A soft-spoken and unassuming man, Don Fraser had staying power in the elected offices he held in St. Paul, Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis over his nearly 40-year political career.
He advocated for ideas ahead of his time, pushing for human rights reform while in Congress and championing the power of early childhood education during his years as mayor of Minneapolis. He remains the longest-serving mayor in the city's history.
"In his own quiet way, he always won the day," said George Latimer, former mayor of St. Paul.
Fraser died Sunday morning at home in Minneapolis, surrounded by family. He was 95.
Fraser was born in 1924 in Minneapolis. He attended the University of Minnesota before briefly serving in the Pacific theater during World War II. While working as an attorney, he became active in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party in the 1940s and worked on political campaigns, including Hubert H. Humphrey's 1948 race for U.S. Senate.
His own political career began in 1954 when he was elected to the state Senate. He served for seven years before becoming a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1963 to 1979.
"He was not your prototypical politician," said his son, Tom Fraser. "He persuaded people by the power of his argument, not the volume of his speech."
In 1978, Fraser gave up his U.S. House seat to run for the U.S. Senate seat held by Humphrey, who had died earlier that year. Fraser lost the DFL primary election to businessman Bob Short because he lacked rural voter support, in part because of his work to pass laws protecting the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
"The political opposition didn't matter to him," Tom Fraser said. As a teenager, Don Fraser had canoed in the Boundary Waters, and he continued to take his family there well into his 80s.
Kevin Proescholdt, conservation director for Wilderness Watch, worked with Fraser as a volunteer wilderness advocate and credits him with the passage of the BWCA Wilderness Act.
"Don remained steadfast in fighting for protection of the BWCAW throughout the time, even when his advocacy for protecting this gem may have cost him votes," Proescholdt said.
Losing the election offered him an opportunity to get out of D.C. and return to Minneapolis, where Fraser was first elected mayor in 1979.
"He relished the opportunity to return home," his son said. "He truly found the mayoral job to be the most rewarding of his career because he could translate his ideas into action more quickly."
Among Fraser's accomplishments as mayor was ridding the police department of its ingrained politics. Until Fraser was elected, the department was riven by political factions that backed one mayoral candidate or another -- and to the victorious faction went the spoils of top jobs and plumb assignments. Fraser put an end to that by appointing an outsider from New York City -- Tony Bouza -- as police chief.
A recent biography of Fraser includes a quote from Bouza during his tenure as chief: "Oh, my God, after all the cretins and bastards I have worked for, I was owed Don Fraser. The city was owed Don Fraser. I love the guy. He's thoughtful, decent, intelligent, tough. He's everything you would want in a mayor. He's absolutely wonderful."
Outside of his elected offices, Fraser was a dedicated father to his six children, his son remembered. He was a relaxed and tolerant one, too, Tom Fraser said — at one point, a jungle gym was allowed in the living room. He also enjoyed swimming, canoeing, sailing and weekly games of tennis, which he played into his mid-80s.
Fraser was also an avid tinkerer, his son said. He was the go-to person for any computer fixes and enjoyed spending time in his shop, where he worked on radio-controlled cars and boats.
Fraser suffered the loss of two daughters -- one hit by a car as a young girl on her way to school, and another who committed suicide at age 26.
Latimer remembers Fraser as someone who thought deeply and had a quiet strength. His length of service spoke to his integrity and the trust his constituents put in him each election year, Latimer said Sunday night.
"I never heard a word from him, in all the hours we spent privately, that he would not have said publicly," Latimer said. "There was no wall between the public and the private him."
For Latimer, Fraser falls into the group of Minnesota leaders — Walter Mondale, Hubert Humphrey and Orville Freeman — who lived with a simple dedication to do good and be just.
"I don't think he was ever understood for the greatness he represented," Latimer said.
In a statement, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar called him a "true champion for good."
"As a congressman he fought for the environment and human rights and exposed human rights abuses around the world. As the Mayor of Minneapolis he advocated for early childhood education," she said. "His mission? Ideas matter in politics. He lived that."
Fraser's wife, Arvonne, was a trailblazer for women's rights and ran as lieutenant governor on Latimer's ticket in the 1986 gubernatorial race, which they lost in the DFL primary. Arvonne died in August 2018 at age 92.
Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440