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‘Minnesota’s Quiet Crusader’ Don Fraser reflects on his career and today’s politics

A new book by Iric Nathanson underscores the fact that a man who seems so quiet — almost shy — on the outside has been a significant player in the events that have shaped our times. 

Arvonne and Don Fraser in their Minneapolis home.
MinnPost photo by Doug Grow

Quiet, humble, the politician without an ego? Arvonne Fraser listened to the descriptions of her husband and smiled.

“There are people who think that Don doesn’t have an ego and that he wasn’t ambitious,’’ she said, as her husband sat near her, stirring somewhat uncomfortably.

It was clear the former Minnesota congressman and Minneapolis mayor was a bit concerned with where his wife was headed in this conversation about his life and times. But after all the decades together — the political victories, the one painful defeat, the policy disagreements the two have had, the personal tragedies they have suffered — Don Fraser knows that once Arvonne Fraser is rolling, there’s no slowing her down.

“Talk about ambitious!’’ she said. “He’s always been ambitious, he’s always had a plan for how to get there.’’

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A biography, “Don Fraser, Minnesota’s Quiet Crusader,’’ recently has been published. Written by Iric Nathanson, historian and frequent contributor to MinnPost, it underscores the fact that a man who seems so quiet — almost shy — on the outside has been a significant player in the events that have shaped our times. There are a lot of politicians who make a few headlines with their flash and then disappear. Nathanson makes it clear that Fraser is among the few politicians who make a lasting difference because of their beliefs.

Starting as a state senator (1954-1962), then as a U.S. congressman (1963-1979), then, after a stunning loss in a DFL U.S. Senate primary race, becoming mayor of Minneapolis, Fraser’s fingerprints can be seen on everything from the Vietnam War to keeping the Boundary Waters Canoe Area pristine to early childhood development programs.

These days, even the Frasers appear to be slowing down. In a recent discussion about his career and the book, Don Fraser said it was necessary for his spouse to answer some of the questions. He has two issues, he explained. At 94, his memory isn’t what it used to be. In addition, he suffered a stroke a couple of years ago, making his speech sometimes a bit difficult. 

“She can speak for me,’’ he said.

They both smiled at that because Arvonne never has been one to hold back from speaking for — or sometimes in opposition to — her husband. They are a unique political couple. She has long been a leader of feminist movements and laughingly points out she had a book published about her life and times — “She’s No Lady: Politics, Family, and International Feminism” — long before this book about her husband.

So the question-and-answer session turned out to be as unique the Frasers. Sometimes she answered for him. Sometimes he answered for himself. Sometimes they both answered. And generally they agreed with each other, which probably accounts for a 68-year-marriage.

Don Fraser was a man of process — study groups, commissions, blue ribbon panels — in party building as well as policymaking. Is today’s culture too impatient to put up with process?

Arvonne: “He does like process, but he always understood there has to be an end to process. Process wasn’t just a way to sweep things under the rug. He started out with a goal and then figured out the process needed to get there.’’

Following Hubert Humphrey’s loss to Richard Nixon in the 1968 presidential race, Fraser, along with South Dakota Sen. George McGovern, led a Democratic National Committee that took 15 months to come up with rules that opened up the party’s process for selecting presidential candidates. The new process set the stage for McGovern to win the nomination, but McGovern got crushed by Nixon in 1972. In the wake of that election, Fraser said “presidential primaries are an unmitigated disaster.” In the time of Trump, does he still feel that way?

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Does the rise of Trump underscore the flaws of presidential primaries? Turns out, it’s complicated.

Don: “I don’t know that you could say he’s president because of primaries. He did use primaries to get the nomination, but he did win the election.’’

Arvonne: “He didn’t win the popular vote.’’

Don: “That’s true.”

Arvonne: “We both understand that primaries are an important check on our parties, but when you have all these presidential primaries, then it’s the public left to do the vetting. The public doesn’t have the ability or the time or the interest in doing the necessary vetting.’’

Fraser’s one political loss came via a primary. In 1978, he decided to give up his safe House seat and run for the U.S. Senate that was left open by the death of Hubert Humphrey. He was opposed by conservative businessman Robert Short. Short was anti-abortion, pro-gun, pro-mining and opposed restrictions on the BWCA, making him popular among conservative DFLers in the 8th Congressional District. He also drew 120,000 crossover votes from Republicans in the primary, which led to Fraser’s defeat. (Short ultimately was easily defeated by Republican David Durenberger.)

Was it Minnesota’s open primary rules that led to his defeat?

Don: “Maybe. But those were the rules. If I wanted to keep moving, I had to win within that system.’’

Arvonne: “He used to say that in hindsight, he should have emphasized the liberal issues he believed in rather than debate on Short’s terms.’’

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Don: “The BWCA issue was the big issue that Short worked on. His view was like (Rep. Jim) Oberstar’s perspective. But there were other things, too. (South) Korea comes into the picture, too.” 

(As the leader of a subcommittee in the early 1970s, Fraser had held hearings on the human rights violations of a brutal South Korean government and the entanglements of South Korean intelligence agents, the cult of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and wealthy Korean business people at the edges of U.S. government policy. In the process, Fraser offended people with money and influence, and some of that money came into his race for the Senate.)

As he reflects on his long political career, what’s most gratifying?

Don: “I’ve thought about that more lately and I think some of the work I did in Congress was useful. Particularly in my last years in Congress I was able to get the U.S. to publicly commit to human rights as an important aspect of how we approach foreign policy. Having human rights as having a place in our foreign policy is a shift from what it had been before.’’

Do the Frasers despair at the state of contemporary politics?

Don: “I think that Trump may serve out his first term, though I sometimes wonder if things will get so bad that he won’t make it through the term. But, after that, over the next 20 years we’ll be back to what we had before Trump arrived.’’

Arvonne: “This young group, raised under Obama and attracted to Sanders, is not at home sucking their thumbs. Combine that young group with a lot of women — they have issues they feel strongly about. It’s a movement and it has goals.’’