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.

Anyone who knows Walt Dziedzic is bound to have heard the story of Lake Sandy, which is really the story of how the city fathers screwed Northeast--his neighborhood--out of a lake. It's Dziedzic's favorite yarn. "The people who now live way out in the suburbs in the golden west," he explains, "they used to live at 20th and Park Avenue in those big mansions. They were the power elite in this city. They took, at the turn of the century, the dredgings from Lake of the Isles--you know with all them nice homes there? And they hauled it up to Northeast Minneapolis and filled in Lake Sandy so that the Soo line railroad yard could expand."

Dziedzic, who is stepping down to run for Park Board this January after 21 years of representing the 1st Ward on the Minneapolis City Council, could be called the Lake Sandy avenger. In the well-heeled circles where power mingles, the ex-cop and sports hero--with his cursing and spitting, his bulky physique, and his second-language English--is a perennial outsider. He's often portrayed as some kind of meaty ward boss, a crusty holdover from the past, and he is all of that. But looks can be deceiving. "People underestimate Walter," says former mayor and longtime Dziedzic supporter Al Hofstede. In the past two decades Dziedzic has transformed his loyal Northeast political base into formidable citywide clout, making him, in the estimation of one pol, "one of the most prominent politicians in the city."

For Dziedzic, Lake Sandy is more than an illustrative story--it's a parable, an encapsulation of Minneapolis politics, with its geographic and economic fault lines: between north and south, the moneyed class and the working class, the dredged-clean and the dumped-upon. A lot has changed in Minneapolis since they dredged Lake of the Isles, but the fundamental split remains the same. The power elite may have left South Minneapolis for the "golden west" of suburbia, but they left in their wake the lakeshore Volvo set, a diffuse liberal elite that still exercises control over City Hall, not to mention the city's business and media. When Dziedzic steps down from office come January, there will be one less voice to challenge them.

If you want to measure Walt Dziedzic's clout, you could start with the enormous shopping center going up in his ward on Stinson Boulevard. Dziedzic counts the multimillion-dollar development project among his crowning achievements. "I always promised these people that someday I was going to buy my Christmas turkey at a big store in Northeast Minneapolis," he says, wheeling his car through the massive parking lot where the streetlights are still wrapped in plastic. "This is the year."

Housing as it does Rainbow Foods, Target, Home Depot, Office Max ("all the power stores in the country," reckons Dziedzic) the complex promises 450,000 square feet of shopping. That's about 8 square feet for every man, woman, and child in Dziedzic's ward, making it the largest retail development in the city outside of downtown. The price tag is some $110 million, and includes new freeway ramps and street work to direct traffic flow. Developing the complex is Ryan Corporation, one of a handful of key players in Minneapolis's downtown development landscape.

Back when Dziedzic was chair of the Ways and Means Committee, he led a revolt against then-Mayor Don Fraser, who vetoed one of Ryan's downtown developments. "I got the votes to override the veto," Dziedzic remembers, "and when we got the ninth vote and it passed, old man Ryan jumped out of his seat with a big grin. I'll never forget that. His sons, who pretty much run the business now, always said that they're going to do some things Northeast, so we asked them to help us put this together and they have, and it's good for them."

Massive as the development is, it's only one of dozens of deals that Dziedzic has shepherded into his ward. When Norm Coleman recently dangled a stadium-sized sweetheart deal in front of Lawson Software to lure them out of Northeast and into downtown St. Paul, Dziedzic was quick to intervene, dragging Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton into one of their meetings to convince the company to stay. "They liked how aggressive we became," he says, "but they were already swooned by Mayor Coleman."

In the overall picture, the loss of Lawson is negligible. He's not worried about filling their empty office space: "They're waiting in line," he says. Besides, there are still the Dayton's and the UPS warehouses, Cream of Wheat, General Mills, Nabisco, the Bureau of Engraving, Lucent Technologies, the Fox 29 television studio, a Sheraton, and a Fortune 500 medical supply company. And that's not to mention dozens of small businesses, warehouses, and factories that together make up what is probably the largest industrial zone in the inner city. All of them, at one point or another, have obtained the Walt Dziedzic seal of approval. "Not bad, huh?" he crows. "Not bad for Nordeast. This all happened since I got into office. Putting it conservatively, I'll betcha there's $40 to $50 million on the plus side that we've increased the tax base--and I mean real taxes, I don't mean assessed value. Assessed value might be in the billions."

In the world of politics, development districts like those in Dziedzic's ward generate goodwill all around: Big developers like Ryan get money in pocket. So do the building trades and their unions. Constituents get jobs. And politicians, in the press conferences and televised ground-breakings, get the credit. But Dziedzic isn't your typical brass-band politician, though he's happy to give me an extensive press junket of his ward. "I'm not the braggart type," he protests. "Nobody knows because I don't want them to know."

As he frequently does, Dziedzic professes a simpler motive for his interest in the district, one that springs from his own experience in life. "I always thought that a job was sacred--next to God. If you have a job, at least you got a chance. If you want to get a job Northeast, ever since I been a kid, you can find a job if you're willing to work. I can remember working weeding on a truck farm, picking potatoes when I was stronger, and I went to work construction with my brother when I was about 12."

In this age, it's disconcerting to find a politician who is true to his own mythology. "I don't think there's a phony bone in his body," insists Hofstede. "What you see is what you get--he's the same on stage as off stage. People talk about playing the game of politics--Walt doesn't do that." Dziedzic's ideology seems derived from experience; his political success hasn't come through the public-relations office, but through his reputation as a savvy political fighter, his persistence, and his fidelity to the old neighborhood. He's part of a dying breed.

Two of Walt Dziedzic's sisters still live in the house on Randolph Street where he was born in 1932. It's a small, one-and-a-half story in a neighborhood full of small houses. Northeast Minneapolis was then a working class, ethnic enclave. Immigrants stuck together in tight little communities stitched together by railroad lines and by the factories that offered employment. Dziedzic's Polish parents had immigrated at the turn of the century. As a child, he spoke Polish at home. His father, who built brakes for railroad cars at American Brake Shoe up on Central Avenue, died when Dziedzic was 2 years old. His mother never remarried, and he remembers his childhood as one filled with deprivation. He shared a bedroom--and a bed--with his three brothers; his four sisters shared another room.

"You can read any story about the Depression and know what it was like," his oldest sister Catherine tells me. "Everybody was very poor. We didn't have much food. We struggled." Walter and his siblings scavenged coal from the railroad tracks to burn at home. "We used to take the blocks out of the street and burn them in the stove," he remembers. "When the city workers left, if they left any wood or anything I guarantee you, they never had to clean up after themselves."

He was, by his own admission, a rough kid whose scrapes included an early brush with the law after he and some friends broke into and vandalized a Northeast warehouse. The boundaries of class and ethnicity charted a clear course for his life: At 8 or 10 years old, young Walter waited regularly on the corner for the farm truck that picked up immigrant city kids for potato-picking on nearby farms. The neighborhood was his whole universe. "If we dated somebody from the South Side," he remembers, "a lot of times you'd hear, 'You dating that Pollack from Northeast again?'"

In those days before television, much less cable sports stations, high school sports were a civic passion, accounting for the bulk of the local sports page. At Edison High, Dziedzic met up with coach Pete Guzy, who stepped into the void left by his father's death. He entered the sporting life with a vengeance, playing and excelling in hockey, speed skating, football, and baseball. He still keeps a scrapbook stuffed with clippings testifying to his all-around prowess. In 1950, Dziedzic graduated from Edison and signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers organization.

When the fresh-faced teenager left Northeast for the farm-team tour, it proved to be his introduction to the broader world. The one he left in Nordeast, he says, "was somewhat like the suburbs are today. I tell you, this area back then was so safe--you hear people say they never lock their doors--well I don't think we did. You knew everybody. I could still tell you that's the Rosemeyers' house; I can name who lived in every house. This guy's dad used to deliver coal to my house."

It was also entirely white. "When I lived here," Dziedzic says simply, "there was never a black."

Leaving Northeast behind, Dziedzic was plunged into the world of integrated baseball. With the Dodgers, he toured the Southern United States by train. "We were going down South and I seen it said 'colored,' 'whites' in the fountains and all that, at the train station when we were going through, and I asked a guy, 'What is this shit, what is it?' I got a first-hand education on the way people were being treated." Before one game in Georgia, Dziedzic recalls, "The manager tells us, you know, be a little careful if you go for a fly ball over at the stands; don't be starting a fight or we'll get killed here. We were not exactly a beloved team in those kinds of towns, because we had the black players. I got a pretty good feel for the social issue that was yet to come. All that was good background for what I ended up doing, both on the police department and in this job."

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.

Dziedzic "was absolutely instrumental in getting Hofstede elected," says Derus. And in the polarized atmosphere of the MPD, backing Hofstede put Dziedzic's career at the police department in jeopardy. "I went way out on a limb to help him against the Stenvig crew," Dziedzic says. "If Stenvig had won he would have tried to fire me."

As it was, Hofstede won, overcoming a three-to-one margin early on. His first term as mayor was a radical departure from the get-tough rhetoric of Charlie Stenvig. "The issue was very simple," Hofstede says. "People didn't know what to do with the core city." Hofstede's answers would be familiar in today's political environment: investing in communities, improving race relations, reining in rogue cops. He cleaned out Stenvig's police leadership, and Dziedzic enjoyed a bit of patronage for his efforts, becoming a high-ranking inspector of police. But after just one Hofstede term, Stenvig launched a successful comeback.

"Some people in Hofstede's office said, 'We're not having any more cops working on the campaign,'" Dziedzic recalls. "He changed the signs, changed the literature. He went to this 'community based' thing; he's preaching 'community' out there now. Shit, he got fancy. I like a nice, hard sign: 'Hofstede mayor.' But he put the community this, the community that and all kinds of bullshit on his sign--you could hardly figure out what it was. And no cops working. They just got lazy. It turned out to be a great, nice day that November. A warm day. Nobody voted. We lost by 500 votes. I really felt bad. We started to get the town going in the right direction, and then we get two more years of Stenvig."

But if Stenvig's re-election was bad news for the city, it was even worse news for Dziedzic's career in the police department. As the outspoken and visible leader of the Hofstede contingent on the force, Dziedzic had made a sworn enemy out of Stenvig. Now that he was back in office, it was payback time. Stenvig's appointed police chief quickly demoted Dziedzic to the burglary division. The department launched an investigation Dziedzic says was politically motivated after some loot turned up missing on his watch. Dziedzic was eventually cleared, but he was reassigned to a desk job handing out burglary investigations.

The desk job proved to be fortuitous--he was assigned to work closely with an officer who claimed he had personally padded Stenvig's overtime hours during his first mayoral campaign. The election cycle was underway again with a rematch between Hofstede and Stenvig. With Dziedzic's encouragement, the officer told his story to a reporter. "It ain't a week later," Dziedzic chuckles, "there's a big headline: Stenvig Padded Overtime. That was a crime--stealing city funds." The mayor was never charged--the documents in question had disappeared from the department. But the damage was done. "Well, a few weeks before the election, you get a headline like that in the Star," Dziedzic shrugs. "Al beat him. Beat him bad. It was funny. They had figured, we'll fuck that Dziedzic--we'll investigate him, we'll put him on a desk job. So they put me right next to the guy who could bring down Stenvig."

With the Stenvig era over, and his man once again in the mayor's office, Dziedzic decided to throw his hat in the ring for the Council seat in his ward. He won his first election, and has held onto his seat with little effort for 21 years.

In the past two decades, the issues that Dziedzic stumped for and staked his police career on have become the dominant themes in Minneapolis DFL politics. In the wake of the Plymouth Avenue riots, Dziedzic was one of the first cops in the newly formed "community relations" department, which has evolved into the MPD's CCP/SAFE program. Hofstede advocated rebuilding communities; Dziedzic has supported the NRP program, which is supposed to funnel money out of downtown and into the neighborhoods. Hofstede took Stenvig to task for letting businesses slip out of the city; Dziedzic has helped to amass one of the largest business districts in the city.

So you can hardly blame the councilman for resenting that he's often labeled a conservative and a throwback. "I remember a bartender told me, 'God you're the most liberal guy down there and you would think you're Attila the Hun,'" Dziedzic grumbles. "I never could figure that out, because I was liberal. I'm for gun control, and I was a cop. When you look at my background, with my dad dying in '35, why wouldn't I be for the little guy? Especially kids who are trying to pull themselves up out of the neighborhood. That's why I supported the Edison hockey arena on Central Avenue and why I worked so hard to help kids on athletic programs. So when people say, 'Ah, you're nothing but a conservative,' I just shake my head and laugh."

His rule has not been without controversy. In the early 1980s, WCCO's I-Team ran a story linking Dziedzic to illegal gambling, a story he blames on politicized cops taking a page out of the Hofstede/Stenvig political manual: "It was pure unadulterated trying to get a guy for political bullshit." A grand jury cleared him of wrongdoing, and the stories didn't seem to tarnish him at election time. Dziedzic's reputation took another hit in 1982 during a Council discussion of the school board's redistricting effort. He complained about too many children from Native and African American neighborhoods coming to Edison. "I bitched when they redistricted the schools because you know what they sent to Edison? They sent all the kids from the projects," he bristles. "They didn't send any of the two-parent-family kids. I said, 'Christ, you drew the district up like a toilet and you gave Edison the royal flush.' Oh jeez right away I'm some kind of a bigoted racist--that's pure unadulterated bullshit. My middle two kids were the first ones to get off the bus at North when they started that program. So it gets a little old and a little thin when people accuse me of doing this and that for racism." At the time, Dziedzic issued a public apology.

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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