Harold Fridkin, a counselor to Democratic senators, governors and members of Congress from the Kansas City area for more than six decades, died early Wednesday.
The cause was congestive heart failure, family members said. He was 86.
Gruff and profanely direct, Fridkin was a trusted adviser to former U.S. Sen. Tom Eagleton, former Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan and former House Speaker Bob Griffin.
But he developed a special affinity for members of Congress from the Kansas City area dating to the 1950s. The congressman then was Dick Bolling, who would go on to become House Rules Committee chairman and develop his own base of national power.
“If there was a problem that was difficult or intractable, it was the kind of problem that Harold Fridkin was good at,” former U.S. Rep. Alan Wheat said.
Fridkin was close to Emanuel Cleaver and served as an early adviser to Cleaver when he was elected Kansas City’s first black mayor in 1991. Cleaver once said Fridkin had a particular ability to spot political problems before they happened.
“He can spot a ditch a mile away,” Cleaver said.
Cleaver is now a member of Congress.
A prominent lawyer, Fridkin teamed for many years with a well-known Republican, Jack Craft, to form the Craft-Fridkin law firm.
Fridkin once headed the committee that drafted sweeping changes to the Jackson County charter that voters approved in 1970. The new charter threw off the yoke of state control and instituted home rule, and it ridded the county of its old three-judge administrative panel, replacing it with a new County Legislature.
“Prior to that, the Mafia controlled part of county government,” said longtime Democratic political consultant Steve Glorioso. “It was corrupt to the core, practically.”
Some of Fridkin’s friends helped found Freedom Inc., a politically influential club comprised primarily of African-Americans.
“In the 1960s, I had a law partner who was black before you were supposed to do those kinds of things,” Fridkin once said. That partner was former municipal Judge Leonard Hughes Jr.
Wheat, who was among the first black congressmen to represent a mostly white district, said Fridkin worked across political, generational and racial lines.
“I never knew anyone else who played a role like Harold Fridkin did,” he said.
Wheat recalled that when he first ran for Congress, Fridkin took him to the Kansas City Club at a time when blacks didn’t frequent that establishment. Arrayed around a table that day were a group of Kansas City leaders.
“Harold went around that room and just told everyone how much money they would raise for my campaign. ‘You raise $5,000. You can raise $10,000.’
“He wasn’t domineering. He was just very straightforward about this is what we need to do for our community now. It was a stunning display of power.”
Fridkin was known for never asking for anything for himself, friends said.
He was born in Chicago, earned his law degree from Washington University in St. Louis and moved to Kansas City in 1951, where he and his wife, Louann, had five children.
One son, Joe, said Fridkin’s love of politics was cemented in 1960 when he worked on John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in Kansas City.
A memorial service will be in August, but no date has been set.