A tribute to Walter Mondale and other great Minnesotans

By Sarah Lewerenz, Charlotte Dems contributing writer

I am a Floridian and have the driver’s license to prove it. But, I will always in my heart also be a Minnesota DFL’er — a member of the Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor Party or the DFL — Minnesota’s affiliate of the national Democratic Party. And, this week, the last of the Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor Party greats, Walter Mondale, died.

Like many Midwestern and Plains states, Minnesota had a progressive populist party, the Farmer Labor Party. And, in 1944, Hubert Humphrey midwifed the merger of that party and the state’s Democratic Party. Thus, the Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor Party or DFL.

Humphrey was subsequently elected Mayor of Minneapolis in 1945. Then, in 1948, while running for the U.S. Senate, Humphrey attended the Democratic National Convention and successfully fought to include a strong civil rights plank in the party platform. Humphrey gave a stirring speech that, as did Obama’s convention speech in 2004, introduced him to a national audience. In that speech Hubert Humphrey called on the Democratic Party and Americans to support civil rights:

“…my friends, to those who say that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years late! To those who say this civil rights program is an infringement on states’ rights, I say this: the time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights!”

Humphrey was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1948, the first Democratic Senator from Minnesota since 1901. He served in the Senate until he was elected President Lyndon Johnson’s vice-president in 1964.

Although Humphrey sadly lost the presidency in 1968, he played a major role in the passage of many liberal bills while in the Senate including the 1964 Civil Rights Act which he authored, the Peace Corps which he first proposed in 1957, Medicare which he proposed 16 years before it passed, federal aid to education, a nuclear test ban treaty, the Job Corps. increasing federal farm aid and more money for Food Stamps.

Sent to Washington for the first time along with Hubert Humphrey in 1948 was another member of the Democratic Farmer Labor Party, Eugene McCarthy who was elected the Congressman from St. Paul. He was subsequently elected to the U.S. Senate in 1958. McCarthy did not then have the national reputation of Humphrey but was one of two men Lyndon Johnson considered to run for vice-president with him, the other being Humphrey.

Unknown to many, McCarthy lobbied Johnson for the job, vowing he would be more supportive of Johnson on the Vietnam War than Humphrey. But, in 1967, McCarthy announced he would run against Johnson for the presidency in 1968 as an opponent of the Viet Nam War. In a campaign powered by college students opposed to the war, McCarthy got 42% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary and Lyndon Johnson announced he would not run for re-election. McCarthy did not win the Democratic nomination for president, but he had brought down a sitting president by making the Vietnam War the issue.

Democratic Farmer Labor Party member Walter Mondale was born in a very small Southern Minnesota town just a few miles from the Iowa border, the son of a Methodist minister who believed in the social gospel of helping the poor. He was appointed Minnesota’s Attorney General in 1960. While Minnesota’s attorney general, Mondale persuaded 23 other state attorneys general to sign onto a U.S. Supreme Court brief in support of Clarence Earl Gideon’s ultimately successful attempt to get the Supreme Court to rule that criminal defendants were entitled to a government paid for attorney if they could not afford one.

Mondale was appointed to the U.S. Senate when Humphrey resigned to become vice-president. In the Senate, Mondale was a strong advocate for children’s issues. In 1974, he said:

 “I have probably devoted more of my time in the Senate to the problems of children than to any other area. I have visited migrant labor camps, Indian reservations, urban slums, and depressed rural areas. I have learned that there are many subtle ways to mutilate the spirit of a child — by depriving him or her of adequate nutrition, or health care, or of a good education.”

In the Senate, Mondale also sponsored legislation that passed banning discrimination in housing and a law requiring car companies to notify car owners of defects in their cars. He also led the last successful effort to reform the filibuster by reducing the number of votes needed to end a filibuster from 67 to 60.

Then, in 1976, Jimmy Carter asked Mondale to run for vice-president with him on the Democratic ticket. Mondale agreed but only after securing a written commitment from Carter on three major requirements: that Mondale would have complete access to the president, the same access to classified material as the president and a portfolio covering all the issues facing the country. Mondale also got a West Wing office and a weekly lunch with Carter. Interestingly, at Biden’s request, Mondale sent Biden a copy of the agreement he and Carter had before Biden met with Obama to hash out what Biden’s role as Obama’s vice- president would be.

In 1984, Mondale ran for president himself and became the first presidential candidate on a major party ticket to ask a woman to run for vice-president: Geraldine Ferraro. It would be another 36 years before America caught up to Mondale’s vision of America by electing a woman vice-president.

There were other lesser known giants of Minnesota’s DFL party. Orville Freeman, a former governor of Minnesota who served as both Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Agriculture.

Gerald Heaney who was an Army Ranger who went ashore on D-Day and led his men as they fought their way across Europe. After the war ended, he asked General Patton to let him go home. After hearing of the many battles Heaney had been in, Patton told his aide to “Give him anything he wants.”

After the war, Heaney became a very politically active DFL’er and a labor lawyer.  He negotiated the first Minnesota teachers’ union contract paying female teachers the same wage as male teachers. He was appointed a judge on the federal 8th Circuit Court Appeals by Lyndon Johnson in 1966 and served there for forty years.  He hired the 8th Circuit’s first female law clerk and first African-American law clerk. Heaney carried his liberal values onto the court writing, among other decisions, a decision ruling that female high school students could participate in male non-contact sports at schools with no female sports teams and multiple decisions desegregating the Little Rock, Kansas City and St. Louis Schools. In St. Louis he accomplished that by merging the City of St. Louis Schools with the surrounding county schools leading to an increase in black students who graduated from high school and went onto college.

Miles Lord, another DFL activist, was appointed a federal district court judge for Minnesota in 1966 by Lyndon Johnson. In 1973, he ordered a large iron ore processing company to cease depositing 47 tons of asbestos-like waste per minute into Lake Superior, the world’s largest fresh-water lake. He also handled the Dalkon Shield case. The Dalkon Shield was an intrauterine birth control device which injured 350,000 women rendering many of them sterile. He ultimately made the executives of the corporation that manufactured the Dalkon Shield sign off on a settlement agreement which held them personally liable.

Minnesota is a small upper Midwestern state on the Canadian border. It has produced giants and with the death of Mondale, they are all gone. But their legacy lives on in the many ways they changed our society. It is a legacy of values that Humphrey articulated in one of his last speeches:

“It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

Image Credits: https://www.legacy.com/news/celebrity-deaths/walter-mondale-1928-2021-42nd-vice-president-and-u-s-senator-from-minnesota/

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