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Mondale and Minnesota's DFL

Mondale accepts the 2002 DFL nomination to run for US Senate, following the death of Paul Wellstone. (Star Tribune)

by Chris Galdieri

Walter Mondale, who died this week at 93, is probably remembered by most as the Democrat who lost 49 states – all but DC and his native Minnesota -- to Ronald Reagan in 1984. Others may recall that he was the first major party nominee to pick a woman as his running mate, 36 years before Joe Biden made Kamala Harris his vice president. Those whose interest runs toward political trivia might note that he served as ambassador to Japan under Bill Clinton, or that he is one of two former vice presidents after whom a building on the campus of the University of Minnesota was named. Partisans of the New Hampshire primary will remember his upset loss to Gary Hart. Those with an institutional bent will note that Mondale in many ways created the active, modern vice presidency in a famous memo to Jimmy Carter, or that Mondale was the first person to win the Democratic nomination for president in part thanks to the support of superdelegates.

That there are so many different ways to remember and commemorate Mondale's career is a testament to the size of his contribution to American politics, and much will be written and said about them in the days to come. But I would like to note something else about the twilight years of Mondale's career: His steadfast devotion to Minnesota's Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party.

Mondale's mentor, Hubert Humphrey, had helped unite Minnesota's Democrats with the Farmer-Labor party in 1944, and Mondale's work in DFL politics helped lead to his appointments as state attorney general and to the Senate vacancy created when Humphrey became Lyndon Johnson's vice president. When the state party approached Mondale about running for the Senate again after his 1984 loss, he demurred on the grounds that the party needed to find new blood. That new blood came, in part, in the form of Paul Wellstone, the political science professor who defeated incumbent Republican Rudy Boschwitz in 1990. Senate tradition held that newly elected senators be escorted to their swearing-in by their state's senior senator; Wellstone opted instead to have Mondale accompany him.

For Mondale, statesmanship was intimately tied to partisanship

When Wellstone, along with his wife Sheila, his daughter Marcia, two pilots, and three staffers, was killed in a plane crash weeks before the 2002 elections, Mondale agreed to run in his place. Mondale lost that election to Republican Norm Coleman, and could have been forgiven had that been the end of his involvement in politics. But Mondale continued to play an active role in the DFL.

Sometimes this role was public: When I was living in Minneapolis as a graduate student, it was not at all uncommon to get campaign literature from DFL candidates where, alongside endorsements from mayors and state representatives and city council members, Mondale's name and his former title were listed without much fanfare. He was an occasional guest at DFL governors' State of the State addresses. But he also worked in more indirect ways.

When Al Franken began his campaign for the Senate, Mondale was key to helping Franken sell himself to the party's most dedicated members. Mondale would accompany Franken to party meetings and provide an introduction that helped party activists see Franken as more than just a comedian. It is tough to overstate how much this helped Franken gain traction in the DFL's caucus-based, participatory, bottom-up politics. Nor was this the end of Mondale's party-focused activity. In May of 2013, as the Minnesota legislature considered whether to legalize same-sex marriage, Mondale visited the state capitol to give Democratic state senators words of encouragement before their final vote; in 2019, he endorsed his one-time intern Amy Klobuchar in her presidential campaign.

In isolation, each of these activities may not seem like much. But taken in their totality they show an elder statesman who saw value, in the last years of a very long life spent in public service, in tending to the state party that had helped him ascend to the second-highest office in the land. For Mondale, statesmanship was intimately tied to partisanship. That's a model worth remembering and celebrating along with his service across the years.

Christopher Galdieri is an associate professor of political science at Saint Anselm College.

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