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John Brandl's legacy resonates through Capitol, area classrooms and newsrooms, and state's public policy

John Brandl
Courtesy of the U of M
John Brandl

Talk to anyone in a Twin Cities newsroom or government office this week, and the conversation is likely to turn to John Brandl, the former legislator and dean of the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

Brandl died Monday at age 70 of cancer.

The Institute's current dean, J. Brian Atwood, described Brandl as "a superb scholar, a highly effective public servant and a wonderful human being."

"I consider his example to be a model of public service at its best," said former Congressman Tim Penny, who worked with Brandl as a senior fellow at the Humphrey Institute. "Here is a guy who never got caught up in partisan politics, never viewed elected office as a career in itself ... and brought a sense of civility and thoughtfulness to every issued he addressed."

Brandl is the third former Humphrey dean to die this year.

In May, the institute mourned the death of its founding dean, Harlan Cleveland. In the 1960s, he had served as ambassador to NATO and an assistant U.S. secretary of state. He also was president of the University of Hawaii and director of international affairs at the Aspen Institute before he came to Minnesota in 1980 to lead the Humphrey Institute.

Also in May, economist G. Edward Schuh died, leaving Minnesota with a vastly improved understanding of its role in global agriculture and development because of his teaching and work around the world, especially in Latin America. Schuh had been the dean from 1987 to 1996.

The Institute they led was founded in honor of former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, whose contributions to the public good reached from Minnesota to Washington, D.C., and around the world.

Humphrey wanted a living memorial that, according to institute statements, "would not only prepare future leaders, but also one that would be a forum for active debate on the policy issues of the day; and an academy that would produce the best research and nonpartisan advocacy based on that research."

I've had many chances over the years to see firsthand how the institute fulfills that mission from its home on the West Bank campus in Minneapolis. I've taught classes, covered events and quoted Humphrey experts on subjects ranging from the politics of a given day to the reasons anti-American sentiment runs so high in the Middle East.

Less visible is the lineup of public servants who took training at the institute. They are all around us, working as housing advocates, press secretaries for members of Congress, National Guard officers, school board and city council members, immigration lawyers, teachers, scientists and state legislators.

"A lot of these young people stay somewhere in Minnesota," Penny said. "That's a real tribute to the University that these graduates continue to contribute to our public life."

Penny said he is especially proud of the Institute's leadership program, which he helped found along with former Vice President Walter Mondale and former Congressman Vin Weber.

"Several hundred young Minnesotans have benefited over the years," he said. "It has inspired them to be community leaders in whatever setting they work, to be more connected to community life and public policy."

One of the first public servants in that Institute lineup was Arvonne Fraser, who now is a senior fellow emerita at the institute, where she co-founded and directed the Center on Women and Public Policy. Over the years, she also has served as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women and director of International Women's Rights Action Watch.

At first, Fraser expected tension between academia and her background in the rough and tumble of politics. What she found, working with Cleveland, Schuh and Brandl, was a determined effort to bridge the two worlds.

"They accepted unusual characters like us who weren't academics, and they respected us," she said.

It had been Cleveland's dream, she said, that people who had worked in the public sphere should come back and teach others what they had learned from their experience. The idea caught on with the deans who followed him, and they built on it, she said.

"Land grant universities are supposed to do three things: teaching, research and public service," Fraser said. "They took that third thing, the public service, and did it well by linking the community and the University."

While Cleveland earned the title of founding dean, Brandl had been instrumental in creating the institute. It built on the former School of Public Affairs, where Brandl was a professor and director from 1969 to 1976. An economist, he had graduated from St. John's University in Collegeville and Harvard University.

In 1977, Brandl was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives, and in 1987, his district in South Minneapolis elected him to the state Senate.

Meanwhile, he remained on the Humphrey Institute's faculty, serving as dean from 1997 to 2002.

Lynda McDonnell covered Brandl over many years as a public affairs reporter and editor for both the Minneapolis and St. Paul newspapers. Now she is executive director of ThreeSixty, a youth journalism program based at the University of St. Thomas.

"When John was at the Legislature, I was covering economic issues, often public policy and economics," she said. "He was just a wonderful and thoughtful teacher. He really understood the important intersection between the media, politics and academia."

Brandl's legacy, she said, came from his ability "to use his academic knowledge and the bully pulpit he had as a politician to educate his peers, educate the public and really raise the quality of the kind of reporting that was done."

At the Legislature, she said, Brandl always pushed hard on questions about the role of government and where taxpayers would get the most for their money.

It wasn't partisan. Brandl's fellow Democrats were as likely as Republicans to be the target of his piercing questions, former St. Paul Mayor George Latimer said at a dinner honoring Brandl in June.

In a tongue-in-cheek roast of his friend, Latimer said Brandl was the equivalent of a Benedictine monk crossed with economist and Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman. 

He "drove Democrats crazy," Latimer said.

Even with the loss of three great leaders, the Humphrey Institute is vibrant today, McDonnell said.

"It is as focused as it has ever been, maybe more focused on making sure that policy is informed by research and careful thought and that politics and good policy are pushing each other all of the time," she said.

If anything has changed over the years, it is media coverage of the in-depth issue analysis and global perspectives that are the institute's specialties. With news organizations retrenching, reporters do less digging into complicated issues that are "more abstract and more remote," she said.

Penny said he also worries about cutbacks in newsrooms and the implications for amplifying the institute's in-depth discussions to the broader community.

"In order to have these events covered, you have to have enough reporters on staff and, better yet, reporters that have some depth and understanding of the policy issues under discussion," Penny said. "Our newspapers in Minnesota are not investing in their news departments to the extent that they once did. It is more difficult to get a reporter in the door that it once was."

But Penny said he has no solution for the problems this poses not only for the Institute but for other community groups. "I can lament this, but I don't have a ready fix," he said.

That loss in visibility of public policy issues hasn't stopped the institute from moving forward with the mission the late deans championed. Its instructors and fellows include Steve Sviggum, former speaker of the Minnesota House; LaJune Lange, former state trial court judge; and Jay Kiedrowsky, former state finance commissioner and Wells Fargo executive.

Atwood, who was named dean in 2002, last year launched "Humphrey 2020," a process that challenges the faculty, students and the community to examine significant policy and planning issues potentially facing the world in the year 2020.

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Comments (3)

If one could develop a model or standard for what an "ideal" legislator should be, John Brandl would be it.

He was incredibly smart, thoughtful, and--most of all--humble and respectful. Even the most partisan of legislators from that era from both sides of the political aisle would pause to listen to what he had to say, especially in matters of fiscal policy.

May he rest in peace.

John Brandl was an excellent teacher and a wonderful man. I was lucky enough to take two classes from him at the Humphrey Institute. He had a passion for teaching and public service that you don't see often.

His vision (and that of the Institute) has clearly had a lasting affect on Minnesota. As I sit here in my cube on the 5th floor of a State Government building I can think of quite a few other Humphrey grads within in a few 100 feet who have chosen public service as a career.

John Brandl was a wonderful breed unto himself. He was one of the "legislative gods" when I first came to the Capitol in the late 1980s.

My fondest memory of John was that he was the only legislator crazy enough -- and smart enough -- to offer a compromise on the abortion issue.

[A compromise which never went anywhere, given how entrenched the interest groups are on both sides of the issue.]

All the best to the Brandl family and his HHH family and friends as we all grieve his loss.