Fraser remembered as 'quiet giant' of Minnesota politics

Former Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser
Former U.S. Rep. and Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser is pictured in 1982 making budget recommendations. Fraser died Sunday at the age of 95.
Darlene Pfister | RPA - Minneapolis Star Tribune

Former U.S. Rep. and Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser was hailed Monday as a champion of international human rights, the creation of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and early childhood education.

Fraser, who died Sunday at age 95, wasn't a great orator. He loved to get down in the weeds and discuss intricacies and outcomes.

"Don Fraser was a quiet giant," said University of Minnesota politics professor Larry Jacobs.

During Fraser's decades in politics, first in the state Legislature, followed by almost 20 years in the U.S. House and then as the longest serving mayor of Minneapolis to date, he had a profound impact on Minnesota, Jacobs said.

"Don Fraser, in a quiet, determined and very impactful way, shaped what we take for granted today," he said.

Elected to the Minnesota Senate in the mid-1950s one of Fraser's early fights was on the issue of fair access to housing.

"I remember vividly one homeowner who had a lawn sign for me that when he heard about the bill I had introduced, he had taken it down and burned it," Fraser later told MPR. "But back then people had just not faced up to the problem of racism."

In Congress, he began working on international human rights issues, questioning U.S. financial support for regimes which abused their own citizens. He pushed for annual reports about the human rights records of countries receiving U.S. military aid. Fraser said that system later expanded.

"So, every year now the U.S. puts out a report card on every country in the world," he said. "I have always thought it is very arrogant, but it's also very useful."

Fraser was also a leader of the national reorganization of the Democratic Party following riots outside the 1968 convention in Chicago. The new system gave more power to rank and file members.

What was perhaps most significant to Fraser politically at home was his bills restricting motorized access to what is now known as the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness.

While popular within the metro area, many voters in northeastern Minnesota saw limits on motors as an attack on their way of life and were bitterly opposed.

When Fraser ran for the Senate seat left vacant by Hubert Humphrey in 1978, northern Minnesota Democrats, including Dr. Alvin Hall of Ely, tried to block Fraser's endorsement.

"People are simply not going to elect into office someone that is going to cut their throat," Hall said in a report on MPR.

Fraser won the DFL endorsement but lost the primary election to business executive Bob Short and left Congress. Within a year, he was elected mayor of Minneapolis, a job he held from 1980 to 1994. It was a time of prosperity for the city, highlighted by a building boom which transformed downtown.

It was there he began his focus on early childhood education. He pointed out that too many youngsters were entering the school system unprepared to learn, putting them at a huge and ongoing disadvantage.

Then-City Council member Sharon Sayles-Belton says Fraser's focus and partnerships with the private sector led to important developments.

Sayles-Belton, who became council president and then succeeded Fraser as mayor, says he was a good friend and mentor.

He also helped Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who said Fraser repeatedly took on hard issues again which had no real political gain but were the right thing to do.

"And he also continued to believe you have an obligation to teach and mentor the next generation of leaders, which is something he did for me, because if it all ends with you, then what good have you really done?" Klobuchar said Monday.

Fraser and his wife Arvonne had six children. She died in 2018 at age 92.

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