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Don and Arvonne Fraser: Time and experience give extraordinary couple some perspective on issues and politics

He was a U.S. congressman for 16 years and then became the accidental mayor of Minneapolis. She was a pioneer in the international women’s movement.

Arvonne and Don Fraser will be celebrating their 64th wedding anniversary this summer.
MinnPost photo by Doug Grow

In the next few months, there will be pols who will claim “this is the most important election ever.’’

When those words are uttered — from the left or the right — it’s a good idea to take a deep breath and consider the thoughts of elders such as Don and Arvonne Fraser who have been through decades of “most important elections ever.’’

The Frasers, who this summer will be celebrating their 64th wedding anniversary, have been extraordinary players in vitally important issues of more than a half century: war, civil rights, poverty, childhood education.

He was a U.S. congressman for 16 years and then became the accidental mayor of Minneapolis after being upset in a primary race in an effort to become a U.S. senator. She was a pioneer in the international women’s movement.

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Both remain active. Both remain passionate. Both believe in the importance of political activity. But a little perspective is in order. Time does heal wounds and memories.

The run against Rudy Perpich

An example: In 1986, then-St. Paul Mayor George Latimer decided he would challenge the DFL’s incumbent Gov. Rudy Perpich in a primary. He selected Arvonne Fraser as his running mate.

There must have been some compelling reason the Latimer-Fraser ticket decided to pick a fight with Perpich, right?

“A couple of years ago,’’ she said, “I said to George, ‘Can you remember why we ran against Rudy?’ He couldn’t recall, either.’’

Perpich, by the way, defeated Latimer in the primary and, as Arvonne Fraser recalls, held no grudges. To this day, she said she’s not sure whom her husband voted for.

She laughed. That’s politics. What’s so incredibly important at one moment fades in time.

Yes, politics of our time is too often mean-spirited.

“My impression of Congress is that things have changed,’’ he said. “There is less bipartisanship. The president has had to deal with political difficulties much greater than in the 1960s and the 1970s.’‘

“It seems like it’s become socially acceptable to be nasty,’‘ she said.

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Why is that?

“I can’t put my finger on that,’’ he said.

“You know what I think it was?’’ she said. “I think it was the anti-smoking campaigns. The way people talked about smokers was just terrible. It was OK to say terrible things about smokers. You couldn’t talk about anyone else that way. It’s come to the point where people aren’t even going to be able to smoke in a park. The piety of the anti-smoking people drives me nuts.’’

Condo presented a choice

This comes from a woman who was a smoker up until a year ago. What made her finally quit was her desire to move from the home where the Frasers raised six kids to a condo overlooking the downtown skyline and the Mississippi River.

The building they moved into is a nonsmoking building. She fell in love with the condo the moment she saw it. That left her with a choice: the condo she loved or cigarettes. She opted for the condo, though she’s in trouble if the anti-smokers next go after nicotine gum.

The decor of the condo speaks to the personalities of the Frasers. It’s filled with lovely artwork, but there are none of the ego-boosting photographs that so often fill the homes and offices of pols. There are no photos of Don Fraser standing with presidents he served under or congressional stars he served with. No photos of Arvonne Fraser addressing international women’s conferences.

Where are the trophies?

“We have a storage room,’’ he said.

He’s 90, she’s 89. They haven’t just lived remarkable times, they’ve helped shape them.

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As a congressman from Minnesota’s 5th District from 1963 to 1979, Don Fraser was an active player in setting the stage for the 1965 Civil Rights Act.He was an early leader in the progressive Americans for Democratic Action. He was an early critic of the war in Vietnam.

He was hammered by some progressives in his own party when he tried to heal the angry split in the DFL over that war. Progressives (doves) supported Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s bid to be president in 1968. Traditional DFLers supported then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey. (Fraser supported Humphrey.)

The internal politics for control of the soul of the Democratic Party was greater than the current struggle faced by Republicans.

Time heals.

A pivot in 1978

But Don Fraser’s legacy may have been rooted in defeat. In 1978, he gave up his safe seat in the House and ran for the Senate as a successor to Hubert Humphrey. In the primary, however, he was defeated by Robert Short, a conservative DFLer who found support among primary voters with his attacks on legalized abortion, his appeals to gun owners and his pushback against the creation of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

(Short’s positions led to thousands of DFLers crossing over to support moderate Republican Dave Durenberger in the general election. Durenberger breezed to a lopsided Senate victory.)

Fraser didn’t have time to brood about his loss to Short. Democrats in Minneapolis were holding their city convention to endorse a mayoral candidate within a week of the primary. The phone in the Frasers’ D.C. home rang. Would Don be interested in running for mayor?

“I didn’t know what else to do with myself,’’ said Fraser. “But Arvonne was not a great cheerleader of the idea.’’

“I knew there was no stopping him when I found out he’d booked the last flight that would get him to Minneapolis before the convention,’‘ she said.

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He was endorsed. He won election and served 14 years. (The first term was for two years. Fraser pushed for the city charter change that allowed for four-year terms.)

Ultimately, it was the mayoral job that Fraser found more gratifying than his job in Congress.

Things get done — sometimes very quickly

“When you’re in the Congress and you ask somebody to get something done, it might happen in six months if you’re lucky,’’ Fraser said. “When you’re the mayor, you ask for something to get done in the morning and often, by afternoon, it’s done.’’

From the get-go, he was involved in controversy; he selected a brash and brilliant New Yorker, Tony Bouza, to be the Minneapolis police chief.

The most heated controversy of his political career, however, is one of those things now barely a memory.

Shortly after he was elected, there were some in the feminist movement who pushed Minneapolis to make pornography illegal. The City Council, they recall, passed an ordinance that would have done just that.

“Fraser had to veto it,’’ Arvonne said. “I supported him because I believed it would set a dangerous precedent. It was something that could be turned around on just about anything.’’

“It erupted into something national,’’ he recalled. “We got angry letters from women. We got calls at home. There were two things that generated anger: that (the porn veto) and snow removal.’’)

Ah, snow removal. It’s a reminder that some things never change.

Early education

With poverty and crime gripping parts of the city, Fraser attempted to take a long view of finding solutions. He started promoting the concept, new at the time, of early childhood development.

When he became president of the National League of Cities he took those ideas, some of which were considered radical, to a higher level.

“Fraser won’t say it (Arvonne typically calls her husband ‘Fraser’), but he put early education on the national agenda,’’ she said.

That work is far from over. But the former mayor does believe the concepts have advanced, and he continues to be active in the cause of early ed.

Meanwhile, problems — based mostly on poverty, the Frasers believe — continue to be complicated, despite the simplistic rhetoric of politicians.

Unintended consequences

And often, in the short term at least, there are unintended consequences to some solutions to some problems.

“In a complex way, I would say the feminist movement has been a part of this,’’ she said. “Now (because of advances for women) it often takes two earners for a family to even hope to achieve the middle class. Somehow, it’s expected for women to go to work, raise the family, take care of the home and make sure everyone’s happy. It drives me nuts.’’

On the other hand, she’s thrilled that the feminist movement she’s always been a part of seems to “have taken root internationally.’’

Both accept that there always will be huge, but changing, challenges.