The barkeepers were furious. Dave Thune, the Harley-riding, hard-rocking St. Paul City Council member who favored Hawaiian shirts at council meetings — and the best-known chain smoker in the city to boot — wanted to ban smoking in bars and restaurants.
The nerve of the guy, they muttered. And worse.
Costello’s hung a Thune sign on its door with a big X through it. A server at DeGidio’s told Thune, eating lunch with a friend, never to come back. At the Gopher Bar, someone placed odor cakes with Thune’s face pasted on them in the urinals so customers could, you know, relieve themselves on him.
“I couldn’t get mad at that,” Thune admitted recently, “because I just thought it was such a clever idea.”
Next week, Thune, 65, will step down from his Second Ward seat after 20 years on the City Council as member and president, leaving a long trail of accomplishments as well as countless tales about the most colorful and unorthodox St. Paul elected official in recent memory.
“He viewed the office as important, but he never took himself too seriously. And he was never afraid,” said Chuck Repke, an East Side community development director who for years was Thune’s council aide and campaign manager.
Thune successfully led the fight for two of St. Paul’s most controversial measures in the past quarter-century: the city’s gay rights ordinance and its groundbreaking ban on smoking in bars and restaurants. He battled pimps on the streets, helped stabilize low-income neighborhoods and persuaded the police federation to drop its opposition to civilian review.
While clearly liberal, Thune was always hard to pigeonhole. He angered many of his core supporters when he lined up the council behind Republican Mayor Norm Coleman’s plan to publicly finance an arena for St. Paul’s new NHL franchise, and then supported Coleman for governor in 1998.
Serving on a part-time council, he drew criticism for taking some jobs with companies whose projects had received city money. He was roundly heckled in 1997 for offering to let Minneapolis try to reclaim Lawson Software after Coleman lured the company to St. Paul; even his wife, Sue, thought that was stupid, he said.
This fall, he was jeered at a public meeting for advocating parking meters on Grand Avenue. In the end, it was Thune’s decision to yank his support for the measure (which he nevertheless believes would help, not hurt, business) that left Mayor Chris Coleman with no choice but to drop the idea. “We should have done it differently,” Thune said.
The mayor said that rumors Thune was the model for the bearded shaggy-haired squatter portrayed on Pig’s Eye beer, once brewed at the Schmidt brewery in the heart of Thune’s ward, “are probably not far off. Dave is a character and that’s why people loved him — and sometimes didn’t.”
Not born to run, but drafted
Thune arrived in St. Paul in 1974 to take a job as exhibit coordinator with the Minnesota Historical Society. Born in Fargo, raised in Moorhead and married to his high school sweetheart, Thune came to town with an architecture degree, dreams of working in historic preservation and no thought at all about getting into politics.
That changed in 1980, when a group of Crocus Hill Republicans — impressed with Thune’s neighborhood work and his opposition to putting Interstate 35E through the West End — drafted him to run for the Legislature against a conservative DFLer. He lost, and two years later lost again in a hard-fought campaign for the City Council. Future Mayor Jim Scheibel won by a handful of votes.
“We were friends before we ran and we walked away still very much liking each other,” Scheibel said. When Scheibel left the council in 1989 to run for mayor, Thune ran again as a DFLer and won.
As a newly minted council member, Thune successfully led the charge against well-organized opponents to win a gay rights ordinance that barred discrimination based on sexual orientation.
“I’ve had gay friends all my life … and I was a good person to lead the fight. I’m married and I have three kids,” he said.
He also believed he had no time to lose. “He didn’t think there would be a second term, so we have to get as much done as fast as possible,” Repke said.
There was another explanation, too: He always liked a good fight. “Sometimes,” he said, shrugging, “you’ve got to make trouble.”
That instinct deserted him in 1997, when he declared he would challenge Norm Coleman for mayor and then dropped out of the race a few weeks later. Repke had locked him into the basement to raise money for the campaign, Thune said, and he could no longer stomach it: “I wasn’t having fun. It was taking me away from home every night.”
The drive for a smoking ban
After leaving the council in 1998, going on to lead the city’s housing information office and operate his art gallery, Thune threw his hat in the ring again in 2003. Shortly after his re-election, he launched a campaign for a citywide smoking ban as a matter of public health.
The prospects weren’t great. Labor and business were dead set against it, and the Legislature had rejected a statewide ban. Wherever Thune went in St. Paul, people scolded and swore at him. He got hate mail and death threats.
Sobered by his father’s battle with lung disease and the throbbing headaches he got from playing guitar in smoky bars, Thune persisted. The ban passed the council and was signed by Mayor Chris Coleman in 2006. By then, the movement Thune started in St. Paul had spread throughout the state.
“It was the pebble that started the landslide,” said Bob Moffitt, spokesman for the American Lung Association of Minnesota. “Dave just had a sense that the time was right, an innate sense that people were ready for this.”
Perhaps the best tribute to Thune’s political savvy, deal-making skills and never-say-die attitude is the $125 million project by Plymouth-based developer Dominium that transformed the abandoned Schmidt brewery off W. 7th Street into affordable housing for artists.
Thune spent his entire council career keeping the wrecking ball from the iconic castle-like brewery, trying to get the city to buy it and constantly scouting new uses for it. He marked its reopening last year as the Schmidt Artist Lofts as one of his proudest moments.
Post-council, Thune said he will continue to run his gallery and frame shop, help with the renovation of the old Fort Snelling officer quarters into new housing, and probably do some lobbying for the Minnesota Wild (he recused himself on a recent council vote approving tax-increment financing for development of the vacant Macy’s store, which will include a practice rink for the Wild).
He plans to book his band more often and spend more time on his two Harleys. After his wife retires from nursing next year, the two plan to hit the road in their Airstream bus. And after years of false starts, he’s hoping that his latest attempt to kick the habit — he’s at 10 weeks and counting without a cigarette — will finally do the trick.
When he was re-elected in 2011, Thune said it would be his last term in office. The last couple of years have seen the completion of a number of projects, including the Penfield and Lunds developments, and he’s laid the groundwork for an accessible playground for kids with disabilities at Victoria Park.
“My work here is done,” he said. “I’m proud of what the neighborhoods have become — of what the city has become.”
Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455
Thoughts from Thune
“Don’t take safe votes. I always tell new politicians, don’t ever put off doing what you believe in, because you may never get the chance to do it. So do the right thing.”
“I never woke up and regretted being on the City Council, not once. Even if there’s something ugly happening, it’s a challenge.”
“Hawaiian shirts are very attractive. I just think they’re pretty cool.”