Elmer A. Benson, an unreconstructed leftist radical who served one stormy term as governor of Minnesota and helped create the Democratic-Farmer-Labor coalition that continues to dominate Minnesota politics, died Wednesday night. He was 89.
Benson, who had been in ill health in recent years, died at Mount Sinai Hospital.
Benson had been state banking commissioner under Gov. Floyd B. Olson, who appointed him in 1935 to serve the 1 1/2 years remaining in the U.S. Senate term of Thomas D. Schall, who died in a car accident.
Then Benson came home to run for governor and won a landslide victory in 1936, only to be turned out by Republican Harold Stassen in 1938.
Although the 1937 Legislature had given Benson--an early Socialist sympathizer--little of what he sought, many of his proposals became law during the 40 years that followed--property tax relief for homesteads; higher income tax rates for high-income individuals and corporations; mandatory workers’ compensation coverage for employees; a state Civil Service system; expanded state aid for schools, financed by income taxes; party designation for legislators.
In an interview two years ago, Benson remained an ardent foe of capitalism and called Hubert H. Humphrey “a war criminal.” He even had a good word for Josef Stalin.
“Communists are decent people, too. We don’t have a monopoly on decency,” he said. “Stalin did some things that were pretty rough. But maybe, just maybe, if he hadn’t done it, maybe the nation would have been taken over by the worst enemies of mankind--the Nazis.”
The policies of President Reagan also brought a feisty response.
“The tax program the federal government passed last year?” he said then. “Why, it’s exactly what they said it was--taking from the poor and giving to the rich.”
Benson also said he never forgave himself for agreeing to the 1944 merger of the Farmer-Labor and Democratic parties into the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, the dominant force in Minnesota politics since then.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked for the merger and Humphrey helped bring it about.
“I think it was a mistake because the party became part of a larger party that’s been taken over by political hacks,” Benson said.
Benson split with Humphrey by backing Henry A. Wallace as the Progressive candidate for President in 1948. However, it was Humphrey’s support of the Vietnam War that most upset Benson.
“Humphrey was a war criminal,” he said. “He was the chief ballyhoo artist for the war. I remember him saying, ‘This is America’s greatest moment and I’m sure glad to be part of it.’ ”
After leaving politics, Benson grew wealthy in banking. A television reporter once asked him how his wealth squared with his critical views of capitalism.
“It worked for me,” he shot back. “But look at all the thousands of people it hasn’t worked for.”