This article examines the career and legacy of Charles Stenvig, a police lieutenant elected to three terms as mayor of Minneapolis. Stenvig’s initial victory as the independent candidate in 1969 following his pledge to “take the handcuffs off the police,” marks a decisive shift in Minneapolis’ political landscape. This article helps to complicate the history of Minnesota politics by exploring how a self-styled conservative, law and order politician like Charles Stenvig was able to gain office, and by looking at the connections between his career and the rise of the “New Right” as a national political movement.
This article focuses on how Stenvig successfully opposed liberalism’s perceived reliance on social scientific explanations in addressing issues such as crime. Stenvig argued that these explanations were ineffective in remedying Minneapolis’s social problems in the late 1960s and early 1970s. By invoking his close relationship to God and his “street-smart” sensibilities, Stenvig claimed a different type of governing wisdom as Mayor, while disavowing the expertise of the technocrats and University professors who had preceded him in the position. As a police officer only recently removed from the beat, Stenvig affirmed and physically embodied the unmediated, practical knowledge of the street and everyday experience. In his rhetoric Stenvig attacked liberals’ attempts to apply theoretical knowledge to “real world” problems, and dismissed the notion that politicians needed to rely on academic professors, business leaders, and community activists in order to govern. This article demonstrates that the cultural resentments attributed to the “backlash” of the 1960s and 1970s were not solely motivated by racism, patriotism, and the desire to maintain traditional cultural values, but also included anger toward presumed liberal expertise.