Under the stoic customs of the rural Minnesota community where I grew up, my family didn’t talk much about politics, even after I got a job covering the State Capitol. So I was surprised when, last summer, my mom casually dropped some pertinent family history.
“You know your great-great-grandfather served in the Legislature, right?”
I didn’t know, I had never even heard his name before: John J.J. Winter of Melrose, who everyone knew as “J.J.” Everyone but me.
I want to know more about him, someone who worked in the same Capitol building that I do, someone who maybe, actually, sometimes talked about politics. I had a lot of questions: What would I have written about if I’d been a journalist covering his Legislature? And what would he think about state politics today?
It was easy enough to find great-great-grandpa on the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library’s website. J.J. was a farmer who ran and won a central Minnesota House seat in 1916 in a nonpartisan legislative election (that’s not a thing anymore). He would have been 50. In his black-and-white official legislative portrait, he had a thick mustache and neatly parted hair and wore a crisp white tie. The farmer cleaned up.
My family didn’t know much about his politics, so I paged through a document chronicling everything the Legislature did in 1917. Back then, lawmakers didn’t have party affiliations, but they were still unofficially divided into the “wets and drys,” or people who favored prohibition on alcohol and those who did not.
It was that Legislature that passed a constitutional amendment to prohibit the manufacture and sale of liquor in Minnesota, under the heavy influence of the state chapter of the Anti-Saloon League.
J.J. was unsurprisingly in the “wet” category and voted against the amendment. Stearns County was famously at the center of the Midwest’s illegal moonshine production during Prohibition. I wondered if he’d be aghast or pleasantly surprised that it was just two sessions ago that lawmakers lifted a 159-year-old prohibition on selling alcohol on Sundays, or what he’d think about the fact that the prohibition legislators talk about now is the one on recreational marijuana.
His Legislature also debated a constitutional amendment to give women the right to vote, which he and most of his male colleagues rejected. Women would cast their first votes a few years later without them, and this year, they’re celebrating 100 years of that right.
These were different times, but I was also struck by how similar so many of his Legislature’s debates sounded to debates today, 100 years later. Legislators debated punishing a candidate who spread lies about his opponent and bought “cigars and soft drinks” to sway voters. Campaign disinformation, anyone?
J.J. sought re-election in 1918, but was defeated by Thomas Flahaven, a teacher and a farmer from Sauk Centre. So J.J.’s time was short, just a blip in legislative history.
Maybe that’s why my family never talks about politics.