Perpich, Rudolph George (“Rudy”)

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Perpich, Rudolph George (“Rudy”)

(b. 27 June 1928 in Carson Lake, Minnesota; d. 21 September 1995 in Minnetonka, Minnesota), governor of Minnesota known for his unusual ideas, which earned him the sobriquet “Governor Goofy.”

Perpich was one of several children of Anton and Mary Perpich. Anton Perpich immigrated to the United States from Croatia in 1920 and settled among the numerous Slavic miners on Minnesota’s “Iron Range” in the vicinity of Duluth. His mother was born in the United States to Croatian parents. Although the language of the home was Serbo-Croatian, and thus young Perpich began school without knowing English, his parents emphasized the value of education. They inculcated in all their children the view that education was the way out of the marginal living conditions of the Iron Range. On 4 September 1954 Perpich married Delores (“Lola”) Helen Simich; they had a son and a daughter.

Perpich attended nearby Hibbing Junior College and then, at the urging of his father, went on to earn a D.D.S. degree at the Marquette University School of Dentistry in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1954. For several years following his graduation, he practiced dentistry in Minnesota, but he soon found his vocation in politics, being elected to Hibbing’s school board shortly after his graduation from the dental school. In 1962 he was elected to the state senate, where he served for eight years, together with two of his brothers, Tony, representing Pine City, and George, who represented Shoreview.

Throughout his life Perpich represented the progressive wing of Minnesota politics. He was a representative in the state senate, and he ran for lieutenant governor in 1970 on the ticket with Wendell Anderson as a member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, which was a coalition of liberal and progressive political groups in Minnesota and established in the 1930s. Perpich had been known to declare that no one would elect a Catholic of Slavic background from the Iron Range as governor and that his only hope of reaching that office was to back into it from the position of lieutenant governor.

That was precisely what happened. Anderson, although an effective governor, tired of the demands made on him in that role. When Walter Mondale, one of Minnesota’s U.S. senators, was elected U.S. vice president in the successful campaign of Jimmy Carter in 1976, Anderson resigned as governor, and Perpich moved up to the governorship. He then appointed Anderson as Mondale’s replacement in the U.S. Senate. But the voters were outraged, and turned both Perpich and Anderson out of office in 1978. Perpich had, however, tasted the fruits of political office, and after a few years in Europe as a representative of Control Data Corporation, he returned to Minnesota and won the 1982 Democratic-Farmer-Labor primary as a candidate for governor. He went on to win the general election. Perpich had numerous governmental reforms to his credit. Perhaps the most important of these were improvements in education. His predecessor had reformed the financing of education so that more funds flowed to schools that lacked the real estate tax base to support good education. Perpich expanded on this reform by getting the state legislature to approve “open enrollment,” a system that generally allowed parents to enroll their children in the public school of their choice, whether or not they lived in that school district. He also pushed through a proposal to allow senior high school students to take college courses at one of the state-supported colleges or universities and at state expense. He worked hard to upgrade the academic standing of the University of Minnesota. Finally, he was instrumental in the construction of the new Minnesota History Center in St. Paul, part of the reconstruction of the capitol area into an aesthetically pleasing state “campus.”

One of Perpich’s major achievements was expanding the role of women in state government. He chose a woman to run as lieutenant governor in his successful campaign to recapture the governorship in 1982, and he appointed a number of women to important administrative positions in the state as well as to many of the state courts. It was on his watch that Minnesota passed a law requiring equal pay for women who did a comparable job. A special commission was created to determine the “comparability” of the jobs women did with those of men. His wife, Lola, helped him entertain his political associates in Slavic style.

Perpich was an avid promoter of the Minnesota business community. He scoured the country to find a developer prepared to build a giant mall, and the result was the Mall of America, the largest such development in the United States. Few believed him when he promised to attract the Super Bowl to Minnesota, but he succeeded in 1992. He was an indefatigable salesman of Minnesota, persuading numerous high-tech industries to relocate to the state. One of his strangest ideas was to help Minnesota’s depressed Iron Range, the old mining district around Duluth, by persuading a company to start a chopsticks factory there, an idea he conceived to counterbalance the negative U.S. Japan trade balance in the 1980 (this was not a successful business venture).

Perpich’s sense of community with the underprivileged of society led him to champion the Native American tribes still living on reservations in Minnesota. Following a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1987 authorizing the tribes to create their own businesses, as well as the Indian Gaming Control Act passed by Congress in 1988, Perpich became the point man for those Minnesota Indian tribes that wanted to open gaming casinos. As a result, eleven of the first thirteen Indian gaming casinos in the United States were located in Minnesota. Moreover, the compacts that Perpich as governor negotiated with the Indian tribes gave the latter a perpetual right to operate such facilities, in contrast to the more limited contracts agreed to in other states.

Following his victory in 1982, he won reelection in 1986. By 1990, however, the voters had tired of Perpich’s flamboyant methods and turned him out of the governorship once again. He died of colon cancer at his Minnetonka home and is buried in Minneapolis’s Lakewood Cemetery.

Perpich epitomized the American dream, coming from modest, immigrant-based origins and reaching the penultimate layer of government, leadership of a state. He was a flamboyant, leader, and though he earned the nickname “Governor Goofy”—an epithet applied by one of his political opponents and transferred to the national stage by Newsweek magazine—in retrospect he rates as one of the best leaders in the history of Minnesota.

There is no full-length biography of Perpich, but there is a small chapter on him in Jim Klobuchar’s Heroes Among Us: Uncommon Minnesotans (1996). Some of his specific programs are treated in Daniel J. Elazar, Virginia Gray, and Wyman Spano, Minnesota Politics and Government (1999). His obituary in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune (22 Sept. 1995) contains numerous tributes to his accomplishments as governor from a variety of leading Minnesota politicians.

Nancy M. Gordon