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Recent race tame compared to 1990 gubernatorial contest

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A victorious morning
Carlson reads the newspaper on Nov. 7, 1990. The previous night's election was close, but that day he would claim victory in the governor's race.
Photo Courtesy of Arne Carlson

As crazy as the ending of this year's governor's race has turned out to be, the campaign itself was actually a serious and sober affair.

When it comes to excitement, it paled in comparison to the election Minnesota saw 20 years ago. That contest had it all: screaming headlines, sex scandals, an 11th hour withdrawal -- and a surprise upset victory.

Click here to see a timeline of the final weeks of the 1990 gubernatorial election.

The incumbent was Rudy Perich. In 1990 he was already Minnesota's longest-serving governor. 

The year before, he had dragged a phalanx of reporters from the state Capitol all the way up to the headwaters of the Mississippi -- four hours north. When they arrived, he delivered a 46-second long statement, announcing he would seek an unprecented fourth term.

It was the kind of unorthodox behavior that led Newsweek Magazine to brand him "governor goofy."

"He was prone to outbursts and he would attack the press," said Dane Smith who covered politics for the Star Tribune then. "He dyed his hair. By today's standards he'd be a pretty conventional politician. But at the time, he was considered a little off beat."

Star Tribune, 10/15/1990
10/15/90: Allegations rock governor's race. Star Tribune, Oct. 15, 1990.
File Image

Polls showed 61 percent of Minnesotans wanted Perpich to step aside. Mike Hatch, who had served as commerce commissioner earlier in the Perpich administration, challenged him in the primary. But Perpich won.

There was also a tough primary battle on the Republican side. The front runner going in was Arne Carlson, who had served as state auditor for more than a decade. Well known in Minnesota, Carlson was widely regarded as the party's best stump speaker.

But Carlson was also a moderate, even a liberal Republican. That made him deeply unpopular with party regulars. 

They endorsed a business executive named Jon Grunseth. Smith remembers him as "fresh, lantern-jawed, swashbuckling, handsome, rugged [and] hard-core conservative."

Add to that: relatively unknown. Grunseth had never held public office.

"We knew at the outset, we were the odds-on favorite to win the primary and the polls subsequently verified that," Carlson recalls now with a laugh, "but the voters did not."

Carlson lost in a landslide. After nearly 20 years in state government, his political career appeared to be over.

Grunseth, Perpich and Carlson debate
10/26/1990: Grunseth, Perpich and Carlson meet in an unusual three-way debate on Twin Cities Public Television.
Photo courtesy of Terry Gydesen

For the next month, Grunseth's poll numbers climbed. It looked increasingly likely he could be the next governor. But on Oct. 15 -- just three weeks before Election Day -- the Star Tribune ran a front page story that derailed his campaign.

With a headline that screamed "Allegations Rock Governor's Race," the newspaper's story detailed accusations of Grunseth's sexual escapades with four teenage girls at a swimming pool.

One of them was Elizabeth Mulay.

"Jon Grunseth and a couple of his friends came out and tried to coax us into taking off our suits and all go skinny dipping," Mulay told Minnesota Public Radio that week. 

"When I went up somebody commented that I still had my suit on, and I still refused to take it off. Jon Grunseth started chasing me and blocked me in the edge of the pool, and went to pull down my strap with one hand and the other to grab my breast."

Mulay said the incident had happened nine years earlier, when she was only 13. Two other women corroborated the story. But Grunseth denied the charges. 

He produced witnesses who swore he was asleep in bed when the alleged skinny dipping occurred. He paid for and passed a lie detector test. Grunseth called it a smear campaign, and he claimed his opponent was behind it.

"These are lies. Rudy Perpich knows they are lies," Grunseth said in a news conference at the State Capitol. "But Rudy Perpich is himself the supreme liar and he will do anything to stay in office.

Perpich denied any involvement. 

"I mean how could say that I had anything [to do with that?] I mean how could you orchestrate something like that?" Perpich said. "I mean how in your wild imagination?  No. No one on my staff has had any contacts ... with any of that."

One of the girls who backed up Mulay's story had DFL ties, but there was never any hard evidence that linked the Perpich campaign to the allegations. The public didn't know who to believe, and it was clear both campaigns were damaged.

Carlson enters race
Carlson enters topsy-turvy race. Pioneer Press, Oct. 23, 1990.
Photo Courtesy of Arne Carlson

With only 15 days left in the election, Carlson re-started his campaign -- this time as a write-in candidate.

"Poll after poll shows that the majority of Minnesotans would vote for anyone other than the two on the ballot," Carlson said. "And that void has to be filled."

Polls also suggested Grunseth's refusal to withdraw from the Governor's race was helping Paul Wellstone, a longshot DFL candidate for the U.S. Senate.

Wellstone, a college professor, was challenging two-term Republican Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, who'd appeared nearly invincible before the scandal. Nine days after the Star Tribune first ran with the pool party story, its Minnesota poll showed the Senate race had tightened into a statistical dead heat. 

"My party is really in turmoil," Boschwitz said. "We have a situation here where two Republicans are running and one Democrat is running. I mean our base simply is not big enough to cut it in half."

Boschwitz said either Grunseth or Carlson needed to quit, and quickly.

On the evening of Oct. 25 -- with 12 days to go in the race -- the Republican Party called a news conference. Television and radio carried it live. Grunseth stepped to the mike with his withdrawal speech in hand.

Carlson wins
Republican Arne Carlson declares victory on Nov. 7, 1990. He had re-entered the race just 15 days earlier. Carlson bested DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich 50-47
Photo Courtesy of Arne Carlson

"I came here tonight to withdraw from this race," he said as the crowd of supporters cried out in protest.

Then, Grunseth ripped the script in two. He vowed once again to fight on.  Behind the scenes that night, Grunseth's staff had convinced him to change his mind.

"The reaction was overwhelming to the point of people tossing chairs on the floor against the wall, saying 'you have got to stay in this race and if you don't think you can win, then you owe us a good fight.'" advison Elam Baer told reporters.

It looked like Carlson and Grunseth would split the Republican vote and hand the election to Rudy Perpich.

"I remember him saying to [his wife] Lola, 'Well mother, we're going to win this one.'" recalls John Stanoch, who managed the Perpich campaign.

That was on Friday, though. And on Sunday -- now with nine days to go before the election -- the Star Tribune published new allegations. This story this time: Grunseth had carried on a long-running extramarital affair.

Grunseth disputed the story. But it was clear he couldn't survive another scandal. That night, he dropped out of the race.

"I had reached this decision with three factors in mind: My family, the Republican Party, and the people of Minnesota," Grunseth said.

The Republican Party held its nose and threw its support to Carlson. It was too late to tap anyone else. But it wasn't until November first, 1990 -- just five days before the election -- that the state Supreme Court ruled Arne Carlson and his running mate could appear on the ballot.

The chaotic 1990 campaign led to an astounding result. Voters still suspected Gov. Perpich had something to do with the scandal, and they handed Arne Carlson a narrow win. Sen. Rudy Boschwitz was damaged by the turmoil in the Republican Party, and that helped Paul Wellstone score an upset victory.

It all could have turned out differently if a 22-year old woman named Elizabeth Mulay hadn't come forward with her allegations three weeks earlier.

Today, Mulay is 42. She stands by her account of what happened in Grunseth's swimming pool.

"I did something right. Can I protect every woman he ever comes across? No," Mulay said. "But I certainly made myself heard. It was the first time I ever stood up for myself. As naive as I was and as silly as I might have sounded, it made me a better person."

Grunseth didn't respond to an interview request.

But for Vicki Tigwell, who was married to him during the campaign, the 1990 election represents a profoundly painful chapter in her life. As for what really happened in that swimming pool -- it's something she's decided to put behind her.

"I think in cases like this, depending on what you want the outcome to be, that's what you believe," Tigwell said. "You have these he said, she saids and I don't think you ever resolve them. And you have to be able to live with that."

Tigwell divorced Jon Grunseth in 1999. Carlson went on to serve two full terms as Minnesota governor. Perpich died in 1995.

Dane Smith left the Star Tribune to lead a liberal think tank. Looking back on the Grunseth debacle, his feelings are mixed.

"I wanted to do some thoughtful pieces on the important, sober discussion of the issues," Smith said. "And instead I ended up with this soap opera. And I have to admit, it was exciting."

But Smith said  the most dire predictions made in the aftermath of the 1990 governor's race never materialized. Many observers said the election signaled a new era of dirty politics.

But as this year's governor's race demonstrated, Minnesota is still capable of holding a campaign focused on the issues.