Notes of a Native Son

For an immigrant kid from Northeast, Walt Dziedzic did all right for himself. His proudest accomplishment? That he never forgot where he came from.

Dziedzic was drafted toward the end of the Korean war, where he ran an artillery gun. When he returned to baseball after the war, he started casting around for something with a more assured future. "I was starting to get worried. I would see ballplayers who were a little older who didn't have any education." He enrolled at St. Thomas back in St. Paul and graduated in 1960 with degrees in social studies, physical education, and political science. For a time he taught at DeLaSalle high school, but his real career--and the dawn of his political career--began in 1962, when he signed on with the Minneapolis Police Department.

During the 1960s, race and politics divided the force bitterly. Race riots and student demonstrations brought unprecedented attention to police brutality and racism. The department was deeply involved in city politics. Internally, police work was changing, as the days of the neighborhood beat cop (with their history, in Minneapolis and across the country, of nepotism, favoritism, and outright corruption) gave way slowly to the new breed of college-educated "law enforcement professionals."

Assigned to patrol his old neighborhood in Northeast, Dziedzic straddled the line between the old and the new. When he first came on the department "it was mostly white," Dziedzic remembers, "mostly conservative. If you had any original ideas, you couldn't go very far, because they had a set way of doing things and that was the way you did them."

All that was beginning to change. "It became a real profession," in the words of former mayor Hofstede. "The job changed. The way in which you dealt with people changed, and the crimes changed. Then you had the whole business of how you treat people, especially people of color, and how do you deal with people who protest. Policemen, primarily white, had to learn how to deal with people of color. It drove the police department into another strata--if you wanted to be a leader, you suddenly had to become much more sophisticated."

Dziedzic's college degree already put him in the camp of the new breed of policeman. His ambition set him apart, too. "I would be reading a book on police work, a textbook or something, on my lunch hour. Cops would say, 'What are you doing that for? We all retire on the same pension.' I'd always say, 'Yeah, but I don't want to be 50 years old riding in a squad car with you.'" As he rose through the ranks to become a detective and then an inspector, his modest reforms earned him little popularity with the rank and file. "I remember one time I wrote in a report that maybe someday if we have a racial incident, if we have a salt and pepper squad car--in other words a black and a white officer in the same squad--we'll defuse a lot of the issues that people raise immediately when two white officers show up. Christ almighty, I never heard such flak. That did not go over too well." The entrenched racism within the police department came to a particularly ugly head during the July 1967 race riots on the North Side, when angry blacks torched Plymouth Avenue and police were instructed to shoot to kill.

In the same year, the police department staged a "strike" for better wages. Cops weren't allowed to walk off the job, but the officers formed a "banner" line around the court house and jail, and the local unions generally honored the picket. When the building ran out of heating oil, Dziedzic remembers, "Some cops spilled water all around the lid that they had to take off, so that was froze. They had to bring some blow torches or some goddamn thing. They heated that up somehow and got it off--I don't know how. We thought the whole damn thing would blow up." Then Charlie Stenvig, who was head of the police union, stood on the cap and refused to let the workers replenish the oil supply. "He made the sheriffs take him off. They almost arrested him. Big headlines, and all of a sudden he's a martyr and a hero. He got elected mayor that next summer."

Stenvig was a conservative mayor. "Charlie made it because he got the police department behind him, and he got people whipped up," recalls John Derus, who sat on first the City Council and then the Metropolitan Council during the Stenvig years. "The riots on Plymouth Avenue were really significant. It was seen as anarchy. He ran as a tough cop who could deal with that and he got elected."

The next 10 years saw some of the most pitched ideological battles in the city's history played out in the mayoral elections, and Dziedzic played a central role in the fights. In 1972, at the end of Stenvig's second term in the mayor's office, Al Hofstede, a former 3rd Ward Council member and the chair of the Met Council, stepped up to challenge him. Dziedzic led a couple dozen renegade cops who stumped for Hofstede.

Hofstede ran on a classic liberal platform of rebuilding the core city: rehabbing homes, retaining businesses, investing in neighborhoods and job-training programs. He won endorsements from the UAW, the Teamsters, the building-trades unions, the united labor committee, and both the Minneapolis Star and the Tribune. He outspent Stenvig by a wide margin. The mayor served a two-year term in those days, and had the power to appoint not only the police chief, but his staff--putting the police department at the very heart of city politics, and even more so with a cop in the mayor's office. Nevertheless, Dziedzic was able to muster enough support to block Stenvig's endorsement by the Police Federation--which Stenvig had headed--causing the mayor a week's worth of front-page embarrassment.

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