Rosenmeier was a legend in his own time

Tom West, West Words
Tom West, West Words

Older county residents undoubtedly remember former state Sen. Gordon Rosenmeier of Little Falls. However, if they would like their memories refreshed, check out the winter issue of “Minnesota History,” the publication of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Steve Dornfeld, longtime political reporter and editorial writer for the Minneapolis and St. Paul newspapers, has written an excellent article about Rosenmeier.

Younger residents may only know the name because the headquarters for the Little Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau is located in the “Rosenmeier House” on Southeast First Street.

However, Gordon Rosenmeier was a legislator’s legislator, a legend at the capitol in his own time.

He served this area in the Minnesota Senate from 1940 through 1970. Even though he never served as majority leader, he had as much clout as any legislator ever did.

Gordon came by his talents naturally. His father was from Royalton and also a lawyer. He was elected Morrison County attorney in 1912 and state senator in 1922. He served in the Senate until his death in 1932, just as Gordon was graduating from Stanford University law school.

Gordon returned home and took over the law practice during the depths of the Great Depression.

In 1940, following the death of Sen. Frederick Miller of Little Falls, he won election to the state Senate.

Dornfeld’s article is filled with stories and quotes, but it is the list of Rosenmeier’s achievements that are impressive. Most of the legislative deal-making back then was done in the evening in the bar at the St. Paul Hotel.

In those days, legislators did not serve under partisan labels like Republican or Democrat. They caucused as “conservatives” and “liberals.” If a label could be applied to Rosenmeier, it would probably have been as a “progressive conservative.” He did not want to destroy the government; he simply wanted to make it work better.

Among his achievements for this area were the expansion of Camp Ripley, establishing the state hospital and community college in Brainerd, and designating the Charles Lindbergh home as a state historical site.

More impressive was his statewide impact. He was the chief force behind the establishment of the State Planning Agency, the Pollution Control Agency and in preventing the Metropolitan Council from becoming an elected board.

In 1970, after 30 years in office, Rosenmeier was defeated by a young lawyer from Brainerd named Win Borden. The major issue was abortion, which is still important to Morrison County.

This was before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade, making abortion legal. Each state was seeking its own way on the abortion issue.

Rosenmeier voted in committee for a bill that would have eased the state’s long-standing ban on abortions. He said afterward, Dornfeld reports, that he only wanted the bill to go to the Senate floor for further debate and scrutiny, and that he was opposed to it.

That didn’t wash with the voters, and Rosenmeier’s legislative career came to an end.

Former Little Falls legislator Steve Wenzel is quoted in the article, saying of Rosenmeier, “The great things he did, he didn’t advertise. I don’t think people knew all of the great things that he did. They didn’t understand how great and powerful this man was.”

I hope Dornfeld expands the article into a book. Capitol old-timers still speak with reverence whenever Rosenmeier’s name comes up.

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