Remembering Former US Senator David Durenberger, Friend of the Humphrey School

February 1, 2023
David Durenberger and Eric Schwartz
David Durenberger, left, with then Humphrey School Dean Eric Schwartz at the School's 2016 Public Leadership Awards. Durenberger, a moderate Republican who served in the US Senate for 16 years, was an awardee that year. Photo: Paula Keller

David Durenberger, former Republican U.S. senator from Minnesota who died this week at age 88, is remembered for his longtime support of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and for his bipartisan approach to public policy.  

Durenberger was a moderate Republican who served in the U.S. Senate from 1979 to 1995, becoming a champion of affordable healthcare, the environment, and the Americans With Disabilities Act.  He is the only Republican from Minnesota to be elected to three terms in the U.S. Senate.

Friends and colleagues remember Durenberger as a politician who was more concerned about solving problems than scoring partisan political points. 

“For those who are frustrated by today's venomous politics in Washington, Dave Durenberger is the model of a leader for bipartisan conversation and collaboration,” said Humphrey School politics professor Larry Jacobs. “He also was a good friend of the Humphrey School, meeting with our students and sharing his wisdom. He is missed.”

After leaving office in 1995, Durenberger became disenchanted with the Republican Party and left it in 2005. He didn’t become a Democrat, but he endorsed the presidential campaigns of Democrats Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020. 

Durenberger remained engaged in healthcare policy, chairing the National Institute of Health Policy (NIHP) and serving as a health policy fellow at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. He also served on various national health commissions and boards, and was a longtime member of the Humphrey School Dean’s Advisory Council.

“Dave Durenberger was a thoughtful voice of reason who not only recognized the critical role for government in a democratic society, but championed that role in his important efforts around healthcare, support for people with disabilities, and many other issues,” said Humphrey School Professor Eric Schwartz, who served as dean from 2011 to 2017. “As a member of the Dean’s Advisory Council he was most active in support of School initiatives. I offer my heartfelt condolences to his friends and family.”

Public Leadership Award

Durenberger received the Hubert H. Humphrey Public Leadership Award in 2016 in recognition of his bipartisan approach to solving challenging public policy issues, and his civility in public discourse.

David Durenberger standing behind a podium, speaking
Durenberger speaking at the 2016 Public Leadership Awards. Photo: Paula Keller

In accepting the award, Durenberger spoke of his early years in politics, when members of both major parties were much more willing to cooperate on important issues such as civil rights, rights for those with disabilities, healthcare, and the environment. 

His remarks, delivered at the awards banquet nearly seven years ago, seem just as appropriate today:

When winning is everything, and money is the principal means to that end, we have lost the trust of those we serve and our ability to make America great again. To say nothing of our ability to make Minnesota partisan politics as beneficial to our common wellbeing as they once were, and our effectiveness a national example of good governance.

Partisan politics in this 21st century has not been kind to hope and opportunity. But I, for one, have chosen to believe that we Americans are not sailing in uncharted waters  … We know what to do when it comes to taking back our own future from these kinds of politicians. We just haven’t found a way to do it.

What better time than now to suggest that we don’t have as far to go as we may think to discover what’s gone wrong in this country, and in this state—and what we should be doing about it.  

I know there are progressive voters in both parties. I am confident there is a silent majority that lives in the partisan center of determining a better role for the government in solving problems. I am confident that we can take back our state and nation again.

Watch video of Durenberger’s 2016 remarks

Read more about his life and legacy in the Star Tribune and the Minnesota Historical Society