David Durenberger, former Republican senator who embraced progressive politics, dies at 88

ST. PAUL, Minnesota (AP) — Former U.S. Sen. David Durenberger, a Minnesota Republican who espoused progressive politics and criticized the GOP after his political career, died Tuesday at age 88.

Durenberger’s health had declined in recent months, his longtime spokesman Tom Horner said. Horner told The Associated Press that Durenberger died Tuesday morning of natural causes. He was at home in St. Paul surrounded by his family.

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Durenberger — former executive secretary to GOP Gov. Harold LeVander, a former corporate lawyer and former captain in the U.S. Army Reserve — won a U.S. Senate seat in 1978. He served three terms and made himself the champion of health care reform. He pushed proposals to expand Medicare benefits, protect the rights of people with disabilities, including the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, and promote gender equity.

“Senator Dave Durenberger was a real public servant,” Democratic U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said in a statement. Klobuchar, who occupies Durenberger’s former seat, said he personally showed him a lot of kindness when he was first elected in 2006.

“He was a dedicated legislator who was always guided by his dedication to bipartisanship and to improving people’s lives,” Klobuchar said. “His work to advance the Americans with Disabilities Act and prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities has changed millions of lives for the better and made our nation stronger.”

Durenberger’s first wife, Judy, died of breast cancer in 1970, leaving him a widower raising four sons. Dave Durenberger, his son, said he remained an active father, attending their sports games.

When he ran for office in the late 1970s, his sons helped stuff envelopes at their dining room table, walked in parades and campaigned.

“He was kind of our north star for how we needed to live our lives,” Dave Durenberger said.

As he rose to the Senate, Durenberger went through troubled times in his personal life. He separated from his wife, Penny, in 1985 – a personal agony he openly discussed with several reporters at the time. He married Susan Foote, a former member of his team, in 1995.

Dave Durenberger said his father has been a frequent presence in recent years at his grandchildren’s school and sporting events. Durenberger showed his family how to value people, regardless of social status, he said.

“He tried to find the kindness or the common bond he shared with everyone. Everyone had the potential to be his friend, whether it was the King of Jordan or the Jordanian immigrant driving a taxi,” said Dave Durenberger.

But Senator Durenberger’s career took a turn in 1990. He was unanimously censured by the Senate following an ethics committee investigation into the payments he received for book royalties. and federal refunds for stays in a Minneapolis condo. In 1995, Durenberger also pleaded guilty to five misdemeanor charges related to condo payments.

“If there is a blemish on the seal of the United States Senate, or on the North Star, as we like to call our state, I will work my best to get both of them shiny again,” Durenberger told his colleagues in the Senate after his censure.

He decided not to run for office in 1994. After his exit from politics, he worked with a number of initiatives focusing on health care policy. As chair of the National Institute of Health Policy at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business, he focused on systemic health care issues.

As the Republican Party leaned toward fiscal conservatives focused on cutting government programs, Durenberger emerged as a critic. He told a Minnesota political podcast in 2005 that Democrats were “better equipped to prevail” on health care policy, although he said at the time that he would not become a Democrat.

In the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, he backed Democrats Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden over Donald Trump. And in 2018, he wrote a book with political journalist Lori Sturdevant titled “When Republicans Were Progressive.” He mourned a nearly extinct wing of the GOP in which lawmakers boasted of their bipartisanship and sought to help the vulnerable.

Horner said services will be held next week at Durenberger’s alma mater, St. John’s University in Collegeville.


Thickets reported in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

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