How 'DFL' got its name
Minnesota, the Land of 10,000 Lakes, is also home to a truly unique political history: It is the only state in the union with a Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party.
This party came about as the result of a merger between the Minnesota Democratic Party and the Farmer-Labor Party — a merger that took place 70 years ago this month.
Prior to this merger, the state’s three-party political landscape was dominated by the Republicans. According to Jules Goldstein, DFL Party historian, “the Minnesota Democratic Party was not doing well in 1944.”
“It had not won the governorship since John A. Johnson died in office 35 years before,” Goldstein said. “The party was regularly coming in third — a distant third — in the statewide elections. The other two parties were each getting twice as many votes as the Democrats were.
“The Farmer-Labor Party was doing better, but not all that much better,” he continued.
Since the death of Governor Floyd B. Olson in office, back in 1936, the liberally-minded party had become split into pro and anti-communist factions.
“There was a lot of infighting,” Goldstein said. “The Farmer-Laborers were fighting with each other more than with the Democrats and Republicans at that time.”
The Farmer-Labor Party itself had a rather interesting history, he added.
“It was formed in 1918, by the people that had been thrown out of the Republican Party. The Republicans had reacted to their more moderate, progressive wing by basically kicking them out — sort of like the battle between the Tea Party and establishment wings of the Republican Party the past few years.
“By 1944, this split was a quarter century in the past, and (the Farmer-Laborers) had developed their own culture, but a lot of them had been Republicans to begin with.”
Meanwhile, the national Democratic Party was looking to re-elect President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to an unprecedented fourth term in office.
“The Roosevelt re-election campaign felt it would be a whole lot easier for him to carry the state of Minnesota (where he had barely carried the election in 1940) if there was only one liberal party in the state, not two of them,” Goldstein said.
So the state’s Democratic Party leadership began pushing for a merger with the Farmer-Labor Party — while the pro-communist wing of the Farmer-Labor Party “had their own agenda for why they thought a merger was a good idea,” Goldstein added. “They pretty much ran the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota at that time, and thought they’d be able to control the Democratic Party as well.”
In fact, it was a scant two years later, in 1946, that the socialist element in the new DFL Party managed to seize control of the state organization, he added.
But in 1944, the leadership of the two soon-to-be-merged Minnesota parties was a tale of two Elmers —Elmer Kelm, the head of the Minnesota Democratic Party, and Elmer Benson, the head of the Farmer-Labor Party.
The third major player in the merging of the parties was a young political science professor from Macalester College named Hubert Horatio Humphrey — the same man who would go on to become vice president of the United States a few decades later.
“Kelm was credited with having brought a high degree of calm and stability to the Democratic Party of his day,” reads a passage in “Worthy To Be Remembered,” a book by Laura K. Auerbach that chronicled the history of the Minnesota DFL from 1944-84.
“Kelm had actually advocated trying to merge the two parties for some time, and was more than happy to go along with it,” said Goldstein.
Benson, a former state governor, “was sharply allied with the left wing then controlling the sharply divided Farmer-Labor Party,” reads another passage in Auerbach’s book.
“Benson was not at all enthused about doing it (merging the two parties),” Goldstein said. “But he was told to go along with it by the United Front (the national organization which dominated the Farmer-Labor Party at that time).”
“Benson and Kelm played quite different roles in the merger than did Humphrey,” Auerbach wrote in her book. “As heads of the two chief groups involved, Benson and Kelm had to initiate the merger, and only they had the power to bring it to a successful conclusion.
“Humphrey was important as a strong vocal advocate of merger and as a potential leader and attractive candidate once the merger was accomplished.”
“Humphrey was really the face of the merger,” Goldstein said; the rising political star would chair the Fusion Committee that hammered out the nuts and bolts of the merger, and then went on to chair the DFL’s first state convention.
In his later years, after retiring from political life, Humphrey would write an autobiography, “The Education of a Public Man,” where he credited Benson with the following memorable quote from that era: “Kelm is a Fascist. So is Humphrey. This is absolutely no good. But we must unite.”
And so they did — though “it took a bit of doing,” Goldstein said.
“Long months of patient negotiation were still required to evolve all the necessary compromises,” Auerbach wrote.
By April 14, 1944, all the pieces were in place. Both the Minnesota Democratic Party and Farmer-Labor Party met at separate conventions — one at the Radisson and one at the Nicollet Hotel, both in downtown Minneapolis.
“On the opening day of their meetings, a delegation from the Democratic Party convention attended the Farmer-Labor Convention and formally issued an invitation to the Farmer-Labor Party to join the Democratic ranks,” Auerbach wrote.
The next day, at 11:45 a.m. on Saturday, April 15, 1944, it became official. A series of legal documents was filed with the Minnesota Secretary of State, and the DFL Party was born.
“The rest is history — or at least, historical,” said Goldstein.
Incidentally, the coup that was accomplished by the left-wing element of the DFL in 1946 didn’t last long, he noted. Two years later, the moderates in the party, led by future Minnesota governor Orville Freeman, took control back — and have not surrendered it since, Goldstein said.
“It was a hard fight, but not as hard as it might have been if Henry Wallace wasn’t running for president,” he noted.
A lot of the more “radical” members of the party went to work on Wallace’s campaign, making it easier for Freeman to work his way into the party chairman’s position.
“He ran for governor very shortly thereafter,” Goldstein said. (Freeman would eventually ascend to the post of U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.)
Less than three decades later, the Republicans would find themselves on the opposite side of the political spectrum.
“The Republicans were no longer the dominant party in Minnesota,” Goldstein said — that honor now belonged to the DFL.
So much as the Democrats had done in the 1940s by merging with the Farmer-Laborers, the Republicans tried to reinvent themselves with a change of name.
“That was an attempt by the Republicans in the state to beat back the Democrats, who were doing fairly well — they were in control of the Legislature,” Goldstein said.
According to information from the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library and Minnesota Historical Society, Independent-Republicans of Minnesota (I-R) officially became the party’s new name in 1975, and they continued to use the I-R moniker until 1995, when the switch was made back to the Republican Party.
Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.