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As news tips go, it was minor.

A candidate for lieutenant governor of Minnesota in 1982 had a 12-year-old petty theft charge in her background. Dan Cohen passed it along to a handful of reporters a week before Election Day in 1982 to help a friend running for governor. One catch: Cohen, a former Minneapolis City Council president and a Republican insider, couldn't be named.

Cohen's anonymous tip, and the fallout that exposed his identity, led to a decade-long legal battle with this newspaper. Cohen prevailed at the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991, setting a precedent that subtly reshaped the relationship between journalists and their sources. It was a fitting victory for an outspoken man who reveled in his fights with the Star Tribune.

"Every pratfall and misfortune that befalls the newspaper delights me," he wrote in 1978, in his first column as a regular contributor to the Minneapolis Star.

The court case was just one notable chapter in Cohen's extended career in public life, which spanned the 1960s to the 2020s. A Minneapolis booster and Bryn Mawr resident who vied in two disparate eras to be the city's mayor, Cohen died on April 4 at age 87.

Dan Cohen in 1965.
Dan Cohen in 1965.

File photo

His father was investment banker Merrill Cohen, who rose from office boy to celebrated corporate titan of the Twin Cities. Dan Cohen grew up in Minneapolis and went on to graduate from Stanford University — where he met his wife, Gail, who survives him — and Harvard Law School.

Voters first elected the younger Cohen to office when he was just 28, in 1965. He joined a narrow Republican majority (then known as the Independent Caucus) on the Minneapolis City Council, representing a western ward that included portions of the Chain of Lakes. Cohen became City Council president two years later, establishing a reputation as an ambitious politico who knew how to get his way.

"I've gotten word around here that you don't cross me," Cohen told the Minneapolis Tribune in 1969. "When things are done, my wishes are to be consulted."

Leading the City Council

A rival candidate once described Cohen as "flippant, erratic and a smart-aleck." Reporters noted he had an "acerbic wit" and that "virtually every member of the Council has felt the sting of his tongue."

One of those stung was future Gov. Arne Carlson, a fellow Republican alderman at a time when the GOP still held sway in parts of the city. Cohen labeled Carlson a "yellow belly" in one testy hallway argument outside the council chambers in 1966, peeved that Carlson stopped supporting a proposed civil rights ordinance.

Newly elected Republican-endorsed Aldermen Jens Christensen, Arne Carlson and Dan Cohen in 1965.
Newly elected Republican-endorsed Aldermen Jens Christensen, Arne Carlson and Dan Cohen in 1965.

Donald Black / Star Tribune

"He was about as good a political infighter as I've ever run across," Carlson said in an interview. "Because he quickly zeroed in on the issue. And then he was able to make that humorous quip that was so destructive to the opposing side."

Dave Nimmer, a retired journalist who worked at the Star and later WCCO-TV, said Cohen was concerned about wise spending and orderly development in the city.

"I found him reliable," Nimmer said. "When he was an alderman, he never told me a lie. And he viewed most of the business of the City Council as public business."

The late 1960s were a tumultuous time for Minneapolis. Resentment among Black residents was boiling over and the city was hemorrhaging population as freeways and urban renewal reshaped the region.

Cohen learned the limits of his power in 1968, when he opposed the appointment of Ron Edwards to the city's new Human Relations Commission, now known as the Civil Rights Commission. Cohen and allies cited Edwards' past misdemeanor convictions. After Cohen called Black leaders to a meeting at his office, they slapped him down at a news conference.

"Dan, you are not the master … " said Harry Davis Sr., speaking on behalf of a coalition of Black leaders, according to the front page story in the Tribune. The Minneapolis Spokesman newspaper accused Cohen of "playing politics with a racial tension building situation." After digging in for two months, Cohen relented.

"I started off on this thing dressed in top hat and tails," Cohen quipped later that year. "By the time it was over, I was standing on the Nicollet Mall — stark naked. I'd been stripped."

'I've got to lay my father's ghost'

As Cohen set his sights on the mayor's office, he said he was haunted by the achievements of his father.

Dan Cohen addressed business leaders during his mayoral run in 1969.
Dan Cohen addressed business leaders during his mayoral run in 1969.

Dwight Miller / Star Tribune

"I've got to lay my father's ghost," he said in a 1969 Minneapolis Tribune profile about his mayoral campaign. "It's a competitive thing between me and everything he achieved. To lay that ghost, I've got to be elected mayor."

Primary voters winnowed the candidates to Republican-endorsed Cohen and Charlie Stenvig, a Minneapolis police detective who said "hoodlums" had been shaping policy at City Hall. Cohen called Stenvig's success "a rude awakening that our city's reputation for moderate and responsible government is now being called into question."

Stenvig won handily.

Cohen ran again for City Council in 1973 and lost. In 1976, Stenvig appointed his old adversary to the Minneapolis Planning Commission, where Cohen voted against closing Nicollet Avenue to make way for Kmart. He later described it as "probably the best vote I've ever made."

"What Dan really was interested in was looking into the future: Where are we going? What's going to happen?" said Lyall Schwarzkopf, a longtime political ally.

Cohen rose to president of the Planning Commission. He also became a Minneapolis Star contributor. By day, he worked in public relations. Then, he became a political pariah.

A Supreme Court precedent

Trying to help out Wheelock Whitney, a longtime friend who was the Republican candidate for governor, Cohen shopped around a tip that DFL lieutenant governor candidate Marlene Johnson had once been arrested on a theft charge (she later admitted shoplifting). Several reporters agreed to Cohen's request for anonymity. But editors at the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press decided to name him.

"Marlene Johnson arrests disclosed by Whitney ally," read the headline on the front page of the Star Tribune, which revealed Cohen's identity in the first paragraph. The reporter took her name off the story in protest.

Cohen lost his job. He sued both newspapers for breach of contract. After a drawn-out battle, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Cohen's favor. "[T]he First Amendment does not confer on the press a constitutional right to disregard promises that would otherwise be enforced under state law," the court ruled in 1991.

Dan Cohen in 1991.
Dan Cohen in 1991.

Joey McLeister / Star Tribune

Cohen kept out of the spotlight for years after, but in 2009 he was edging back into city politics with a reappointment to the Planning Commission. In 2013, he was one of 35 candidates in a chaotic mayoral election.

Decades out of prominence, Cohen was a frontrunner in the Star Tribune's only poll of that campaign, in part because he invested in early TV ads. But he finished in seventh place in the first round of ranked-choice voting, ending his comeback bid.

Into his 80s, Cohen remained in public life. As a Charter Commission member in 2020, he helped put the brakes on police reform ballot initiatives in the wake of George Floyd's murder.

He kept busy out of the public eye, too. Cohen spent many years owning and racing horses at Canterbury Park in Shakopee. Some mornings, Cohen would show up to feed his horses and watch them gallop, recalled trainer Troy Bethke.

Cohen called him last year, Bethke said. He was bored after a break from owning horses, he told Bethke, and wanted a new one.

So they picked up Schmooze ("a good Jewish name," Cohen remarked). He would stop by to pet and feed him.

"If you met him and you knew him, he was just a really positive guy," Bethke said. "I never talked politics with him … There were many layers to Dan."