election in 1980.

"His 1970s divorce and marriage, to newspaper editor Deborah Howell, was big news in the Capitol fishbowl, and Milton does not shy away from the story. The Coleman camp believed this kept him from being appointed to the U.S. Senate following Hubert Humphrey's death in 1978.

"'Is there anything else for the good of the order?' was Coleman's traditional sign-off at the end of a meeting. Working with moderate Republicans, he helped push through many of the reforms that earned Minnesota the title ‘the state that works’ on the cover of Time Magazine in 1973.

"Coleman reached his zenith of power at exactly the time when the political bombshell of abortion landed in American politics. The 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision put particular pressure on liberal Catholic Democrats like Coleman. Gay rights and gun control were also born in this era as perennially divisive issues that remain with us.

"Milton writes that Coleman saw in the Republican victories of 1978 a shift in the political winds. But the chamber remained in DFL hands until the election of 2010. Nick Coleman was as big a name in our small, marbled universe at the Capitol as Humphrey and Walter Mondale were on the national scene. I am glad to have finally met the man I have heard so much about."
--Jim Ragsdale, a long-time politics and government reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune

"John Milton was a new Minnesota senator in 1973 when powerful AFL-CIO President Dave Roe surprised him by saying: ‘Coleman says you have to carry the minimum-wage bill. You aren't as threatening as some of these other guys.’

"Roe was referring to Nick Coleman, newly elected Senate majority leader who was one of the most important men in Minnesota that decade.

"Coleman, a charming, savvy politician born into St. Paul's Irish Catholic community in 1925, led the first DFL state Senate majority in 114 years - and his influence was felt long after his death in 1981. Coleman's rise to power, his private life and his place in state and national politics, as well as some history of the state DFL and intraparty fights, are detailed in Milton's new biography, For the Good of the Order: Nick Coleman and the High Tide of Liberal Politics in Minnesota, 1971-1981 (Ramsey County Historical Society).

"Milton, a former Ramsey County commissioner, was 35 and living in North Oaks in 1972 when Coleman asked him to run for state Senate in the new District 49. ‘Nick recruited me under false pretenses. He needed a sacrificial lamb, but I won,’ Milton recalled with a laugh. ‘The first morning I reported to the state Capitol, I wore a turtleneck. Nick explained the dress code, slapped a tie over my turtleneck, and that's the way I was sworn in.’

"Milton spent about 5-1/2 years researching and writing his 656-page book. The list of those he interviewed runs seven pages, including members of the Coleman family, politicians from both parties and journalists. Former Vice President Walter Mondale wrote the foreword.

"One of Coleman's most forward-looking acts was adding the words ‘sexual orientation to a human-rights bill that passed the Senate in 1973, the first time a legislative body in the U.S. passed such a bill. It died in the House and wasn't signed into law until 1993.

"Coleman died March 5, 1981. The Cathedral of St. Paul was nearly overflowing for his funeral, during which then-Mayor George Latimer paid the leader this tribute: ‘God's finger touched him. He chose not to hoard those gifts. He spent them, not always wisely, but fully. As a public man his gifts were well noted: His wit; quick, deep intelligence; handsome bearing; and the eloquence unique to his heritage. But he had much more. He knew history and human nature well enough to know that the lot of mankind has been for the most part 'brutish, short and mean.' But because he bore the great Irish heart of a poet and shared the hope that is America, he refused to submit to a future no better than the past. He chose politics as the way to that future.’"
--Mary Ann Grossman, Book Editor for the St. Paul Pioneer Press

"Fortunately, there was no shortage of good reasons for me to read John Milton’s latest book, For the Good of the Order. With only an outlier’s view of the political processes involved, but being aware of Milton’s appetite for meticulous historic detail, the book’s size and content came as no surprise. No broad-brush overview this; he has compiled the historic record of an era. As such, it contains more characters and details in one chapter than an entire Russian novel. Had I not read Milton’s book, I would have been deprived of an insider’s multi-layered view into mid- to late-twentieth century US politics. On the surface, a chronicle of the ebb and flow of state governance as the ‘Minnesota Miracle’ unfolded, the story of State Senator Nick Coleman’s hands-on leadership and the resulting impact on our state and national scene was to me a reminder of a not-so-long-ago time when Tip O’Neill’s maxim, ‘all politics is local’ was fully operational. The book reveals the intimate interconnection of local and national politics, an example being the irreversible ripple effect that JFK’s death in 1963 had on the promising career of Nick Coleman. Milton writes, ‘while there were surely far broader consequences from the death of Kennedy … this tragic event set the stage for turning points in Coleman’s [local and national political] career … All of this speculation on what might have been only confirms an old axiom of politics: timing is everything.’

"On another level, the book is a record of the power of discourse, communication and negotiation … of a time when our elected officials struggled with many of the same types of roadblocks and imperfections we face today – powerful lobbies, influence peddling, partisan mudslinging, intrigue and heated debate – yet they generally found time and motivation to maintain a collegial atmosphere of earned mutual respect, to focus more on their constituents’ needs and less on the requirements of maintaining political office.

"Despite a traditionally reactionary state legislature, and without resorting to divisive partisan warfare, Coleman and his colleagues managed to enact a functioning version of LBJ’s Great Society. Minnesota became known and admired as "the state that works." (Although no fan of LBJ’s, I was there, drawn from Southern California to Minnesota’s business climate, its work ethic and qualities of life; the state really did work, remarkably well and on these multiple levels.)

"Nick Coleman’s inspiring personal leadership, Celtic warmth and unrelenting determination succeeded in giving life to his steadfast belief that a wealthy society should be judged by the treatment of its weakest and least powerful. Those of us, regardless of political persuasion, who view our present government’s disdain of discourse and compromise with dismay, and its gridlock with increasing concern, may be heartened to read what this one individual accomplished in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds."
--E.W. “Whit” Courtney of Kinsale, County Cork Ireland

"I’m really enjoying the book, it has the ring of truth and authenticity, and the details are delicious, and it’s eloquent about progressive aspirations too.

"This golden decade, in which Coleman arguably had more influence than any other leader, stretched from the Minnesota Miracle and greater state responsibility for education funding and quality, to putting teeth in civil rights legislation and expanding the rights of women and minorities and gays and lesbians, to campaign finance reform, to environmental cleanups, to progressive tax overhauls. As former vice-president Walter F. Mondale writes in the foreword: ‘In many ways, (Coleman) and Roger Moe, his successor as Senate majority leader, were more important than many governors we've had -- lasting longer, creating a revolution, and elevating the legislative branch to an equal footing with the executive ... Nick Coleman was one of the brightest and most effective people in public office I've ever known.'"
--Dane Smith, former Capitol reporter and president of the non-profit and bipartisan policy institute Growth & Justice