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Remembering Charlie Stenvig and the Minnesota T Party

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in order to govern,” according to University of Minnesota researchers Jeffrey Manuel and Andrew Urban in their unpublished account of Stenvig’s career as mayor.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 campaign poster
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

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.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Keith Ford on 03/16/2010 - 01:11 pm.

    Apparently not wanting to speak ill of the dead, Iric left out that Stenvig spent most of his last term looking for a cushy, private sector job. He had enough time with the city to retire and take a second, private job — and that’s what he sought earnestly.

    I know because I was in a leadership position on the City Council then and my colleagues and I were very much aware of his efforts. At the time, the city charter provided for the council president to become the new mayor and Charlie tried to enlist the help of the council leadership. Help him get a job and he’d step down, opening the seat for the council president. So Stenvig’s attempts affected the council considerably.

    Charlie almost got an offer, or at least a nibble, from the then Northwest Orient Airlines. But it was not to be and Stenvig largely opted out of running the city, yielding most issues to the Council. But he insisted that no-one meddle with his running of the police department (an insistence largely ignored by the Council) and jumping in and out of the new stadium debate.

  2. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 03/16/2010 - 07:17 pm.

    ‘It was the worst of times’…it was the worst of times and if one should be grateful for anything about Stenvig’s mayoral reign is …that he never ran for governor. We would certainly have developed into a police state.

    Fundamentalist religion and political power make strange bedfellows, then and now. What is really strange phenomena, is citizen inertia that goes along and accepts a subtle form of tyranny if politician or governor or self grandising, babbling broad…if they add “god” to their political menu as their “master” or whatever… Now that’s arrogance indeed.

    Then watch passive, mindless followers suck it up. Thus we had the T-party then…so goes the Tea Party now.

  3. Submitted by jim mclaughlin on 03/19/2010 - 06:34 pm.

    I never spoke to Charlie as I was only a kid in the 70’s. I knew his kids who were fine. I shared the same church as his family which was not some far right religious philosophy,just Methodism.I don’t much recall what Charlie said about law and order. However I have read Iric Nathanson’s book Minneapolis in the 20th century,in the section about the Plymouth Avenue disturbance in 1967. This induced me to read Harry Davis autobiography where Harry spoke with Stenvig about Plymouth Avenue years later. Stenvig confessed his use force way to quell problem was wrong. Jim McLaughlin

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