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Many who keep a scorecard on partisan battles regard Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie to be a left-wing firebrand. Be it his presiding over an election recount that flipped the result from Republican incumbent Norm Coleman to DFL challenger Al Franken, or his outspoken and combative opposition to the proposed voter ID amendment, Ritchie is regarded as public enemy No. 1 by a hefty segment of Minnesota Republicans.

Mark Ritchie: Exit interview

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Many who keep a scorecard on partisan battles regard Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie to be a left-wing firebrand. Be it his presiding over an election recount that flipped the result from Republican incumbent Norm Coleman to DFL challenger Al Franken, or his outspoken and combative opposition to the proposed voter ID amendment, Ritchie is regarded as public enemy No. 1 by a hefty segment of Minnesota Republicans.

More recently he earned the enmity of both parties by launching an online voter registration system in a manner that prompted a lawsuit alleging he encroached on the purview of the state Legislature.

But there has always been a more unsung and profound aspect of Ritchie’s character that has informed his policy decisions and approach to governing, one that doesn’t easily lend itself to horserace punditry and other conflict-oriented political analysis. If we define a conservative as one who seeks to retain, sustain and memorialize traditional institutions and values, then Mark Ritchie is an intensely conservative man.

Part of that intensity comes from the crucible of warfare, and the way that the histories of this nation’s most deadly conflicts — World War II and the Civil War — washed over Ritchie as a young boy.

His father went into the Second World War a naïve soldier straight out of ROTC, and came home, as Ritchie puts it, “very affected by having seen people starving in front of his eyes over in China. He brought back photographs. He stayed in contact his whole life with the missionaries he met after the Japanese surrendered. And he devoted the rest of his life to how science can deal with the problem of world hunger.”

The schooling and job-hopping of his father’s quest caused the family to move quite a bit during the first dozen years of Ritchie’s life. The home base of his youth thus became his native Newnan, Ga., where he spent every summer on his grandparents’ farm, surrounded by cousins and other kin on his mother’s side.

Like most towns in the Deep South during the 1950s and ’60s, Newnan continued to be pocked by the fallout from the Civil War. Ritchie remembers all the schoolchildren getting the day off on the birthday of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. Because Newnan was the seat of Coweta County, he remembers various plaques and statues in the town square “with all kinds of inflammatory language about the North.”

These experiences had a lasting impact on Ritchie’s worldview. He followed almost directly in his father’s footsteps, studying agricultural biochemistry in college. But where his father stayed in the science side while working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Ritchie branched into policy work, first for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture as the family farm crisis was taking place during the 1980s, and then as President of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy from 1988 through 2006.

“It is true that I have spent most of my life working in the broad area of food and agriculture and hunger, and that was my father’s whole life after the war,” he says.

An eye on history

Along the way, he also became a keen student of U.S. history, with a particular emphasis on the Civil War. Every month or two, one is likely to find Ritchie co-chairing a meeting of the Minnesota Civil War Commemoration Task Force. A dozen or more folks will gather and discuss purchasing fresh tombstones to replace those that have been lost or to lay beside those that are wearing beyond recognition.

And in this time of momentous anniversaries, there are trips to plan. Last September, Ritchie was among a small group that went down to Georgia, 148 miles north of Newnan, to commemorate the Minnesotans who perished 150 years earlier in the battle of Chickamauga, the bloodiest conflict of the Civil War, with more than 34,000 casualties. Earlier in the year, he was at the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg. In 2014, he will be at the 150th anniversary of the battle of Nashville.

There is a story Ritchie heard as a young man that he relishes repeating. A Union soldier who was awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery told of going out to rescue a wounded comrade and himself becoming seriously injured by gunfire. When he pleaded for help, a Confederate soldier said he couldn’t risk Union sharpshooters gunning him down. The two eventually negotiated a way for the confederate soldier to crawl through the tall wheat and drag him to a place where he could be assisted. The pair exchanged addresses and corresponded after the war.

“They are both out there fighting for what they think is right and then they confront their humanity,” says Ritchie, savoring the scene. “What strikes me is the accidental-ness of it in some way. These guys are going off to fight a war—like my father went off to fight in China—and then eventually you have to say, ‘Where do we go from here?’ That story is a way to talk about what it takes to knit a nation back together in the context of a very terrible rupture. And I know that feeling from both sides.”

Of course, reconciliation over some issues is more difficult. The Civil War was fought over slavery. Ritchie was born in 1951, meaning boyhood summers with his Southern Baptist occurred at the time and place when race relations were still fraught with tension and injustice.

“You know, you live in the north and you have one view of the people who live in the South,” he replied after a pause. “You live in the South and you get a lot of different views, conflicting things, from that experience. I got some very important things out of my mother’s family being Baptist.”

Ritchie remembers his grandmother putting money in a Prince Albert box and setting it aside, saving bit by bit to help buy a new education wing at her church.

“They believed in investing in a future they would never see, by maintaining institutions that could be of service to people,” he says.

This is at the core of Ritchie’s political philosophy: the retention of institutions that help people come together to honor and heal each other. When he and his wife adopted a child, they consciously decided to move to Minnesota—partly because it was near Ritchie’s parents in Iowa, and partly because his wife Nancy was interested in attending Metropolitan State University.

But what clinched it for Ritchie was the civic-minded traditions and institutions in the state. “Minnesota was No. 1 in voting, in co-ops, very high in volunteerism and charitable giving. It fit with our values,” he says.

Civic engagement

The couple’s faith in community was sorely tested when their only child, Rachel, was killed by a drunk driver shortly before her 21st birthday in 2000. “The support we got from our friends and community really held us together and helped us survive it,” he says.

Even so, he says his heart was “frozen” until he got a letter and a picture of the young woman who received Rachel’s heart through organ donation. By 2009, he was ready to speak publicly on behalf of LifeSource, the organization that coordinates the organ donations.

“His story is very powerful and effective,” says LifeSource CEO Susan Gunderson. “He talks about how getting that letter and seeing how his daughter had helped someone else finally enabled him to move beyond his own pain.”

Ritchie is now a member of the LifeSource board of directors, and helped commemorate “a wall of heroes”—a display of organ donors, including his daughter—at Hennepin County Medical Center last summer.

For Ritchie, public service and civic engagement trump political partisanship on his priority list. When he was at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, the group decided to mark the 50th anniversary of a number of institutions, including the World Bank and the United Nations. Through a byzantine set of circumstances, he learned about former Minnesota Republican Gov. Harold Stassen, appointed by then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt to be a key player in the formation of the U.N.

Ritchie describes Stassen’s keynote address at the 1940 Republican National Convention, mentioning that the notes of the speech can be seen at the Minnesota Historical Society. Titled “The Lights Are Going Out in Europe,” it aggressively challenged fellow Minnesotan and pilot Charles Lindbergh—”the most famous man on the planet at the time,” Ritchie says—over isolationism and Nazi sympathizing.

“Stassen said, ‘I am going to run for re-election, pass my budget, then quit and go fight the Nazis’—and that’s what he did!” Ritchie exclaims. “I put that story alongside my dad’s in sequence and I think, these are not just honorable men, these are courageous men. What do partisan labels mean in the context of a civil war or a global war in this society?”

Yet another Republican on good terms with Ritchie is former administrative law judge Raymond Krause, who was appointed by former Gov. Tim Pawlenty. In November 2012, Krause refused to reconsider a motion brought by two Republican legislators accusing Ritchie of using his office to mislead voters about the Voter ID amendment on that month’s ballot. But since his retirement in May of 2013, the two have regularly met for coffee and conversation.

“If you asked us both 100 policy questions, I’m sure our answers wouldn’t match up very often by any stretch of the imagination,” Krause says. “But our core values are very much the same. He has a very strong interest in the way the court system and government work and I have been in government most of my life.”

You can expect Ritchie to relish his final year in office. Whenever possible, he will still personally conduct tours of the Capitol once or twice a week.

“It is my favorite building—built largely by Civil War veterans,” he says.

On the advice of former Gov. Al Quie, he has made a list of things he wants to get accomplished before he goes. He is especially proud of the way the Coleman-Franken recount was conducted, noting that it restored some luster to statewide election administration that had been damaged during the 2000 Bush-Gore recount in Florida.

When it was over, the Minnesota Supreme Court, composed of bipartisan appointments, unanimously supported the findings of the recount, and Ritchie was elected president of the National Association of Secretaries of State the following year.

Naturally, he credits the institution. “The underpinnings were decisions that were made 20 or more years ago. I was just being the steward of an incredibly well-put-together system. Of over two million votes, only 14 ballots were not unanimously decided—and they were split evenly between Coleman and Franken. It’s a great system. I’m lucky. We’re lucky.”

The combative side of Ritchie emerges whenever he perceives any effort to restrict access to voting. His biggest dust-ups in office have occurred over his strong reactions against Voter ID legislation and his effort to expand the voting franchise through online registration.

For Ritchie, the act of voting is a special kind of public service. “It is a way of contributing to the community that is more than just being a voice,” he says. “That’s why studies show that when people come out of prison, they benefit from the feeling of voting.

“There is an element of it that is physical in a caring way,” he adds. “We think of it as a dot on the paper, but it is more than that. And I am the person who gets to be Secretary of State for the top voting state in the nation. It is an honor.”


 The Ritchie File

Name: Donald Mark Ritchie

Age: 62

Job: Minnesota secretary of state

Education: B.S., Iowa State Universit

Family: Wife, Nancy Gaschott

Hobbies/fun fact: Huge Civil War buff

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