Now that Jacob Frey has secured a second term as mayor of Minneapolis, might he be tempted to follow in the political footsteps of a famous predecessor? Another young, politically ambitious, adoptive Minneapolitan who came here from another state intent on making a name for himself?
Virginian Jacob Frey, meet South Dakotan Hubert Humphrey.
Stranger things have happened in politics.
Humphrey's 1948 elevation from the Minneapolis mayor's office to the U.S. Senate, launching a momentous national political career, was thought to be highly improbable at the time. Never before in Minnesota history had the state elected a Democrat to the Senate — much less a member of the then-newly assembled Democratic Farmer-Labor Party.
It's unclear what opportunities for higher office might be available for Frey, or when, with DFLers established in all statewide offices and likely U.S. House seats. Still, Frey is clearly a young man of ambition, as was the youthful Humphrey. And the parallel doesn't end there.
To win his 1945 race for mayor, the 34-year-old Humphrey had to defeat the Republican incumbent (yes, the Republican incumbent) Marvin Kline. He did so as the standard-bearer of the newly created DFL. In fact, Humphrey himself had played a pivotal role in the party's creation through the 1944 merger of Minnesota's Democratic and Farmer-Labor parties.
It's that merger that raises the most intriguing potential Humphrey-Frey parallel. Today, of course, while there is no Republican Party of any consequence in Minneapolis, there also is no third party on the order of the powerful Farmer-Labor Party of the 1920s, '30s and early '40s, which had elected governors, senators, congressmen and legislators.
The point for comparison is that Humphrey had to navigate a treacherous course, between his moderate-to-liberal Democratic Party and the leftist-to-radically-leftist Farmer-Laborites. Merging the two parties required a deft touch, as well as an unsentimental purge of the powerful pro-communist, "Popular Front" elements of the Farmer-Labor movement.
In both the merge and the purge, Humphrey played a prominent leading role.
In today's DFL, moderates and old-style liberals dominate in outstate Minnesota (where the party struggles) and in competitive exurbia, while bolder progressives and leftists battle it out in the Twin Cities and inner suburbs. Were there to be a purge within today's DFL, it might well be the left ousting moderates, roughly the reverse of Humphrey's maneuver in the 1940s, and perhaps the final political demise for his working-class version of the DFL.
But that isn't the only plausible future. Like Frey today, Humphrey in the 1940s was decidedly left of center. He was an ardent New Deal Liberal. But he did have an awakening of sorts during and right after World War II, a turn away from radicalism. Clearly, there were profound differences between the Popular Front left and the anti-communist liberals of whom Humphrey became an eloquent leader.
Today there is no Popular Front, no Soviet Union. But there is a hard left of real consequence within the DFL. And it is a left for which the failures and terrors of Soviet tyranny are little more than a distant memory.
The Democratic Party has moved dramatically to the left nationally, and the DFL has followed suit locally. President Joe Biden's unmistakable move left from his own well-established record tells the story, because his main talent has always been an ability to locate the ideological center of the Democratic coalition — then occupy it. The Joe Biden of the 2020s is not the Joe Biden of the 1970s.
Perhaps the power of the left wing of the DFL is so irresistible that moderates and liberals such as Frey could never accomplish what Humphrey accomplished. Humphrey thought the fellow travelers of the Popular Front were not just wrong but dangerous. So he took them on, and he defeated them. In doing so, he helped make the DFL and the larger Democratic Party into a force for great good in the early years of the Cold War, both abroad and here at home.
He also fought the racists of his day, many of whom were also within his own party. This meant fighting alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. toward the goal of building a colorblind society. That fight required political courage and political skill. Humphrey had plenty of both.
Has Frey had a similar awakening (as opposed to awokening)? If so, does he have the courage and skill to take on the left of his own day, including its racial preoccupations? So far the evidence is slim. Humphrey began moving decisively against the left before he became mayor and without having to wait for his city to be consumed in flames.
Frey has barely begun to tiptoe in that direction as his second term begins.
John C. "Chuck" Chalberg writes from Bloomington.