Don Fraser, who died on Sunday at 95, left a legacy of public service stretching over four decades, from the 1950s to the 1990s.
Fraser launched his political career when he was a struggling 30-year-old attorney with a wife and with three children under the age of 4 at home. He won his first election in 1954, when he ousted a well-established incumbent in the Minnesota Senate. Following two terms in the state Senate, he defeated another incumbent, this time a U.S. congressman, and went on to serve eight terms in the U.S. House. Fraser suffered his only electoral defeat in 1978, when he lost the DFL primary to fill the late Hubert Humphrey’s Senate seat. Following that defeat, Fraser rebounded politically when he was elected mayor of Minneapolis in 1979, a post he would hold for the next 14 years.
Throughout his career, Fraser relied on the emotional support he received from his wife, Arvonne, a staunch feminist and a public figure in her own right, who died last year. Arvonne and Fraser (in public, she always called him by his last name) met when they were both working on Humphrey’s first Senate campaign in 1948. During the early and middle years of their marriage, Arvonne served as Fraser’s campaign manager and later as the volunteer head of his congressional office. But when he returned to Minneapolis in 1979 to run for mayor, she was pursuing her own career interests that revolved around the role of women in international development.
Starting with their early days as Humphrey campaign aides, the Frasers shared a deeply held commitment to progressive politics. But that shared commitment did not mean that they always agreed about public issues and political strategies. “Arvonne is angry with me,” Fraser reported at one point while he was mayor, after the two of them had a very public disagreement about welfare policies. But despite the occasional public disagreements, the Frasers were bound together by close ties of affection and respect that sustained them both during difficult times, particularly after the tragic deaths of two of their daughters.
Fraser retired from public office in 1994 after a string of electoral victories interrupted only by his Senate primary loss in 1978. While he was mayor, Fraser was able to bring about a significant change in the city’s municipal structure, overcoming strong opposition from other political forces in City Hall. Earlier, during his congressional years, he spearheaded several important policy initiatives, including a new focus on international human rights in U.S. foreign policy and an overhaul of Congress’s archaic committee system.
Fraser’s most notable legislative accomplishments included Minnesota’s Fair Housing Act of 1961 and the federal Boundary Waters Protection Act of 1978. The former congressman and Minneapolis mayor could point to other significant policy advances, but he had higher ambitions. For him, it was more important to confront the big issues — reforming Congress and the Democratic Party, providing a stronger moral foundation for U.S. foreign policy and combating the endemic problems of poverty and race.
Sadly, these larger causes have not fared well during the current century. Today, Congress is polarized to the point of gridlock. Political-party organizations are stagnating as their impact on the electoral process continues to diminish. Bombast has replaced morality in foreign policy. Combating poverty has all but disappeared from the national agenda, replaced with growing focus on the needs of the beleaguered middle class. On the local front, Fraser’s signature issue, closing the achievement gap, remains an elusive goal.
Fraser’s critics on the right — and even some on the left — may be tempted to view his record as a symbol for what they see as the failure of 20th-century American liberalism. But to do so is to misinterpret the significance of Fraser’s career. It is true that Fraser’s most avid supporters have always viewed him and themselves as political liberals. However, to define Fraser with those terms is to oversimplify his more complex outlook on the world. In some ways, Fraser can be thought of as a conservative because of his deep concern for maintaining and strengthening key American institutions — families, neighborhoods and communities. In today’s political climate, he would part company with those on the left who call themselves revolutionaries and look to overturn the established order. Fraser would retain the established order but make it more humane, compassionate and just.
While never retreating from an activist agenda during his years in public office, Fraser always acted as a conscientious steward of the political institutions that were entrusted to his care. As his elective career was coming to an end, he once remarked that he thought Minneapolis was not necessarily better off because he had been mayor. But he was wrong. He may not have resolved the serious social issues facing his city, but he gave Minneapolis 14 years of thoughtful, principled oversight of the instruments of local government. He was a good steward, and Minneapolis was better off because of it.
Don Fraser’s career provides a lesson that is more important today than at almost any time in this country’s past. That lesson is that character counts in American political life. Over the years, the people he has represented have overlooked Fraser’s stolid demeanor because they have recognized his innate strength of character. Implicitly, they have understood that character is something that cannot be manipulated or manufactured With him, was genuine — it was essential part of his nature.
In many ways, Fraser’s most important contribution was the model of public service he exemplified — a model built on honesty, integrity, intelligence and empathy.
Iric Nathanson was a legislative assistant to then-U.S. Rep. Don Fraser from 1967 to 1978 and is the author of “Don Fraser: Minnesota’s Quiet Crusader,” published in 2018.