Longtime Republican U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger dies at 88

Dave Durenberger, who served 16 years in the US Senate as a moderate Republican and champion of affordable health care who championed Boundary Waters and the Americans With Disabilities Act, died Tuesday. He was 88.

His son, Dave Durenberger Jr., said his father had declined for the past two weeks and died at his home in St. Paul. “That was the wonderful thing about it all; it was a two-week process and the family could come and be with him and tell stories,” his son said.

Durenberger was born in St. Cloud in 1934 and grew up on the campus of St. John’s University in Collegeville, where his father, George Durenberger, was an athletic director and his mother, Isabelle, was a longtime administrative assistant who helped found the alumni organization .

Ambitious and with hopes of becoming governor, Durenberger was the top cadet in his ROTC class at St. John’s, a lieutenant in the Army Counter-Intelligence Corps, and a captain in the Army Reserve. In 1959 he received his law degree from the University of Minnesota.

He was drawn to politics from an early age and worked for former governors. Harold LeVander and Elmer L. Andersen. He launched his own candidacy for governor in the late 1970s, but when DFL Senator Hubert H. Humphrey died in January 1978, Durenberger ran for Humphrey’s Senate seat on the campaign theme “Minnesota’s Next Great Senator.”

He won and held the seat until 1995, when he did not seek re-election after a scandal surrounding his congressional spending account. He remains the only Republican from Minnesota to be elected to the US Senate for three terms. His longtime chief of staff, Tom Horner, said Durenberger’s guiding principle was, “How do I get a government that’s efficient, effective and as close to the people as possible?”

Durenberger’s fingerprints have been on many sweeping laws affecting public health, the environment and people with disabilities, and he continued his work after leaving office as Chair of the National Institute of Health Policy and Senior Health Policy Fellow at the University of St. Thomas .

“Today our country lost a patriotic American, Minnesota lost a veteran statesman, and Saint John’s lost a great Johnnie,” said Dr. Brian Bruess, President of St. John’s, in a statement.

On Friday, Brüss visited Durenberger and presented him with the President’s Medal of Honour. When the ex-senator found out about the visit, “he perked himself up, put on his Johannis sweater and said, ‘Go Johnnies.’ … He was just always the guy who would do what he had to do,” his son Dave said.

Durenberger said his father would especially want to be remembered for passing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because it leveled the playing field and removed barriers for millions. “He was so proud of it,” his son said.

His father had a global network of friends and could connect with anyone, Dave Durenberger said. “He didn’t judge people by what they looked like or what party they belonged to or how much money they had.”

Looking at old photos, his son said the photo that struck him showed his father beaming after placing a medal around the neck of a Special Olympic swimmer with Down syndrome and leaning forward to give her one to give a kiss. “That’s Dad,” Dave Durenberger said.

The former senator also successfully pushed for the protection of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, Voyageurs National Park, the Mississippi River and the Twin Cities area parks and trails.

In 1993, he and the late Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone worked to pass the National and Community Service Trust Act and founded AmeriCorps, a government agency that recruits 200,000 volunteers annually to work with nonprofit organizations across the country.

The US Senate fined Durenberger in 1990 for ethical violations related to circumventing the $100,000 limit on speaking fees and using his own Minneapolis apartment to collect $40,000 in travel reimbursements. The state Supreme Court suspended his license to practice law in 1991 but reinstated him in 2000.

Durenberger did not run for re-election in 1994 and a year later pleaded guilty to five misdemeanor charges of misusing his account. “Both personally and professionally, this is something I had to get over with,” Durenberger said at the time. He was sentenced to one year probation.

He left the Republican Party in 2005 and supported the Democratic presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020. He did not join the Democratic Party but was a harsh critic of Republicans to the end.

Speaking at a gathering marking his 88th birthday last August, Durenberger lamented the frequent remarks made by a Republican gubernatorial candidate about the government being “the fuck out of the way.”

This view of the government “is contrary to my core values,” said Durenberger. “In this great democracy, government is not a nuisance, not an evil force. People elect public servants. I’ve learned from my family, from my education at St. John’s, and in all the years since, the shared value of community involvement.”

Horner said Durenberger viewed the candidate’s testimony as a “complete betrayal of the Republican principles he was raised on” and that the senator believes “we should have government there for the times when people are most vulnerable.”

Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar said Durenberger showed her immense kindness and encouraged her to attend the Senate’s weekly prayer breakfast. “I’m grateful I did that,” she said in a statement. “He also told me that despite the many hurdles, it is always worth working to improve people’s healthcare.”

Durenberger and Lori Sturdevant, a former Star Tribune editorial writer, wrote a book called When Republicans Were Progressive, which was published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press in 2018. A Star Tribune reviewer described the book as “a nostalgic throwback to bipartisanship in political parties, a cri de coeur about the ugly current electoral politics, a platform for positive change, and a succinct but seductive glimpse into his personal life.”

He is survived by his 27-year-old wife, Susan Foote, four sons, two stepchildren and 14 grandchildren. He was preceded by his first wife Judy, who died of breast cancer in 1970 when their four boys were young. His sons are Charlie and his wife Lois from Lindstrom, Dave and his wife Heather from Chanhassen, Mike and his wife Maggie from St. Paul and Dan and his wife Jennifer from Shelbyville, Ky. Durenberger’s stepchildren are Becca Greenwald of California and Ben Foote of Edina.

After losing her mother, Dave Durenberger said that her father was bigger than life for her and they hung on every word. “We just loved him so much and wanted to be with him,” the son said.

Her father was on their swim team, and they helped him darn envelopes at the kitchen table and attended campaign events. In recent years he has been an active grandfather, attending school and sporting events.

Durenberger married Penny Baran in 1971. They divorced in 1995.

He is also survived by four siblings; Connie Kneip from Milwaukee, Mark Durenberger from Edina, Tom Durenberger from Nevada and Mary McLeod from Tulsa.

The visit will take place Tuesday at 8:30 a.m. at St. John’s Abbey Church in Collegeville, followed by services at 10 a.m. and a private funeral.

The funeral will be broadcast live.

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