Charles Stenvig, a Minneapolis cop who adroitly used public unease about crime and social unrest to become the city's mayor in the late '60s, has died.

With no political experience, party affiliation or formal platform, Stenvig served three colorful terms and was the office's last non-Democrat occupant.

Known for occasional malapropisms such as "People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw up," Stenvig was a self-described "law and order" man who rose through the ranks of the city's Police Department and first ran for mayor in 1969.

He stunned the political establishment by defeating the endorsed DFL and Republican candidates and winning 61 percent of the vote.

"Charlie" died Monday in Arizona, where he had lived for two decades. He was 82.

"He was ahead of his time on concentrating on the crime issue," said Walt Dziedzic, who served with Stenvig in the Police Department and was on the City Council when Stenvig was mayor. "Most politicians didn't know how to handle it."

This is a pitch he used during the 1969 campaign: "A few lawbreakers and hoodlums are dictating for the majority by instilling fear in several weak public officials. And the effect is the police are leery of making arrests."

Dziedzic recalled: "He files for office and heads for a vacation in Hawaii -- and while he's gone, the campaign takes off. They told him to get his butt back here because he was going to win this thing. That's just what he did."

Stenvig won a second two-year term in 1971, by an even larger margin. He lost in 1973 but was returned to office in 1975.

In 2007, the University of Minnesota staged a history exhibit about Stenvig. The curator called his career "a window into the politics of his era."

His son Todd said: "There was never any doubt which side of the fence he was on -- even if he was the only one on his side. You always knew where you stood with him, and if he said he'd do something, he'd do it."

A police lieutenant and head of the department's union when he first ran for mayor, Stenvig tapped into a political climate roiling with Vietnam War protests and racial tension. According to the history exhibit, Stenvig "was a divisive figure in Minneapolis history, and the debate about his legacy continues today."

Former Hennepin County Sheriff Don Omodt worked with Stenvig both on the police force and during his mayoral tenure.

"Those were difficult times, and Charlie took some strong positions on many things," Omodt said. "It was just his nature. He fought very hard for the city of Minneapolis as he saw it."

Former St. Paul Mayor George Latimer recalled attending a state dinner with Stenvig at the White House in 1976. "He had this reputation as a tough cop, a law-and-order guy," Latimer said, "but for all that, he was an extraordinarily amiable, pleasant fellow."

At a time when Minneapolis had been described in a national magazine as "the heart of American liberalism," Stenvig appealed to city voters' unease about crime and instability by vowing to take the handcuffs off the police.

Dziedzic said Stenvig was "a good cop -- he always stayed a cop, even when he was the mayor."

Against the political grain at the time, Stenvig once proudly said he "tried to hold the line on taxes." In ways reminiscent of today, Stenvig remained unaligned with the DFL and the GOP. His supporters, staunchly anti-tax, organized under the banner of the "T Party," in homage to the original Boston Tea Party.

Stenvig relished attacking the news media, which, he believed, were implacably against him. His favorite joking insult for the Star Tribune: "You know what STAR spelled backwards is."

He was well known for his use of colorful language and sometimes his misuse of it, such as when he said, "Rome wasn't built overnight."

Having returned to the Police Department as a detective, he made one last run for mayor in 1979, losing to Don Fraser. Three years later, he unsuccessfully tried to unseat Sheriff Omodt.

"We stayed friends and were for a long time," Omodt said. "He's such an outgoing, friendly guy. And there was the fact that we're both Scandinavians."

In between those last two campaigns, Stenvig returned to the public eye twice. He made a bid to become ambassador to Norway in 1980, citing his "100 percent Norwegian" heritage. The next year, Stenvig and his family appeared on the television game show "Family Feud."

He moved to Sun City, Ariz., in the late 1980s and spent his time playing tennis and bicycling, Todd Stenvig said. "He didn't play much golf because he was too good and no one wanted to take him on," his son said. "He was basically living the good life in Sun City."

His health began declining only in recent months, and he suffered a pair of falls that weakened him, Todd Stenvig said.

In addition to Todd, Stenvig is survived by another son, Tom, a daughter, Terry Taylor, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Family members had hoped to move Stenvig to an assisted-living center in the Twin Cities, but his failing health made that impossible, Todd Stenvig said.

A service is likely to be held sometime next week in Minneapolis, Todd Stenvig said.

Bob von Sternberg • 612-673-7184