If you needed to get it done in Minnesota politics, Freddy Gates Jr. was the man to see.
That was true for Hubert H. Humphrey, who relied on Gates as his right-hand man and confidant.
It was also true for businessman Bob Short, who tapped Gates to run his U.S. Senate election, upsetting Don Fraser in the primary election.
And it was true for Minnesota congresswoman Betty McCollum, who needed Gates’ savvy to bring a light-rail project to Minneapolis.
Gates, a public servant who advised some of Minnesota’s greatest political minds, died Dec. 1 in hospice care at age 73. His family and friends remember him as a caring man who ran in important circles but avoided the limelight, whose legacy lives on through the young politicos he mentored along the way.
“He had a strong faith in doing what’s right,” said Bill Harper, chief of staff for McCollum. “There was a little bit of missionary in Fred.”
Gates was born into politics. His father, Fred Gates Sr., a Lebanese arcade owner, helped Humphrey get elected mayor of Minneapolis in 1945 on a promise to eradicate the city’s then-pervasive organized crime syndicates. As Humphrey’s political trajectory continued to rise, Gates Sr. remained in the closest tier of Humphrey’s inner circle — he even held the Bible for Humphrey as he was sworn into the vice presidency. As Freddy Gates Jr. came of age, the Gates home in south Minneapolis became famous in political circles as the unofficial hotel for Democrats in the Midwest, hosting Humphrey allies including Eugene McCarthy, Henry “Scoop” Jackson and George McGovern.
“This is the environment that Freddy grows up in, this extraordinary dedication to this other person’s life,” said Minnesota lobbyist Larry Redmond.
Gates followed in his father’s path. After attending Creighton University in Nebraska, Gates returned to help in Humphrey’s second U.S. Senate campaign. After the election, Humphrey hired him to run his constituent offices in downtown Minneapolis.
Gates was a crucial player in Humphrey’s administration. His friends remember him as the guy who knew how the system worked, a warm or gruff operator, depending on what the situation called for. He was a dapper dresser who drove an iconic white Thunderbird with vanity license plates reading “HHH.”
Outside of politics, Gates was a caring figure dedicated to helping others, recalled his niece, Jackie Hanzal, who cherishes memories of her uncle spoiling her family with video games and Santa Bears during the holidays. “He was essentially Santa Claus, showering us with gifts every Christmas that my mom couldn’t afford,” said Hanzal.
Gates volunteered as a mentor to young people from low-income families. He adopted a son and became legal guardian to others. He traveled to the South during the Civil Rights movement to march and register black voters.
He was also famous for mentoring young people with political promise, such as Harper, who credits Gates with getting him into politics as a college student in the late ’80s — when Gates was leading the Joe Biden presidency effort in Minnesota. Decades later, Harper recruited Gates to help out McCollum, and Gates was instrumental in several transportation projects, including the light-rail line and St. Paul’s Union Depot renovation.
“It was thrilling every day I got to work with Fred,” said Harper. “I got to use what he taught me — and he kept teaching me.”
Gates is survived by his brother Ray, sister-in-law Barb, sister Darlene and many nieces and nephews. Services have been held.