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Barbara Carlson, flamboyant radio host and Minnesota governor's ex-wife, dies at 80

Barbara Carlson, ex-wife of former Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson, tells T.J. Mutch of Lakeville, Minn., the bad news that the 1997 Final Four plaque he was interested in has been sold, Friday, Sept. 24, 2004, in Forest Lake, Minn. Craig Borck / St. Paul Pioneer Press

MINNEAPOLIS—Barbara Carlson conducted interviews in hot tubs, wrote unapologetically about her messy marriage to former Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson, and was unflinching and unabashed in her approach to politics and the issues and people that mattered to her, those who knew her say.

The former Minneapolis City Council member and flamboyant KSTP Radio talk show host died Monday, July 9, after a long battle with lung cancer, surrounded by her two children as well as other relatives, according to a post on her CaringBridge site from her daughter.

She was 80.

"(We) told stories, laughed and wrapped her in love until she took her last breath," the post said. "It was so peaceful and heartbreaking at the same time."

Those who memorialized Carlson in comments described her as "wickedly funny," a "feisty spirit" with a "saucy tongue" who was known for her impeccable style—she always had a string of pearls around her neck—and outspoken, outrageous, nature.

"Hard to think of that bright light flickering," one commenter wrote. "She has led an extraordinary life and she squeezed everything she could from it. Bravo!"

"There will never be another Barbara Carlson," U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar tweeted of her passing. "She had a zest for life and everyone that met up with her learned something new."

Carlson, who described herself as a conservative, represented Ward 7 as a two-term member of the Minneapolis City Council in the 1980s and was the former wife of Republican Gov. Arne Carlson.

The two married in 1965 when Arne Carlson was a rising politician in Minnesota but divorced in the late 1970s after having two children, Tucker and Anne Carlson. Arne Carlson was elected governor of Minnesota in 1991 and served two terms.

After losing her seat on the Minneapolis City Council in the late 1980s, Carlson went on to host "Barbara Carlson and Friends" for many years on KSTP-AM, a show she sometimes famously conducted from inside a hot tub.

Carlson married her second husband—Martin Anderson—in the 1980s. The two divorced several years later.

She was also known for her 1997 autobiography, "This Broad's Life," in which she spilled details of her first marriage, describing the former Minnesota governor as a "cold sonofabitch" and herself as a "drunk" during much of their relationship.

The stories about her abound. She occasionally sucked on a giant pacifier during city council meetings while she was reportedly trying to quit smoking. She hosted a "Condoms and Croissant" party to promote safe sex. She was temporarily suspended from the airwaves after asking a black female newscaster if she'd ever slept with a white man. She spoke openly about addiction, both to alcohol and food.

Carlson, who eventually had her stomach stapled, also quit smoking and drinking.

The daughter of Anoka lumber baron Harry Duffy bought a piano just so she could climb on top of it and sing a dirty song at a dinner party.

She ran unsuccessfully for Minneapolis mayor in 1997 against incumbent Sharon Sayles Belton.

For all her antics, and there were lots of them, both former longtime political operative Diane Traxler and her husband, former state GOP chairman Bill Morris, said they will most remember Carlson's courage and fighting spirit.

Both recalled a time many years ago when she went to bat for their daughter when they felt she and her friends, many of whom were people of color, were harassed by Minneapolis police.

She also fiercely advocated for the development of Calhoun Village in the face of lots of community pushback, Morris said.

"She had one of those amazing combinations of forward thinking and being willing to address the tough issues and take the heat if necessary," Morris said. "She was extremely outspoken on issues and took on established institutions without really too much regard for political consequences."

The Condoms and Croissant party "rubbed some members of the area the wrong way, but that was just typical Barbara," Morris said.

Some of his favorite interviews were the ones Carlson conducted on her radio show, Morris added.

"No topic was out of bounds," he said. "Barbara was one person that if she thought someone was fogging or was espousing a view she thought was undefendable, she would tell them straight out."

She was also "incredibly bright," recalled Traxler.

"Everybody has Barbara stories from when she was doing her shtick, and I honestly think it was kind of a shtick ... but what I remember most about her was her willingness to fight for what she perceived was an injustice or for an underdog or for anyone who needed someone to fight for them," Traxler. "She really was one-of-a-kind."

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