December 3, 2022

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After politics, Walter Mondale made Minnesota business his business

Walter Mondale had been out of law school and working on his own just four years in 1960 when Gov. Orville Freeman asked him to be Minnesota’s attorney general.

Mondale initially said no, saying he was too young. But Freeman — his friend since meeting on Hubert Humphrey’s mayoral re-election campaign in Minneapolis 13 years earlier — persisted. Mondale then took the first step on a path that would later take him to the U.S. Senate, vice presidency and the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination.

When he died last week at age 93, Mondale was remembered chiefly for the two decades he spent in public life. But after that chapter was largely over, Mondale returned to again practice law in Minneapolis and wound up quietly playing an influential role on Minnesota’s business scene for the next three decades.

He served on the boards at giant companies such as UnitedHealth Group, St. Jude Medical and Northwest Airlines.

“When he spoke everyone listened,” said Douglas Steenland, former chief executive of Northwest Airlines. “He was very well respected and, at board dinners, he was a lot of fun.”

Beyond the boardroom circuit, Mondale advised smaller businesses, nonprofit organizations and students. Until the pandemic, he was a regular presence in the downtown Minneapolis skyways and restaurants, orbiting around the Nicollet Mall building of the Dorsey & Whitney law firm, where he started working in 1987 and kept an office even after formally retiring in 2015.

“He seemed to adapt quite well,” Mickey Kantor, who held two Cabinet posts in the Clinton administration, said about Mondale’s life in Minnesota after Washington. “His passion, his commitment and connection to regular folks was like nothing I’ve ever seen before or since in politics.”

On his first day at Dorsey & Whitney, Mondale joked with reporters that he would happily return to courtroom trials if his partners and clients wanted. But his role took a different course in 1992, when President-elect Bill Clinton selected him to be the U.S. ambassador to Japan.

After three years in Tokyo, he returned to Minnesota with deeper insights and connections in burgeoning Asia. He spurred Dorsey & Whitney to open offices in Tokyo and Hong Kong and build more in Europe. Today, the firm employs more than 500 lawyers in 19 offices around the world.

“People in Japan and across the world recognized he was a man of principle and different from a lot of those who came across much louder,” said Bill Stoeri, managing partner at Dorsey. “It was the name recognition but also the recognition of his character that helped us improve business, no question.”

Steve Nelson, a Dorsey partner and former chairman of its Asia practice, said: “His vision and efforts were vindicated, and we now have three offices and some 15 lawyers in Asia. He always referred to that presence as his legacy to Dorsey.”

Beside him the entire time at Dorsey was Lynda Pedersen, an assistant Mondale and his wife, Joan, valued so much that they brought her with them on the three-year diplomatic sojourn to Japan.

“Mr. Mondale viewed us as a team, and he was always very inclusive,” Pedersen wrote via e-mail last week. “When I left Dorsey in 1993 to work for him in Japan, my husband Paul stayed in Minnesota to run a marina we owned. That was hard and the Mondales paid close attention to that. Paul would visit over Thanksgiving, and the Mondales would have us to the embassy and cook Thanksgiving dinner.”

She remembered the Mondales also invited Minnesota college students who were studying in Japan to those Thanksgiving meals. “Mr. Mondale would delight at how thrilled they were to have an American meal. That’s who he was,” she said.

Most of Mondale’s time in Japan was spent on security issues, but he also encountered the thorniest business matter he had ever dealt with: how to persuade the Japanese to open their market to more U.S. products.

The challenge came to a head in 1995 during a series of negotiations over trade in autos and parts, led by Kantor, who was then U.S. trade representative. Before the auto talks, the U.S. and the Japanese already had hammered out more than a dozen new trade agreements, covering cellphones, computer chips, insurance and other things.

But the auto deal was particularly difficult, with the U.S. threatening sanctions against Japanese automakers unless barriers to U.S. autos were lowered in Japan. At one point, Mondale secretly met with Shoichiro Toyoda, then chairman of Toyota Motor Corp., to seek a breakthrough.

“Many ambassadors are not your partners in these types of negotiations. They don’t know the brief like you do,” Kantor said last week as he recalled the auto talks. “But he knew it as well as I did, and it couldn’t have been done without him. He knew what he was doing. He worked his can off.”

The auto trade deal the two countries signed in 1995 didn’t produce the results Mondale and Kantor hoped. Other market forces have emerged since, but U.S. automakers to this day have a tiny share of the Japanese market.

In his 2010 memoir, Mondale called the auto pact “a disappointment” but said it took “some of the tension out of that issue over time.” He added: “You certainly don’t hear the protectionist rhetoric or see the kind of animosity toward Japan today that we heard in the 1980s and early 1990s.”

Over the last decade, China emerged in the place Japan once held as a chief source of trade tension for the United States. Dorsey & Whitney eventually closed its Tokyo office and opened new offices in Beijing and Shanghai.

Mondale stayed on top of trade and other issues that interested him, sometimes by attending continuing education seminars the firm held at 7:30 a.m. featuring visitors from Washington or foreign capitals.

“He was a big part of what drew me and many others to the firm,” said Cornell Moore, of counsel and diversity partner emeritus at Dorsey. “He was ‘old school.’ He valued relationships and respected all people, wherever you met him.”

Jocelyn Knoll, a Dorsey partner who chairs its construction, design and infrastructure groups, said a client in Norway called her after hearing about Mondale’s death to remind her of a 2012 speech he made in Oslo that foreshadowed the influence that states like Ohio and Pennsylvania would have on U.S. elections.

“Vice President Mondale had an awareness that set him apart from most people, which made him a favorite with clients and his Dorsey colleagues,” she said.

“I just think he was a unique and exceptional combination of intelligence, character and principle,” Stoeri said. “That’s why people walking in the skyways would be just as happy to have had a connection with him as those who turned to him for advice.”

Steenland recalled a night three years ago when Mondale joined more than 100 former leaders of Northwest at a dinner to mark the 10th anniversary of the airline’s sale to Delta even though Mondale had left its board years before that 2008 deal.

“He clearly recognized the need for the company to earn profits and be responsive to our shareholders, but at the same time he was probably ahead of his time in recognizing the airline had responsibilities to its communities and made sure it did right by them,” Steenland said.

Kantor said he first saw that empathy and outreach at work when he, as a legal services lawyer, and Mondale, as a senator, toured migrant labor camps in south Florida in the late 1960s. Mondale stayed up past midnight for several nights talking to farmworkers.

“Hubert Humphrey and Orville Freeman picked him out early,” Kantor said. “They saw it. And he didn’t disappoint.”

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