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One of the most important currencies at the Minnesota Capitol is showing up, and Eric Hyland was always there.

First as a legislative staffer and right-hand man to the Senate's powerful finance committee chair, then for decades as a lobbyist, taking on high-profile clients, mentoring dozens of future leaders and championing an industry that often got a bad rap.

"He was always highlighting the importance of advocacy," said Paul Cassidy, a longtime friend and fellow lobbyist. "He believed everyone deserves to be represented and heard at the Capitol."

Hyland died unexpectedly this month at his home in St. Paul, according to friends and family. The cause of death is pending an autopsy report. He was 60.

The news stunned legislators and the lobbying community at the Minnesota Capitol, where colleagues said he contributed to a culture of respect among staffers, legislators and the lobbying class that tried to influence them every session.

"I've lost track of how many people really liked the guy, and that's not easy at the Capitol," said Todd Rapp, who coached Hyland in high school debate before both worked in politics. "You can make a few enemies over there if you're not careful, and instead he made lots and lots of friends."

Colleagues say Eric Hyland contributed to a culture of respect at the Capitol.
Colleagues say Eric Hyland contributed to a culture of respect at the Capitol.

Provided, John Kaul

Born and raised in Coon Rapids, Hyland was brought into the Capitol world in the mid-1980s by Gene Merriam, a former Democratic legislator from the area who had just taken control of the powerful Senate Finance Committee and needed more staff. Hyland was a recent graduate of Lewis & Clark College in Oregon, where he majored in International Relations.

He rose up to committee administrator for Merriam, quickly absorbing complex legislation and developing relationships with people throughout government.

"He was a smart guy, a quick study, and he never got the big head that too many staff people get when they work for people in important positions," Merriam said. "That served him well."

After a decade on the staff side, Hyland switched to lobbying and took on several leadership roles over the years with the Minnesota Government Relations Council (MGRC), a trade association for hundreds of lobbyists in the state. He represented the entire industry in conversations about ethics rules and reporting requirements for lobbyists.

Other lobbyists said he also modeled good behavior by treating staff, legislators and colleagues with respect, no matter how heated a debate got over an issue.

"I'm a multi-state lobbyist now, and I see what the associations are in other states for lobbyists, it's nothing like here in terms of the Capitol culture and that strong ethical representation," said Michael Karbo, the current president of the MGRC. "He was the lobbyist's lobbyist. He was a huge factor in building that and creating that trust amongst legislators and the staff."

MGRC is exploring creating a youth scholarship focused on public policy in honor of Hyland.

He represented many organizations over the years, including the group that successfully pushed to legalize same-sex marriage in Minnesota. But his longest and most high-profile client was the Minnesota Sheriff's Association. Hyland represented them after George Floyd's killing by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin and the public safety debate it sparked at the Capitol. Democrats and Republicans eventually struck a compromise set of reforms in response to Floyd's death.

"There were a lot of late-night talks walking through that because he had his own ideas about it and his own personal beliefs," said Cassidy. "That was hard for him, he took it seriously. He was one of the most important people contributing to that debate that wasn't recognized."

Colleagues described Hyland as a reservoir of historical knowledge about the Capitol and its players. He read bills from top to bottom and was always at the Capitol for hearings or legislative floor sessions. Cassidy said Hyland would always say: "You can always explain to your clients why you lost, but you can never explain to them why you weren't there."

"He went to every hearing on behalf of his client. You can't say that about every lobbyist," said Anne Finn, intergovernmental relations director at the League of Minnesota Cities, who Hyland hired for her first job at the Capitol. "He just worked a lot harder."

The son of two teachers, Hyland's family spent their summers together traveling up to Burntside Lake in Ely, where his mother grew up and his parents had their wedding reception. His sister Amy Baretz described him as the "intellect" of the family, while she and her brother gravitated toward sports. He was on the debate team and for Halloween once dressed up as the president, with his friends as his secret service detail.

"I was always very impressed that he never really got emotional about discussions," she said. "In our family, we don't always agree politically, but he always had both sides of the story."

In his time away from the Capitol, Hyland was passionate about his family, hunting, traveling and golf. Each year during the Legislature's spring break, he would organize a Good Friday round of golf with Capitol regulars. He was a die-hard Gordon Lightfoot fan and dedicated an entire room in his house for architectural drawings and other collections related to the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, the Great Lakes freighter that sank in Lake Superior in 1975.

Hyland was supposed to travel up to Burntside Lake when he stopped responding to group text chats with his family. He never made it, but his brother Mark said his ashes will be scattered on an island just offshore.