“The Little Guy for the Little Guy; 1969 Minneapolis and the White Working-Class Revolt”
by Jeffrey Bloodworth
A political novice before his 1969 mayoral race, Charles Stenvig was not an utter unknown in the Twin Cities. Three years before his mayoral run, he was elected president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis. In standard times, the head of a public union would earn intermittent media attention. The mid-to-late 1960s was no normal era, especially for cops and crime. Indeed, by 1969, a gumbo of urban riots, antiwar protests, and rising crime rates caused law and order to supersede economic concerns with working-class voters. More than any other public figure in Minneapolis, Stenvig capitalized on this turnabout.
As the colorful head of a 770-member union, Stenvig honed a populist brand of leadership that infused the Police Officers Federation with greater “militancy” and grabbed headlines. In a 1967 winter protest for higher wages, for example, he had police and firefighters form a human barrier to stop fuel deliveries to city hall. Personally blocking the fuel plug and in full view of the press, he barked at the fuel delivery driver, “You are going to get your head knocked.” Weeks later, he resumed the protest outside the newly constructed $16 million Minneapolis Auditorium. While Mayor Arthur Naftalin and other political elites sauntered into the posh facility to watch Henry Mancini conduct the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, police and firemen carried banners stating, “Council okays $16,000,000 for Auditorium. Fire and Police Protection?” A savvy organizer, Stenvig understood the optics and where working-class sympathies would lie.
In ordinary times, Stenvig’s advocacy for police might tire the public. But for many Minneapolitans, especially the white working class, the late 1960s had spawned significant empathy for police. Rising crime, urban riots, student protests, and increased scrutiny of police tactics had made a cop’s job more difficult. Though hardly a hotbed of violent crime, Minneapolis was not immune to these trends. Along with every other city, Minneapolis witnessed sustained increases in crime. In 1968, for instance, the city endured a sharp 16 percent surge in lawbreaking from the year before. Though criminality dropped in 1969, the accumulated increases in years prior and public perception cemented a public opinion that lawbreakers were running rampant.
Flourishing crime near white working-class neighborhoods caused the issue of law and order to resonate especially strongly with those voters. The heart of the city’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) voters lived in the Ninth and Twelfth Wards, an area adjacent to the crime-ridden south Minneapolis. Comprising only 6 percent of the city’s land area and 12 percent of the population, south Minneapolis featured a swell in significant violent felonies. In a 1969 two-month sample, the area was home to 26 percent of the city’s overall street crimes. When a city journalist rode with a south Minneapolis patrol team during one typical summer evening in 1969, the reporter witnessed police investigate two burglaries, make one arrest for public drunkenness, interview an armed teen, locate a pack of youths dropping stones onto cars from an overpass, and engage in a high-speed car chase. For the working-class homeowners of the Ninth and Twelfth Wards, south Minneapolis’s crime represented a significant bodily threat and a financial hazard to home values.
In the midst of a national and citywide crime wave and a swell in public disorder, Stenvig earned headlines as the Twin City’s chief proponent of the police. Engaging in continual public spats over pay, sick leave, disability, and boycotts, he became so controversial that most Minneapolis police refused public comment on their union chief. Even if many cops winced when their union boss bawled, “I believe there is police brutality—brutality against the police, that is,” many voters appreciated the sentiment.
High on Stenvig’s list of “brutalities” perpetrated against the police were Warren Court rulings that buttressed the rights of the accused. To him, the rulings confirmed that police had become “the scapegoat for politicians.” By 1969, a clear majority of voters concurred with Stenvig. Gallup Polls, for instance, revealed an extraordinary national change in public attitudes toward “crime and lawlessness.” In November 1967, 60 percent of Americans polled had named pocketbook concerns the “Most Urgent Problem Facing Family.” Less than two years later, “Crime and Lawlessness,” which had not even rated as a top-ten issue in 1967, had leaped to second place. This shift in attitudes could be found in the Twin
Cities. One Minneapolis mailman captured this swing in sentiment by saying, “I think at one time the police were a little bit arrogant, but I don’t think it’s that way anymore.” Bemoaning “young people’s” disrespect for the police, he and other Minneapolitans wanted to empower the police and respected cops for having a “tough job.”
Making matters more combustible was that public attitudes toward law and order were swinging to the right at the very moment that New Politics liberals backed protections for the accused. To many voters, these “trivial detail[s]” had enabled violent offenders to escape punishment and pushed the spike in crime. In Minneapolis, the city’s iconic four-term mayor, Arthur Naftalin, had created two such bodies, the Human Rights Commission and a civil rights department, dedicated to the very “trivial details” that typified, in the estimation of some, liberal permissiveness toward law and order. Charged with investigating allegations of police misconduct and brutality, they investigated Minneapolis police for violating the rights of the accused.
As police union president, Stenvig battled Naftalin’s Human Rights Commission.
In what would become his trademark populist bravado, he urged officers to simply refuse to appear before the committee or offer written or oral testimony regarding any “racial disturbance.” In 1968, the commission chair, Raymond Plank, a local liberal business magnate, accused Stenvig of blocking two white officers’ testimony. In response, Stenvig challenged Plank to a televised debate. Possibly looking to the 1969 mayoral race, Stenvig defied the Twin Cities liberal powerbroker. Though the debate never materialized, the pugnacious police union head clearly demonstrated an understanding of political theatrics.
In early 1969, “Charlie” or “Chuck”—never Charles—hit the campaign trail. Punctuating the end of a sentence with the aphorism “isn’t that right”—as in “the mayor is the Police Commissioner of Minneapolis, isn’t that right?”—Stenvig promised, “The mayor’s main job is being the head of the police department.” Using class resentment to his advantage, Stenvig accused business elites, both major newspapers, and the city’s leading law firms of badmouthing his candidacy, because they were “afraid they’ll have a working man as mayor.” Doubling down on this sentiment, he declared, “People are sick and tired of politicians and intellectuals . . . they [the people] want an average workingman from the community to represent them—and that’s me.”
Lacking clear qualifications for the job, Stenvig utterly understood the electorate’s mood. On the eve of the election, one Minneapolitan correctly predicted that “Stenvig will be elected, certainly not because he is a better candidate with better qualifications, but because voters are sick and tired of endless endorsements and other tactics used by the Establishment.” For that voter and Stenvig, the “Establishment” meant perceived liberal permissiveness of crime, urban riots, protests, and social tumult. This charge possessed some merit. In the face of rising fear of and disgust with crime, liberal elites often dismissed crime statistics as unreliable. When that failed, US attorney general Nicholas Katzenbach scorned fears of sexual assault by telling women, “The odd[s] of that happening may be about the same as those of being hit by lightning.” While many liberals stuck their heads in the sand, an actual and verifiable crime wave metastasized.
In conjunction with crime were urban riots. In the mid-to-late 1960s, nearly every major American city witnessed urban disorders centered upon racial issues. These demonstrations reached a crescendo in the summer of 1967, during which bloody race riots erupted in Detroit and Newark. In that same summer, Minneapolitans experienced the largest racial disturbance in their city’s history. By the 1960s, the city’s historically tiny African American population had grown and comprised 4.5 percent of the overall population. They also endured the very same indignities, housing and employment discrimination, and police brutality that had become hallmarks of the black experience in the urban North.
On a warm July night, north Minneapolis exploded in violence following two racial incidents with white authorities. Over the course of two nights, black youth rioted and set fire to the area’s main commercial thoroughfare. Once the riot emerged, participants roamed the district, chucked rocks at police, and set fire to area businesses. When firemen arrived to battle the blazes, rioters pelted them with debris. As an eight-block stretch of Plymouth Avenue businesses burned, firemen refused to return.
In response to the melee, Minnesota’s governor, Harold LeVander, sent six hundred national guardsmen to the area with orders to “shoot looters on sight.” Quite small in comparison to those in Detroit or Watts, the race riot nevertheless rocked white Minnesota. Indeed, for years, Walter Mondale had bragged to his senate colleagues, “No such thing could happen in Minnesota.” Humbled, Mondale realized race relations were not as convivial as he imagined, which for many liberals of the senator’s bent prompted further gestures at racial reconciliation. The senator’s white working-class constituents, however, had opposite reactions: they sought law and order.
A scant seventeen months later, in January 1969, the University of Minnesota witnessed a violent student protest with a significant racial component. Just as the mayoral primary race commenced, approximately sixty to seventy students turned an afternoon meeting with university president Malcolm Moos into a twenty-four-hour occupation of the campus administration building.47 Led by the Afro-American Action Committee (AAAC) and supported by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), protesters barricaded themselves into the Morrill Hall offices, soaked university records with water, and debated the merits of torching the building. The next morning, hundreds of white counterprotesters gathered outside Morrill Hall to hurl rocks and ice at the building. Fearing for their safety, AAAC and SDS members armed themselves with fire extinguishers, broom handles, and fire hoses. With the incident threatening to spin out of control, Moos offered concessions that ended the standoff and refused to sanction the protesters. This conclusion sparked significant controversy among whites in Minneapolis.
It was in the midst of this environment that the contest to replace Mayor Naftalin commenced. Though few observers gave Stenvig much of a chance, the rabble-rousing populist policeman fit the bill for an angry electorate. Stunning the Minneapolis political world, Stenvig captured nearly 50 percent of the primary vote by carrying nine of the city’s thirteen wards, including DFL strongholds. The only real contest was over second place, where Republican Dan Cohen defeated the DFL nominee, Gerard Hegstrom, who finished a distant third. Adding to the ignominy, Hegstrom failed to carry his own neighborhood working-class ward. The two wards he did carry almost exclusively comprised, in predictable New Politics liberal fashion, university students and professors.
Jeffrey Bloodworth an associate professor of history at Gannon University