A similar RNC tale 116 years later

Minneapolis was peeved.

In 1885, archrival St. Paul landed the Minnesota State Fair. To fight back, Minneapolis boosters urged building a grand exposition hall, large enough to hold a national political convention.

Thus began Minneapolis' surprising and successful bid to host the 1892 Republican National Convention, the only national political convention held in Minnesota. Until now.

That gathering left few marks in history. Delegates renominated President Benjamin Harrison, who went on to lose the election to Democrat Grover Cleveland. But today, as Republicans prepare to reassemble in the state in September, the story of that long-ago gathering is getting a new look. And what emerges is a rollicking tale of civic yearning and clever politics, social change and mutton chops.

Then as now, there were worries about money. About hotels. About the convention hall and Minnesota's image. About transportation and food. Even about communications for the visiting press.

The New York Times fretted that if a windstorm knocked down the thin network of telegraph wires, "the world would not know there was a convention being held, and Minneapolis would have unkind things said about herself in every newspaper office in the country."

Happily, there was no storm. But some "unkind things" were still lobbed at the young milling city, including its meal plan of feeding delegates an endless supply of baked beans. ("Minneapolis is a bad restaurant city," the Times groused.)

Many newspapers did laud Minneapolis' hospitality and potential, although the Boston Advertiser correctly predicted, "Minneapolis will not soon be selected again by the Republicans as the place of holding a national convention."

Yet the 1892 convention served as a milestone for the Twin Cities. It helped shift the nation's perception of the region from a frontier outpost to booming twin cities, with enough moxie to win a convention over eight rivals, including New York and San Francisco.

"There was lots of politicking, but [Minneapolis won] on the merits, too," said Iric Nathanson, a Twin Cities historian. Its showy Industrial Exposition Building on the Mississippi River's east bank was a vast and modern facility, "there was a good telegraph system in place, lots of hotel rooms — so the same kind of factors that contributed to the selection of St. Paul for this coming convention," Nathanson said.

There were also historic social forces on display. Women's champion Susan B. Anthony and abolitionist Frederick Douglass traveled to Minneapolis for the convention, as did 116 African-American delegates who urged — but did not get — a strong anti-lynching platform.

For the first time, women were seated at the convention and also addressed the delegates. "We are here to help you, and we have come to stay," said the head of the Women's Republican Association, J. Ellen Foster.

(Less nobly, women's advocates also railed against giving a vote to "aliens" — those newcomers from Scandinavia or Germany — whom they called "men who as yet have nothing at stake in the country, who do not speak our language.")

The choice of Minneapolis as convention city came as a surprise in 1892. No national party convention had ever been held west of Chicago, and the young milling city was distant and untested.

But boosters from Minneapolis — with help from St. Paul, despite a ferocious rivalry — were so hungry they pledged money, assembled a powerful lobbying team and eased powerhouse Chicago out of the competition.

"Its chief rival for a western convention was going to be Chicago," Nathanson said. "So they went to Chicago and told the Chicago leaders, in no uncertain terms, that if they wanted Midwestern support for a Chicago World's Fair, they'd better back off from the convention." (Chicago dropped out and hosted the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893.)

A Minnesota history account from 1956 offers another major reason: Republicans worried that the Populist Party was making deep inroads in the prairie states, and the GOP felt holding a convention here might help.

Convention planning proved difficult. Nobody knew how many visitors would come, but estimates soared as high as 150,000. (The probable actual attendance: about 35,000.) The Industrial Exposition Building, on the river just above St. Anthony Falls, required significant modifications for the 11,000 delegates, politicians, newspapermen and visitors. Feeding such a large crowd was a big worry.

Minneapolis' solution was a large-scale bean feed. The beanery was housed in a giant log cabin just outside the hall, built to resemble a logging camp — to the smirking of the New York Times.

"Vistas of Pork and Beans," read a Times headline one month before the convention. The article noted that some local critics felt the bean scheme to be "utterly and simply designed to make the town a laughing-stock."

The West Hotel, at Fifth Street and Hennepin Avenue, was the major convention hotel and the site of vigorous demonstrations for the candidates. As was customary then, neither major candidate attended the convention.

The convention's political drama was a struggle between incumbent Harrison and his secretary of state, James G. Blaine, who eight years earlier had been the Republican nominee for president.

"It's like if George W. Bush was running for a nomination for a second term in 2004, and he was being opposed by Colin Powell," Nathanson said. "In the end, the party elders realized they couldn't very well dump an incumbent president. Benjamin Harrison was rather lackluster, but it wouldn't work to dump him."

Despite endless politicking, delegates voted three to one to renominate Harrison, and they nominated editor Whitelaw Reid for vice president.

Then the Minneapolis convention gradually faded into obscurity. The grand exposition hall was torn down in the 1940s. So was the West Hotel.

But a footnote: An admirer later christened a town in Anoka County for the convention's runner-up. Today, the community of Blaine has more than 45,000 residents.

Tom Webb is a political writer for The St. Paul Pioneer Press. Politico and the Pioneer Press are sharing content for the 2008 election cycle and during the Republican National Convention.

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