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Don Fraser’s most enduring legacy: his innate strength of character

At first he seemed self-effacing, almost to point of diffidence, but I soon learned that appearances were deceiving. Once I got to know him better, I discovered the strong will and the keen intelligence that he used to advance his policy and political concerns.

Don Fraser
Don Fraser shown in a 2012 MinnPost file photo.
MinnPost file photo by Karen Boros.

I first encountered Don Fraser when I was summoned to Washington in 1967 by his wife, Arvonne, to serve as a staff assistant in his congressional office. I had expected to find an imposing figure who strode through the halls of Congress with overpowering confidence. But Fraser did not look and act the way I thought a U.S. congressman was supposed to look and act.

He may have been confident, but he was certainly not overpowering when he ambled up to my desk to give me my assignments on that first day in his office. To me, he seemed self-effacing, almost to point of diffidence, but I soon learned that appearances were deceiving. Once I got to know him better, I discovered the strong will and the keen intelligence that he used to advance his policy and political concerns. Guided by a strong core of beliefs, he moved ahead with single-minded determination once he decided on a course of action. 

A hero to thousands of staff aides

Those characteristics were on display when he went to bat for one of his committee aides, a man named Bob Boettcher, who handled Fraser’s work on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Boettcher had incurred the wrath of Wayne Hayes, a powerful committee chairman who controlled House expenditures for staff salaries. Hayes decided to punish Boettcher by withholding his paycheck. Many of Fraser’s colleagues, when confronted with a similar contretemps, would have directed their errant staff to go hat in hand to Hayes to apologize. But believing that Boetcher was being unfairly targeted by the tyrannical House Administration chairman, Fraser decided to take on Hayes in a head-to-head confrontation on the House floor. That public confrontation embarrassed Hayes and succeeded getting Boettcher’s pay restored.

The battle with Hayes made Fraser a hero to the thousands of staff aides all over Capitol Hill. Many of them were envious of our casual but respectful relationship with our boss. We called him “Don,” much to the chagrin of his House colleagues who felt that we staffers were being overly familiar and not adequately differential. But Fraser had little interest in the pomp and pretensions of official life in Washington.

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Staff got the imposing office

I remember the time he called our staff together and announced that he was rearranging our congressional office. We had just moved into the sprawling Rayburn Building, the most prestigious of the three House office buildings lining Independence Avenue. Fraser was not pleased with the layout of the new office suite. He told us that he was moving out of the large, imposing room with elegant furnishings and 15-foot high ceilings that had been his private office. He explained that he would be taking over a small workspace across the hall, little larger than a cubicle, and moving the staff into his old office.

The office switch did not represent a symbolic gesture on Fraser’s part. It was merely intended to make the office function more efficiently. With a busy schedule of committee hearings and House floor sessions, Fraser saw no need to maintain a large private office that was vacant most of the time, while we staff assistants were squeezed into a small, dingy workroom. When dignitaries came to the office to meet with Fraser, they were the ones who had to squeeze in the small workspace across the hall from us.

During those years on Capitol Hill, while many of our fellow staffers in other congressional offices were often subjected to tongue lashings for apparent misdeeds, we Fraser aides were lucky enough to avoid that kind of office turmoil. If our output was not quite up to par, Fraser could signal his displeasure by summoning us into his office, raising an eyebrow and saying, “Needs more work” when he handed back the less than adequate memo or statement we had sent in for him to review.

Rarely displayed anger; droll wit

Fraser rarely displayed anger, at least not in the office, but that did not mean the anger wasn’t there. He just kept it under wraps. After he left Congress, I kept in touch with him when he returned to Minneapolis as mayor. During those years, he seemed freer to express his emotions than he had when he was in Washington. There were bouts of anger when he felt his agenda was being thwarted by his political adversaries. Longtime City Hall observers still talk about the time he bellowed at a feuding City Council member, telling the man to do something that was “anatomically impossible,” to quote the delicate phrase that one observer used to describe the incident.

On the lighter side, there were the times that his droll wit brightened up an often-pensive visage. “Don is hysterically funny,” one former City Hall colleagues has noted. “That is a side of him that most people don’t see. They think he is dull and pedantic, but if you sit next to him at a long, boring meeting, he will crack you up with his sly quips.”

Fraser’s personality and his outlook on the world may have evolved during his congressional and mayoral years, but those of us who knew him during those times recognized the inherent trait that shaped his career: an innate strength of character that will be his most enduring legacy.