“You’re the only Republican I ever voted for.”
Invariably, whether we were in Brainerd, Rochester, Duluth or Mankato, someone would approach former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger and me at the authors’ book-signing table and greet him with those words.
Durenberger would graciously thank the voter and shoot me a knowing glance — and I would chuckle. The regularity of those encounters at several dozen book events in the spring and summer of 2019 became something of a joke between us.
Minnesotans were eager at those events to thank Durenberger, who died last week at age 88, for a long career of public service that included 16 years in the U.S. Senate and four years as chief of staff for Gov. Harold LeVander.
More than that: They wanted to underscore the message of our 2018 book, “When Republicans Were Progressive.” They wanted to affirm that Durenberger enjoyed a political base that straddled party lines.
And they wanted to let us know that despite the nation’s intensifying partisan passions, they remain willing to support candidates in either party who put policy before politics, as he did.
“We need more Dave Durenbergers,” they’d often say.
That part of their message was no joke to him. It was sweet music at a discordant time.
Durenberger acknowledged that he acquired a mixed-party base of support in part by accident. He had not even set out to be a U.S. senator at the start of the 1978 political year. He wanted to be Minnesota’s next governor.
But then-U.S. Rep. Al Quie’s gubernatorial ambitions trumped his within the newly renamed Independent-Republican Party. Durenberger agreed to try for the Senate instead — a vacant seat, with U.S. Sen. Muriel Humphrey opting not to seek her late husband’s seat in her own right.
That put Durenberger in an advantageous spot as DFLers Don Fraser and Bob Short slugged it out in a nasty primary fight. The epic Short-Fraser battle tore wide the rural/urban divide in their party and left Short the narrow winner.
I teased Durenberger that on the morning after that primary, scores of DFLers in Kenwood and Highland Park looked up from morning newspapers bearing the headline “Short wins” and said to each other, “Who’s this Durenberger guy?” Until then, they’d barely heard of him.
When they looked, they liked what they saw — a political moderate with a record as an environmentalist and an agent of good government. That was good enough to give Durenberger 61.5% of the vote compared with Short’s 34% on Nov. 7, 1978. Durenberger was the top vote-getter in a Republican sweep still remembered as “the Minnesota massacre.”
I’ve observed that once a voter has cast one ballot for a candidate, he or she is inclined to stick with that candidate in future elections. The loyalty of Durenberger’s erstwhile DFL voters in 1978 likely contributed to his re-election victories over Mark Dayton in 1982 and Skip Humphrey in 1988.
But so did the record Durenberger established in the Senate. He worked hard to protect the environment, improve the quality and affordability of health care, and provide opportunity for the disabled. He steered away from the culture wars that increasingly preoccupied his party, considering them not so much a political liability as a distraction from more immediate things government could do to improve people’s lives.
Could a candidate with such centrist proclivities win major-party nomination today? We heard that question too. Durenberger was too honest to answer yes.
Further, it’s hard to imagine one party’s disappointed primary voters today opting for the opposite party’s candidate as easily as DFLers switched to Durenberger in 1978. Party affiliations have hardened to the point that “calcification” is now part of punditry’s lexicon.
But time and again, Minnesotans let Durenberger know that they are not happy with the highly polarized politics that the 21st century has produced. They looked back on his service with nostalgia, to be sure, but also with genuine desire to bring a greater measure of problem-solving bipartisanship to American governance today. Increasingly, they are open to reforms that provide an electoral pathway for candidates who stand apart from party zealots. (Like me, Durenberger favored ranked-choice voting.)
On our long drives home, we talked about the advantage that awaits politicians who understand that desire. And, I’d add, those who have the courage to act on it. Courage like he had.
Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer and author.