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.

On issues like redistricting--when his sense of abstract justice is pitted against his neighborhood loyalties--Dziedzic votes for his ward. In that sense, he admits, he's conservative. "I want to keep Northeast a nice neighborhood," he says simply. "I don't want a lot of programs here that might lower some of the property values or start to hurt it through having a bunch of uncared-for people--no matter what program they're from. I want to help with some of those, but I don't want to get flooded."

Ron Edwards, who was first appointed chair of the Minneapolis Civil Rights Commission by Al Hofstede, says Dziedzic's conservative reputation is unwarranted. On key issues--integrating the fire and police departments, pushing fair-hiring programs in city government and in the city at large, dealing with crime and gangs in a noninflammatory manner--Dziedzic has proven himself time and time again. "In the last 10 years I've seen him to be the strongest civil-rights advocate on the City Council. More than 10 years, really. Even when it could have been some political risk to him, since his constituency didn't always understand what was happening."

Edwards blames Dziedzic's image on political manipulation in City Hall. "There have been some Council people, some of the so-called liberals, who have tried to manipulate Dziedzic, do things to get him emotionally riled up. Then they could point down the hall and blame him. People think they can use him. He reminds you of an old-style politician out of Minneapolis or Chicago of the ethnic variety. I know how that game is played and how you can take and shape the surface appearance of a person. But on race questions, on the questions of humanity, he's been a very progressive person. I see him as one of the more enlightened, progressive lights."

At the height of his tenure on the City Council, Dziedzic chaired the Ways and Means Committee. But over the past decade, his power on the City Council has waned. In 1983 he was removed from the Ways and Means chairmanship. In 1989 the Star Tribune editorialized against him, calling on him to resign since his "contributions to the city are minimal," and labeling him "generally unimaginative, shortsighted, and vindictive." In part, Dziedzic's liberal credentials have fallen victim to the changing face of Minneapolis. The city's poverty is no longer concentrated in the old Polish neighborhood where Dziedzic was born. The 1st Ward is solid blue collar. In the last census, median income for the Northeast zip codes hovered around $25,000. And in a city polarized not by ethnic divisions brought to the new world from Europe, but by race, Dziedzic's ward is about 90 percent white. The Lake Sandy allegory loses some of its punch against the backdrop of today's Park Avenue, with its entrenched poverty, group homes, crack houses, and low-income housing.

Beyond that, Dziedzic, however progressive, represents an old-fashioned way of conducting politics and city business. "We now have public-relations people," complains Alice Rainville, Dziedzic's longtime North Side ally who is also retiring this year. "The mayor has her own, the city has their own--and as a result we're becoming far more remote from the people than we ever were. People who are getting elected didn't grow up here. They are voting to keep their delegates happy." No one better personifies the old ways of door-knocking and ward-heeling than Dziedzic. "Like I always tell people, I'm the last of the country doctors. I do house calls. People call up and say, 'I'm having this problem.' I'll go out there and help."

The smaller, day-to-day problems of his constituents are the bricks and mortar of his time in office. "It's the highest, the only duty. And you know what? It's a diminishing part." While he boasts he has no enemies on the current City Council, he is in general dismayed by the turn of Council politics--away from the day-to-day needs of regular folk, by his reckoning. Dziedzic's tenure is perhaps the last vestige of a City Council that places the mundane duties of office-holding and constituent service above all else.

"If people think that they're gonna go down there to City Hall and be some kind of a big policy wonk, the maker of some kind of law that's going to cure the world..." he shakes his head vigorously, warming to the subject. "Know what? You know what you do down there? You take care of the shit in the yard. You take care of the barking dog. You take care of the garbage. You make sure the streets are plowed. You drive up and down the alleys and take a look at the guy that's got a lumber yard in his back yard, or built something illegal. You try to keep the neighborhood a good, sound place."

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