Charles Stenvig, one of Minneapolis’s least remembered but most colorful political figures, died on Feb. 22 at the age of 82.
A three-term mayor in the 1960s and 70s, Stenvig’s political career was propelled by the Minnesota T Party, an enthusiastic but short-lived local movement whose right-wing populism would resonate with the adherents of today’s nationwide Tea Party.
The former mayor was a member of the Minneapolis police force in the summer of 1967, when young blacks rioted and trashed stores along Plymouth Avenue in the city’s Near Northside.
Later, as president of the Minneapolis Police Federation, Stenvig railed against what he viewed as the excessive restraint exhibited by then-Mayor Arthur Naftalin and his police chief, Cal Hawkinson, during the Plymouth Avenue riots.
In 1969, the Minneapolis police detective ran for mayor as an independent vowing “to take the handcuff off the police” and to crack down on “racial militants” and other local agitators.
In a political upset, Stenvig ousted DFLer Gerald Hegstrom in a three-way mayoral primary and went on to defeat Republican Dan Cohen in the general election.
While Stenvig capitalized on public unease about racial conflicts and the harsh rhetoric of the black power movement during that era, his success at the polls was due to more than a racially tinged backlash by the city’s white majority.
Focused on liberal elites
In an effort to avoid being tagged as a white racist, Stenvig downplayed overt racial appeals and focused his ire at the liberal elites and their efforts to impose technocratic solutions to the problems of crime and social unrest. The successful local candidate emphasized his own real-world experience and dismissed the notion that, as mayor, he would need to rely on the “expertise of academic professors, business leaders and community activists in order to govern,” according to University of Minnesota researchers Jeffrey Manuel and Andrew Urban in their unpublished account of Stenvig’s career as mayor.
The former police lieutenant’s attack on liberal elites was a not-so-subtle slap at his predecessor, Naftalin, the ultimate liberal technocrat and a former University of Minnesota political science professor.
Stenvig’s supporters coalesced as the T Party following his electoral win in 1969, issuing a statement of principles that called for tax cuts, lower government spending, a crackdown on crime and less public intrusion in the lives of ordinary citizens.
As mayor, Stenvig was careful to keep his distance from the T Party, at least publicly, in order to maintain his image as a political independent, but his most ardent supporters served as leaders of the new political organization. The T Party provided grass-roots organizing support for Stenvig’s successful re-election campaign in 1971 when he swamped his DFL opponent, Harry Davis, the city’s first African American mayoral candidate.
During his years in City Hall, Stenvig cultivated T Party activists with his anti-tax stance while serving as a member of the tax-setting Board of Estimate and Taxation. But even as mayor, Stenvig only had one vote on the seven- member board and he was regularly out-voted by the agency’s pro-tax majority.
Stenvig ran for a third term in 1973, but was defeated by DFLer Al Hofstede that year.
In 1975, in a rematch, Stenvig defeated Hofstede and returned to City Hall for a final two-year term. Then, in 1977, the two political adversaries squared off again, this time with Hofstede as the victor.
Stenvig tried, but never succeeded, in making a political comeback, eventually fading into political obscurity and retiring to Sun City Arizona. After Stenvig left City Hall, the T Party faded away with him, with several of its most active members migrating to the Ronald Reagan’s rejuvenated Republican Party in the 1980s.