October 13, 1997 12:00 PM

In the 1950s and 1960s, their fathers—Hubert H. Humphrey II, Orville Freeman and Walter “Fritz” Mondale—made Minnesota’s legendarily liberal Politics famous. More than mere allies, the older generation were also pals. Now their sons—who are friends too—are running head-to-head in the primary for governor in 1998, and their families find themselves in a rather awkward situation. Fear not, says Joan Mondale, 63, explaining electoral dynamics: “Fritz would be up in New Hampshire campaigning against the husbands, and I’d be home in Washington playing tennis with the wives. It’s what happens.”


Former state Sen. Ted Mondale, 40, worked for his father, who had been Jimmy Carter’s No. 2, during his ill-fated run for President in 1984, when Ronald Reagan swept 49 states. Now Walter Mondale, 69, back from a stint as U.S. ambassador to Japan, will help his son raise campaign funds. But the former Veep modestly says, “I’ll probably help more with the children than anything else.” He’s referring to Louie, 7, Amanda, 5, and Berit, 4, Ted’s three kids with his wife, Pam, 38. The youngest candidate of the three (and a motorcycle-revving rebel during his teens), Mondale says that, like many of today’s dads, family is his top priority. “We almost coparent,” Pam confirms.

If he is to win, Mondale will have to carry the under-40 suburban voters. After voting to reduce workers’ comp expenses for state employers in 1995, he can no longer take for granted the support of organized labor, his father’s core constituency. Some skeptics have chided Mondale for his relatively skimpy résumé. He has shrugged off the criticism, reveling in the chance to promote his ideas for change. “It’s kind of like pro wrestling,” he says of stumping against friends. “You ride together in the car, you hit each other over the head, then you go home together.”


Hennepin County attorney Mike Freeman, 49, recalls fondly how he tagged along at work with his father, Orville, himself a former governor of Minnesota and Secretary of Agriculture under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Indeed, Freeman has made it a point to cast his commitment to public service in his father’s hallowed image. “He stands for the values that he saw,” says Mike’s wife, Terri, 45. Supporters argue that the hardworking and earnest Freeman, who failed to win the nomination for governor in 1994, has not received the recognition he deserves on hot-button national issues like gun control (he proposes making possession by a minor a felony) and domestic violence (for which he founded a one-stop care center). His parents, who still chat regularly by phone with Hubert Humphrey’s widow, Muriel, are confident that the campaign—which will culminate in next year’s Sept. 15 primary—won’t get overly nasty. “We’re all determined,” says his mom, Jane, “that the boys’ campaigns won’t interfere with our friendship.”


A short, animated fellow with a mile-a-minute patter who reminds old-timers of, well, Hubert Humphrey II, Lyndon Johnson’s Vice President, 55-year-old Skip Humphrey also inherited his dad’s progressive politics. Minnesota’s attorney general since 1983 and a state senator before that, Humphrey has focused on consumer issues, particularly Minnesota’s legal case against the tobacco companies. “As he gets older, he’s more and more the champion for the underdog,” says Connie Perpich, a longtime state activist. Unlike his father, who took him along on campaigns, Skip has shielded his wife, Lee, 55, a homemaker, and three grown children—Lorie, 32; Pam, 29; and Buck, 27—from the public eye. They prefer it, and, says Humphrey, “I want what they want.”

His wealth of experience and familiar name have made Humphrey the man to beat in the race (which also includes department-store heir Mark Dayton, 50) to be the Democratic candidate for governor. “I used to say that kids in the third grade knew more about the state budget than Skip Humphrey,” says political analyst D.J. Leary. “But he’s learned and grown. He’s the 900-pound gorilla in this race.”


MARGARET NELSON in Minneapolis

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