In his 1978 campaign for the U.S. Senate, Dave Durenberger ran on a theme that would have been over the top for many first-time candidates: "Minnesota's Next Great Senator." It suited Durenberger well.
Certainly, the slogan was intended to be an appeal to the many Minnesotans who admired Democrats Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and Gene McCarthy. The shadow of Watergate and the scandals of Republican President Richard Nixon still were dark clouds over GOP candidates in 1978. Appeals to moderate Democrats and independent voters were vital for Durenberger's election success.
For Durenberger, though, the campaign slogan had a deeper, personal meaning. The greatness Durenberger saw in Humphrey, Mondale and McCarthy wasn't their national profiles and he certainly differed with his Democratic predecessors on many issues. But what he valued — what made them "great senators" in Durenberger's mind — was their willingness to tackle the toughest issues, from civil rights to challenging the Vietnam War.
For Durenberger, being willing to risk one's political future for the purpose of doing what was right was among the highest callings of a public servant.
Durenberger's ambition was not to be a senator defined by how many bills he passed or his place on a national stage. He didn't seek election to the U.S. Senate just to "be" a senator. He often wondered aloud why it was that so many candidates were willing to sacrifice so much to win an election if they had no vision of how they wanted to serve after the ballots were counted.
Durenberger ran for office because he wanted to get things done. His 1978 campaign and those that followed were conversations with voters about the challenges and opportunities facing the country and the solutions that made sense. Those conversations made Durenberger the only Minnesota Republican to be elected three times to the U.S. Senate.
Durenberger was deeply influenced by the Minnesota Republicans of his time, people like Elmer L. Andersen, Harold Levander and Harold Stassen. "These Republicans had lives of professional and community service outside politics that helped them better understand the role of government. They approached politics and public policy with both pragmatism and a sense of purpose. They were eager to learn from people with different backgrounds, look for consensus, compromise with both the ideological right and left, and aim for what was within reach," Durenberger wrote in his book, "When Republicans were Progressive" (co-authored with the Star Tribune's Lori Sturdevant).
Durenberger followed the path of his GOP predecessors, honing his policy work on local boards and commissions. Public service was second nature to him. To cite one of many examples, in the 1970s, Durenberger chaired the Hennepin County Park Reserve District and was the first chair of the Metropolitan Parks and Open Space Commission. In those roles, he was instrumental in creating the Twin Cities regional parks and trails system, one of the nation's urban gems.
His service in the Senate reflected the same values of community service and good policy before personal recognition. There aren't federal programs and policies named for Dave Durenberger. But because of Durenberger, lakes in the BWCA and throughout the country are protected from the devastation of acid rain.
Durenberger's leadership was instrumental in assuring that people of all abilities had access to places of government, business and entertainment. Without Durenberger, there wouldn't be an Americans with Disabilities Act that blended government regulation and marketplace incentives as effectively as the 1990 law did to expand access for all Americans.
And there certainly wouldn't be an AmeriCorps, a program that is fully invested in the spirit of community service. In typical Durenberger style, he reached across the aisle to his Democratic colleague, the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, to lay the foundation for AmeriCorps. Durenberger always took great pride in knowing that the AmeriCorps program in Minnesota today is a national model of effectiveness in solving critical issues at the grassroots level.
Of course, there is the work for which Durenberger is most recognized: health policy. Long before most people were talking about focusing on outcomes in health care, Durenberger was using the lessons learned from Minnesota health innovators to start the long overdue redesign of health policy. Durenberger understood that controlling health costs and expanding access to health care had to go hand-in-hand with a commitment to quality care.
Over the years, Durenberger grew more and more frustrated with the direction of his Republican Party. He was openly critical of those Republicans who criticized government without providing solutions, who saw government only as an obstacle. Durenberger recognized that government has a role to play, especially at the times in people's lives when they are most vulnerable. In that way, he was an innovative policymaker — a "progressive Republican."
Durenberger was conservative on core GOP principles, but a bold thinker who sought new solutions to the challenges of the day.
At the celebration of his 88th birthday last August, Durenberger reflected on this theme: "In this grand democracy, government is not a nuisance, not an evil force. People elect public servants." For Dave Durenberger, there was no higher honor in life than to be called upon by the people of Minnesota to be one of their public servants.
The policies and ideas that grew out of his commitment to public service will continue to improve the lives of many for generations. His leadership, his innovation and his deep love for public service will be missed.
Tom Horner was press secretary and chief of staff to Sen. Dave Durenberger, 1978-85.