Rod Searle: How to practice politics with respect

Tom West, West Words
Tom West, West Words

Politics is the process we use to come up with solutions for those issues on which we don’t have consensus. It’s always messy, never easy, and often hard to understand.

Nevertheless, there have been times in this state when we elected people who disagreed on issues, but still respected one another regardless. I was reminded of one such time when a lifelong family friend, Rod Searle, passed away Jan. 5.

Some people in this area will remember that name. Searle had the thankless task of being speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives in 1979, after we voters decided to send 67 Republicans and 67 Democrats to represent us.

I was lucky enough to be the political reporter for the Mankato Free Press at the time, so had a cat bird’s seat to that extraordinary episode in state history.

Rod Searle was not a native Minnesotan, and it took a crazy idea to get him to move here. He grew up in New Jersey, the son of a newspaper editor, and had rheumatic fever as a child. As a result, he was draft deferred during World War II, spending those years making bandages for Johnson & Johnson.

The family of his wife, Jane, owned land in Waseca County, near Mankato. The 280 acres were not great farmland. The LeSueur River ran through it, it was prone to flooding and the land had been rented out as long as anyone could remember.

However, the Searles wanted a fresh start in life, so, in 1947, they packed up their two young children and decided to give farming in Minnesota a try. As I said, it was a crazy idea.

When the political bug bit, he sold his livestock and began selling life insurance, but he also invested extensively in improving the land. (I was among a group of boys whom he hired to plant hundreds of pine seedlings on hillsides.) He was once honored as Minnesota Tree Farmer of the Year.

In 1956, Searle won a seat in the state House of Representatives. He ended up serving 24 years, and of his 12 elections, six were unopposed. He chaired the Higher Education Division of the Appropriations Committee for a number of years and was one of the chief architects of the state vocational/technical college system.

In 1979, however, Searle made his mark on state history. With the House tied 67-67, five DFLers and five Republicans hammered out a power-sharing agreement. It was not easy. The Republicans ended up with the speakership, but the DFL got the chairs of the powerful Rules, Appropriations and Tax committees. In turn, the Republicans were given the chairs of the four Appropriations divisions (i.e. subcommittees) and two Tax divisions.

The work of the state got done, but it was tough sledding for everyone. Looming over the session was the election certificate of Rep. Bob Pavlak, IR-St. Paul. The DFL had accused him of unfair campaign practices. The district court sided with Pavlak, but eventually the Supreme Court ruled against him. Since only the House can rule on the fitness of its own members, Pavlak continued to serve until he made an impassioned plea to the House, but then collapsed and was hospitalized with severe emotional distress.

Four days later, in his absence, the DFL ousted Pavlak, 67-66. The following Monday, the last day of the session, Searle gaveled the session to an end at midnight, as required by law, while DFLers pounded their microphones on their desks demanding to be heard.

As soon as the session ended, I went around getting wrap-up comments from area legislators, and made it to Searle’s office about 2 a.m. He beckoned me to come with him, and he went down a floor to the DFL offices, where many of the same people who had been pounding their mikes and screaming at him were having a post-session toast. Searle walked through their offices, shaking every hand and thanking them for their service to the state. In turn, the DFLers were very gracious, and acknowledged that he had done a good job under very difficult circumstances. That was Rod Searle. He never took politics personally, and treated all with respect.

I don’t think that happens anymore, and Lord help us if the House should end up tied again.

Rod Searle was a true moderate, conservative on pocketbook issues, but still understanding that state government has an important role in our civic life. If only we can recapture that sentiment in those we elect today.


Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. Reach him at (320) 616-1932 or email [email protected]