To the small group of us who share an obsession with Minnesota politics, it was a very, very big deal when Republicans took over the Minnesota Senate in 2011 -- the first such power switch in 38 years.
So it was surprising for this political junkie to learn that the man on the other end of that streak, the late Senate Majority Leader Nick Coleman, was himself a streak-breaker. When he took office in 1973, there had not been a Democrat in his job since statehood in 1858.
Showing visitors a portrait of his long-ago predecessor, he would say, "That's Sen. Richard Murphy, the last Democrat to lead the Senate majority. I wonder what horrible things he did for us Democrats to have to wait so long to get back into power." Then, writes John Watson Milton, Coleman's "tenor cackle would quickly end the discussion."
Milton's book, "For the Good of the Order: Nick Coleman and the High Tide of Liberal Politics in Minnesota, 1971-1981," breathes life into an important political figure and a dramatic era. Coleman's death from leukemia in 1981 at the age of 56 means that many of us know the Coleman name through his sons, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and veteran newspaper columnist Nick Coleman.
Nicholas David Coleman was a political original -- an Irish Catholic St. Paulite who found a home in legislative politics. By all accounts, he had the gift -- smart, eloquent, funny, emotional and wise in the maddeningly obscure ways of the State Capitol. He was a liberal JFK man who was elected to the state Senate in 1962, fell just short in a run for his party's nod for governor in 1970, became majority leader in 1973 and served with style, wit and considerable success until he decided against running for re-election in 1980.
His 1970s divorce and marriage, to newspaper editor Deborah Howell, was big news in the Capitol fishbowl, and Milton does not shy away from the story. The Coleman camp believed this kept him from being appointed to the U.S. Senate following Hubert Humphrey's death in 1978.
Milton served on the Ramsey County board and as a DFL state senator, which may account for the heavy load of inside-baseball details. To those of us immersed in the game, the play-by-play is high drama, but "normal" readers could get by with less.
"Is there anything else for the good of the order?" was Coleman's traditional sign-off at the end of a meeting. Working with moderate Republicans, he helped push through many of the reforms that earned Minnesota the title "the state that works" on the cover of Time Magazine in 1973.
Coleman reached his zenith of power at exactly the time when the political bombshell of abortion landed in American politics. The 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision put particular pressure on liberal Catholic Democrats like Coleman. Gay rights and gun control were also born in this era as perennially divisive issues that remain with us.
Milton writes that Coleman saw in the Republican victories of 1978 a shift in the political winds. But the chamber remained in DFL hands until the election of 2010.
Nick Coleman was as big a name in our small, marbled universe at the Capitol as Humphrey and Walter Mondale were on the national scene. I am glad to have finally met the man I have heard so much about.
Jim Ragsdale is a long-time politics and government reporter.