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City politics were scrappier when Dan Cohen last ran for mayor of Minneapolis.
Then the City Council’s young, ambitious president, he traded daily barbs in 1969 with police detective Charlie Stenvig on the campaign trail. Stenvig accused hoodlums of dictating City Hall policies. Cohen said Stenvig’s agenda could lead to a police state. Stenvig supporters slapped bumper stickers over Cohen’s face on billboards.
Forty-four years later, Cohen is back for more — but he’s learned some lessons. “You’re not going to see any picture of me on my billboards,” he said.
Cohen has proved to be an unlikely player in the 2013 race, winning early name recognition among 35 candidates by pouring a personal fortune into radio and television advertising. He’s hoping that fierce opposition to the Vikings stadium deal and the promise of a downtown casino will bring him a political revival this fall.
He strikes a jovial tone in private company, but Cohen is still known for his blunt style, often relating the Vikings stadium troubles to a “script from the Sopranos.”
“There’s no holding back with Dan Cohen,” said former mayor Al Hofstede. “What you see is what you hear and what you get.”
After being soundly defeated by Stenvig in 1969, Cohen never quite disappeared from the scene. He served a four-year term on the city planning commission in the 1970s, then worked in public relations and advertising in the 1980s.
In 1982, he squared off unsuccessfully against Mark Andrew in a primary for Hennepin County Commissioner.
He has written about 20 books, including a biography of Hubert Humphrey and several children’s titles, such as “The Case of the Runaway Rabbit.”
Educated at Stanford and Harvard Law School, Cohen’s nonpolitical pastimes include owning thoroughbred horses. He and his wife now have two horses, neither of which is racing.
“I don’t recommend it to anyone as a great source of income,” Cohen said.
Cohen successfully sued the Star Tribune in the 1980s for revealing him as the source of a tip about the criminal past of a lieutenant governor candidate. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor.
He wrote a book about the case in 2005. He retired in 1991, but in recent years was appointed to the city’s charter and planning commissions.
‘The spirit moved me’
His politics have also evolved. Cohen identified as a Republican for much of his political career, but said he grew uncomfortable as the party became more interested in social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. Now an independent, Cohen says he is a fiscal conservative and a social liberal.
He’s not a Democrat, though, saying their solution to all financial problems is to raise taxes.
But why would a 77-year-old spend $285,000 — much of which Cohen says came from the Star Tribune judgment — on the campaign rather than enjoy a more comfortable retirement? His response speaks to his shoot-from-the-hip style.
“The spirit moved me,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to be mayor. It looked like an opportunity. I had something to say and I wanted to say it.”
Delivering yard signs Saturday morning, he bounded up porch steps at a north Minneapolis home. “My name’s Dan Cohen, I’m running for mayor! I could use your help!” he yelled to a woman through the door. He succeeded; a sign went up in her yard.
Cohen won a seat on the council in 1965 after making some contacts while working on Wheelock Whitney’s bid for Senate, and won a second term two years later. Better residential street paving was a cornerstone of his first campaign, and as council president in his second term, he said he helped create two commissions — civil rights and one that helped cut red tape to allow for more industrial development.
Back then, the city was in a state of social unrest, juggling race riots and student demonstrations. The 1969 mayoral campaign hinged on a “law and order” theme partly as a result. Now Cohen is focused on the stadium, police race relations, planning commission conflicts and a downtown casino to help raise revenues — the casino would likely require a statewide referendum.
Stadium: Would try to stop it
If elected, Cohen says he would instruct city officials not to send any money to team owners Zygi and Mark Wilf and tell them the city would not honor its contract. The city is on the hook for $150 million in stadium construction costs and another $189 million for operations. That plan might be somewhat difficult to pull off, since the state would likely take the dollars by force to pay its bonds.
Cohen sees it differently. “I think that Governor Dayton goes to bed every night with a little prayer on his lips that says ‘Somebody get me out of this thing before the election,’ ” he said. “And my answer is, ‘Governor, I’m coming!’ ”
Political calculus wouldn’t normally give much weight to a candidate who has done little fundraising and has minimal field operations. But ranked-choice voting has made the race unpredictable.
But perhaps it’s only natural Cohen would jump into the biggest political scrum the city has seen in a generation. As longtime associate John Derus, a former Hennepin County commissioner, explains, “He’s always at the center of every fight.”