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Steve Smith: The troubled life and lonely death of the legislator from Mound
Rep. Steve Smith, R-Mound, served his district and the state for 21 years running – the longest tenure of any House Republican at the time.

Among AA adherents (and even nonbelievers), it is acknowledged and grimly understood that “there are such unfortunates” who will not achieve sobriety – and who, because of the chronic and progressive nature of the disease, will die. “They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way,” the Big Book says.

One of those unfortunates it seems was state Rep. Steve Smith, R-Mound, who served his district and the state for 21 years running – the longest tenure of any House Republican at the time. Though a cause of death has not yet been released, Smith’s son, his legislative colleagues and dear friends have said that his death, which was discovered last week, was most certainly related to his struggle with alcoholism. He was 64.

“We knew it was coming,” said Dennis Virden, Smith’s longtime legislative committee administrator, his AA sponsor for several years, and his friend of more than four decades. “It was just a matter of time. I can tell when it’s going to happen. I told Steve it was going to happen. And it did.”

A ‘disease of isolation’

Virden’s blunt assessment should not be mistaken for any lack of affection or concern. He was among many House colleagues, staff members and friends who took an active interest in getting Smith the help he needed – including driving him to detox “countless times,” persuading him to enter residential treatment several times, and encouraging him in his after-care regimen, Virden said. Despite long periods of sobriety, their efforts – including those of three successive House speakers (Steve Sviggum, Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Kurt Zellers) – were ultimately to no avail.

After his electoral defeat in 2012, most who knew him lost contact with Smith. Even Virden, who had known Smith since their undergraduate days together at the University of Minnesota, had not seen him for more than a year at the time his death was discovered.

There’s a reason it’s called a “disease of isolation,” said Virden, who has been sober for 30 years (a “one-day-at-a-time” effort even to this day, he says). “When we drink, we drive away the people who love us, and we continue to hurt them,” he said, speaking from his own experience. “And at some point they give up. That’s only natural. They’ve had enough pain.”

The isolating nature of the disease was no less true for Steve Smith, who had become increasingly resistant to any attempts at communication or any offers of help. Phone calls went unanswered, knocks on the door were ignored. His neighbors in Mound called police when they realized they had not seen him for a while. He was found inside his house, wrapped in blankets. The heat had been shut off, and the water pipes had burst. Apparently his body had been there for some months.

A forgiving son

Whatever breaches of trust must have occurred, whatever pain the family must have endured during the course of Smith’s addiction, his son, Ryan, a Minnetonka police officer, spoke with love, forgiveness and compassion Monday morning at his father’s funeral at Bethel United Methodist Church in Mound.

He recalled happier times, and gave a snapshot of a person many may not have known: “For those of you who didn’t have the chance to share a personal relationship with my father, I can tell you that you missed out on a few things: Disney, the Three Stooges, and a lot of classic old movies,” he said to laughter. “I will always remember the numerous trips to Disneyland, and I will always cherish the memories of seeing how happy my dad was with me there.”

Former State Rep. Steve Smith and son Ryan
Courtesy of The Laker
Former State Rep. Steve Smith, shown here in a 2012 campaign photo with his son Ryan.

He credited his father for instilling in him a feeling of patriotism and a “sense of service to this great country.”

He then confronted the issue on everyone’s minds.

“Those who knew my father understand that life has its share of speed bumps and curve balls,” he said. “I want to read an excerpt from a letter I found that Dad hand-wrote, I believe sometime during October of 2013, while he was going through treatment. I would like to share it with you all here today:

To whom it may concern:

Hi, my name is Steve. I have a desire to stop drinking. It is a disease that can be arrested on a day-by-day basis. It has taken a toll on me – my health, friends and finances. I am difficult, unpleasant and hurtful when I drink. I have pushed nearly everyone close to me away, causing them stress, anxiety and pain. My friends want to help, but can take so much before they will just give up.

Please join me on my journey of recovery. My use of alcohol had gotten worse, and I sought help to relearn how not to relapse. I have a long way to regain your trust again, but that will not deter me. That will not deter me from recovery and living each day working for that goal of a healthy life and your renewed friendship, love and trust.

I want to be responsible, productive, and be awake each day ahead – not just some of them. I want, hope for, a once-again loving relationship of father and son and my friends. But know this: I have spent the whole month this October relearning strategies to arrest this problem one day at a time. I have new relapse prevention techniques to help me. Willingness, honesty, and open-mindedness are essential to recovery.

My problem has robbed us of time together. I have disappointed you, and me. I want to be a positive in your life.

Thank you,


A friend to labor

Steve Smith’s life of public service began in the mid-1980s in Mound, where he was elected first as a City Council member and then as mayor. A graduate of Oklahoma City University School of Law, he also had established Smith Fisher Attorneys, a family law practice in Richfield.

When he arrived at the state Capitol in 1990, his political ideology was his own. He was the party’s standard-bearer on issues such as gun rights, property rights and abortion. But he was not afraid to break ranks on other issues: Smith’s mother had worked at the sprawling Tonka Toys factory in Mound, and her struggles during the factory’s merger and eventual closing left a deep impression on Smith. He became a reliable supporter of raising the minimum wage and a friend to public pensioners (especially firefighters). As well, he was one of four Republicans who voted against the Minnesota Marriage Amendment.

“He was a man of strong convictions and didn’t waver, even if [his stand] was unpopular,” said Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, who was among the frequent visitors to Smith’s home. “I have always admired people at the Capitol who stand for something … who make their decisions based on some principle, no matter which way the wind is blowing.”

Steve Sviggum
Steve Sviggum

Sviggum advanced Smith’s legislative career, appointing him successively as chair of the Civil Law, Judiciary Policy and Finance, Public Safety Policy and Finance, and Ethics committees. Smith took the lead on legislation to reform the state’s child-support laws, crack down on meth labs, strengthen the penalties for domestic abusers and sex offenders found guilty of murder, and fight child sex trafficking.

“He was extremely brilliant, very, very sharp,” Sviggum said. “I could always count on him as speaker, even though we disagreed on several issues.”

In 1999, just as Republicans regained control of the House for the first time in 14 years, Sviggum was approached by members and staffers who expressed concern about Smith’s drinking.

“One or two thought he had liquor on the floor; they smelled liquor on his breath,” Sviggum said. “I went right to Steve, spoke with him about it [and told him], ‘We cannot have that. It simply won’t go as chair of Judiciary. If you’ve got a problem, I want to know about it. We can deal with it.’

“He assured me there was no problem. … I guess denial is part of the disease.”

To mitigate the potential for any personal or political loss or reputational harm, and to funnel some help in Smith’s direction, Sviggum brought in Virden. The Original Mattress Factory store manager and retired U.S. Army Infantry major had business acumen and organizational chops.

He also had a deep bond of friendship with Smith and a firm foothold in recovery.

A friend in need

The U.S. Army had booted Virden into treatment in 1984 at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, near where he was stationed. He was not exactly in denial.

“I knew I was an alcoholic long before the Army did,” he said. “I had periods of sobriety. It was horrible – the complete lack of hope, the depression, the sureness in my mind that this wasn’t going to end well.”

Looking back, he marvels at the enlightened approach that was taken on his behalf. “My commander could have just as easily said, ‘Here’s your ticket home,’” he said.

As is the case for many, his first attempt at treatment ended in a drinking binge. And there would be more tries and many more years before Virden would achieve anything approaching “serenity.” A turning point for him, he said, was completing the Fourth and Fifth of AA’s Twelve Steps  (“made a searching and fearless moral inventory” and “admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs”).

Dennis Virden, of Burnsville, a friend of Steve Smith's
MinnPost photo by Sarah T. Williams
Dennis Virden, of Burnsville, a friend of Steve Smith’s for more than four decades, and his longtime AA sponsor.

Said Virden: “The Eagles have that song, ‘Peaceful Easy Feeling’ – that’s what I was after. And I could get it when I was drinking for maybe 10 minutes, but all the suffering that went along with that wasn’t worth it. And it [was] years after the program that I finally got to a point of serenity – an ability to live my life like anybody else. It doesn’t mean I didn’t have problems: I lost my wife, I got sued, I lost a farm in foreclosure – all the problems that normal people have, we still have. But because I didn’t drink I was able to deal with them. That’s critical in my life.”

Virden tried to nudge Smith in the same direction, but could get nowhere. Meanwhile, Smith’s problems worsened, and Virden, Sviggum and some others decided to take action. They waited one day until Smith’s wife had gone to work, and took him to a residential treatment center. The threat of losing his gavel was on the table, but Sviggum’s heart softened when Smith offered him a jar of pickles that he had canned. In exchange for keeping his gavel, Smith yielded to the first of many attempts at inpatient treatment.

Accelerating troubles

In the fall of 2011, despite the best efforts of friends, family and colleagues, Smith’s political and personal struggles accelerated:

  • In September 2011, House Speaker Kurt Zellers announced that Smith would no longer chair the Judiciary Committee because of  “personal reasons.”
  • In January 2012, KSTP-TV reported that Smith was removed as chair in part because of an alleged inappropriate relationship with a staff member, an allegation that Smith denied.
  • In May 2012, Smith lost his own party’s endorsement to self-described Tea Party candidate Cindy Pugh.
  • In July 2012, Zellers endorsed Pugh, saying that she would more adequately “represent the conservative values of the district.”
  • In August 2012, Pugh handily defeated Smith in the District 33B primary, winning 70 percent of the vote. “Here’s my problem,” Smith said at the time. “I was in the middle of the road. If you’re in the middle of the road, you’re going to get hit by the bus. Right now, it seems like you’d better be in one lane or the other or the bus is going to get you.”
  • In September 2012 Politics in Minnesota reported that Smith had failed to file his preprimary campaign finance report, and owed $1,400 in fines.
  • At some point before or during this time, Smith and his wife, Cynthia, were quietly divorced. Smith did not tell his closest friends, Virden said.

Smith addressed his colleagues one last time on Aug. 24, 2012, during a one-day special session that had been called to provide emergency flood relief for Duluth. In an Uptake video of the eight-minute floor speech, Smith appears gaunt, shaky and short of breath. His chronic health problems now included cirrhosis, heart disease and severe pancreatitis.

Mustering his strength, Smith defended his legacy and pride in “the old Republican Party, a legitimate and honorable strand of our American and Minnesota heritage. We were committed to doing well what had to be accomplished and doing without those things which people could do for themselves. That old-fashioned philosophy was reflected in the issues that I fought for: public safety, bonds between parents and children, the right to bear arms, the right to protect life at both ends of our lives, and the right to private property. I stood with Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt in defending the right of free men and women to negotiate for safer work conditions, reasonable benefits, fair pay in return for their labor.”

But, he lamented, “The Republican Party in which I believed has at times shown inflexible adherence to the rhetoric of the principle of the day … .”

He vowed to “live in hope,” and expressed pride in his “dear son, Ryan, who will be 24 years old in six days. Now those of us who have had small children know that our long hours here have robbed us of some time with our kids. Further he returned last year from four years of active duty with the U.S. Air Force as a military policeman, ground security. And while we were here debating bills, he served two tours in Iraq defending our right to do so.”

His colleagues gave him a standing ovation, and some approached him to shake his hand or offer a hug.

Smith autographed a photo for his friend, Dennis Virden
Courtesy of Dennis Virden
Smith autographed a photo for his friend, Dennis Virden, whose nickname is Otto.

‘An evil, evil disease’

It was the last time that most colleagues saw him. And so Holberg’s announcement of his death last week during a House session was met with a collective gasp.

She understood their shock and surprise: “It’s a horrible tragedy,” said Holberg. “It’s an evil, evil disease. It destroys families. At the end of Steve’s life, he obviously didn’t want the help. And so it was a really tragic end, because he had to know on some level at least that if he reached out, there were certainly a lot of people who would have been there for him.”

And as much as he could see it coming, Virden will always miss his friend: “It didn’t matter how bad things got, he always was able to laugh. Most people thought he was quiet and shy. Around me he was very funny. He was a master of irony and jokes. Even in the darkest times, he could put a smile on my face with his humor and his caring. He was my friend. I loved him for that.”

Comments (30)

  1. Submitted by Sarah Janecek on 04/15/2014 - 09:52 am.

    Kudos to all

    Beautifully done by all: (1) Ryan Smith — eulogizing a parent is tough enough but you accomplished a monumental task given the nature of your father’s death; (2) Dennis Virden — providing years of friendship and help; and (2) Sarah Williams — writing this thorough, thoughtful narrative on Steve’s struggles.

    I’ll be thinking of Steve later this summer when I can beet pickles for the first time — remembering a conversation we had where I confessed I’d never tried a beet pickle and Steve gave me a jar the next day.

    • Submitted by Lou Michaels on 04/20/2014 - 08:41 am.

      Steve Smith

      I had the chance to me Steve Smith on the floor of the House several years back to get a photo of Steve and when I meet him just a very nice man and get my photos for a paper that requested my work and my rep. Steve Smith RIP and God Bless you and your Family Members.

  2. Submitted by Mac Riddel on 04/15/2014 - 10:19 am.

    I’m just surprised that voters continued to ignore his major fault and continued voting him into office for 21 years while he was a massive alcoholic (probably) the entire time.

    To bad he alienated himself and his family and ended up dying alone in a frozen house. Dead for months? Ouch. Also sad that his friends in the Republican party basically abandoned him after he lost the 2012 election. Without any support, it’s much more difficult for an alcoholic to have success in treatment.

    • Submitted by Chris Farmer-Lies on 04/16/2014 - 12:37 pm.

      Alcoholics are teachers, parents, spouses, wealthy, poor, and yes, even elected officials. Their disease may be obvious or subtle, but I can guarantee that someone close to you is an alcoholic. Someone you depend on, someone you trust, someone you love. They need your love and support, not your judgement.

      The alienation that comes from alcohol abuse is very painful for the alcoholic and those close to them. They do not choose the alienation, it is a symptom of the disease of alcoholism.

  3. Submitted by Elaine Frankowski on 04/15/2014 - 11:06 am.

    alcohol, the deadly drug

    Alcohol is perfectly legal, even in huge quantities. Some of us have a glass of wine and call it a day. Others can’t stop no matter how much they consume. Alcohol kills — the driver you hit when drunk, your marriage, your finances, your soul.

    Marijuana, on the other hand, while illegal, has medical benefits and is far less addictive than alcohol. Yet our state legislature and governor are confused about whether to legalize medical marijuana while not at all confused about what a bad idea prohibition was.

    Minnesota, consider two positive medical moves: legalize medical marijuana and provide as many alcohol cessation programs as we have smoking cessation programs. Alcoholism is a disease and should be treated as aggressively as many other diseases. Medical marijuana can mitigate the effects of some diseases and should be viewed as such.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 04/15/2014 - 05:07 pm.

      The reason they’re “confused”

      about whether to legalize medical marijuana could be because of studies such as this one:

      Brain changes are associated with casual marijuana use in young adults

      Washington, DC — The size and shape of two brain regions involved in emotion and motivation may differ in young adults who smoke marijuana at least once a week, according to a study published April 16 in The Journal of Neuroscience. The findings suggest that recreational marijuana use may lead to previously unidentified brain changes, and highlight the importance of research aimed at understanding the long-term effects of low to moderate marijuana use on the brain.

      • Submitted by Robert McManus on 04/20/2014 - 09:48 am.

        Reefer Madness

        You need to be sure who funds the study. Also, according to what I’ve read, the marijuana brain study had an extremely small sample, a group of 20.

        But most of all, I’d like to ask what exactly we should be “motivated” regarding. Is there a standard for motivation at all? And whose values would those standards be based on? Are we talking about motivation to get up and slave for those who make all the profit off our work? If so, I know many marijuana users who numbly get up day after day and do so. And there are plenty of creative, highly(pun intended)motivated people who have contributed greatly to society who have smoked marijuana their entire lives. One highly cited example is Carl Sagan.

        These studies trying to throw doubts on an herbal remedy used for millennia, thrown out at a time when the public has grown weary of the lies, racism and destruction of society and families wreaked by the drug war, are red herrings and belong in the dustbin next to the anthropogenic climate change and evolution deniers. Do you know that there are cannabinoid receptors in your brain that point to either marijuana evolving to take advantage of this trait or our brains evolving to take advantage of cannabis? Either option points to thousands upon thousands of years of co-evolution toward beneficial exploitation of this plant. Cannabis may well be the oldest cultivated plant. Don’t believe me. Read well-respected food writer Michael Pollan’s book “The Botany of Desire” which is about how plants basically evolve to give us what we want.

        So enough of the claptrap regarding that horrible bogeyman, that madness inducing evil weed put upon this planet to tempt us into baking our children alive…

  4. Submitted by John Edwards on 04/15/2014 - 11:35 am.

    Politicizing a death

    Sadly Mac Riddel has rushed to politicize even the tragic death of a troubled man by accusing Republicans of abandoning Mr. Smith.

    But as Smith wrote: “I have pushed nearly everyone close to me away, causing them stress, anxiety and pain. My friends want to help, but can take so much before they will just give up.” If Mr. Riddel will re-read the story he will see that Smith’s Republican friends tried many times to help him. Smith’s case is very similar in its tragedy to that of DFL Sen. Winston Borden who died three months ago.

    Sarah Williams did an excellent job. MinnPost should do more actual journalistic reporting, rather than relying on political pieces from its liberal contributors.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 04/15/2014 - 01:29 pm.

      Love how you accuse Mac Riddel of politicizing the story

      and then choose to end your post doing the same thing. That said, I was saddened by this story. I can’t imagine the loneliness Mr. Smith faced in his final years. I’m sure losing his position in the House was the last straw for someone struggling to find purpose. No one should have to die alone like that, and this person had so much more to offer in life. My heart goes out to his family and friends.

  5. Submitted by Loretta Holscher on 04/15/2014 - 11:42 am.

    Steve Smith

    I appreciate the candor and compassion of this article. A sad testimonial to the choice he made to die of alcoholism.

  6. Submitted by Peter Mikkalson on 04/15/2014 - 12:16 pm.

    Re: Thanks for the great piece…

    You can’t judge the deleterious nature of chemical addiction. Certainly those closest had been impacted as well. BUT, a son (a cop) living nearby who hadn’t contacted his father IN MONTHS!? Something terribly wrong.

    • Submitted by Tad Wagner on 04/15/2014 - 03:17 pm.

      Be very careful

      As a recovered person, I can say I owe those whom I have hurt… And I owe them at least as much time that I have spent using… That is time I alone robbed them.

      Be very careful when you critiicize others for their decisions to “not contact their father for months” as sometimes people MUST break ties with an active alcoholic, or addict, as in some situations, it can actually be enabling thebaddict/alcoholic.

      From my own experience, my family had to break ties with me on several occasions. It hurt at the time, but also helped me get to my “rock bottom” quicker. Today, I’m fortunate to be able to thank them for their “tough love”.

      Unfortunately, some people don’t make it. But I can say from many years of experience,personal, and otherwise, that it’s not “abandonment”… It’s tough love.

  7. Submitted by Andrew Eklund on 04/15/2014 - 01:17 pm.

    Alcoholism not his major fault, Mac Riddel.

    Mac, you unfortunately have made many entirely wrong assumptions in your comments. First, alcoholism wasn’t his “major fault.” It was a disease. Is cancer or diabetes a “major fault”?

    Second, you probably know many alcoholics, but you just don’t know they’re alcoholics. To say his constituents kept reelecting him because he was an alcoholic is, frankly, naive. They most likely didn’t know he was suffering from the disease, and reelected him because they supported his performance. An alcoholic can be a productive member of society. That’s why it’s a lonely disease.

    Finally, no one abandoned him. He abandoned himself. That’s how this disease works if it goes untreated.

    • Submitted by Richard O'Neil on 04/15/2014 - 02:42 pm.

      You “get it,” Mr Eklund. The story of Steve Smith is one that I hear over and over again. The disease of alcoholism is “cunning, baffling, powerful,…”

  8. Submitted by Sara Fleets on 04/15/2014 - 01:08 pm.

    Addiction is a Disease

    So much judging.

    Addiction is a disease that needs treatment just like any other medical condition. As someone who has personal family experience, I refer to the article and Steve’s own words:

    “I am difficult, unpleasant and hurtful when I drink. I have pushed nearly everyone close to me away, causing them stress, anxiety and pain. My friends want to help, but can take so much before they will just give up.”

  9. Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 04/15/2014 - 02:28 pm.

    So very, very sad

    This is a sad and tragic story.

    My heart goes out to his family and loved ones.

  10. Submitted by Patrick Strother on 04/15/2014 - 04:01 pm.

    A good man

    Steve Smith was a good man with a bad disease. Unfortunately, when left untreated, the progressive nature of the illness has three outcomes: jail, insanity or death.

  11. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/15/2014 - 04:10 pm.

    Well done

    I didn’t know Steve Smith, nor do I know Sarah T. Williams, but this was a fine piece of journalism. Well done, Ms. Williams.

  12. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 04/15/2014 - 04:20 pm.

    There but for the grace of God go thee…

    Mac and Peter, who comment here, demonstrate how easy it is to judge alcoholics and their families. My brother, David, died in a fashion very similar to Mr Smith. Probably the only difference is that his body wasn’t alone as long as Steve’s was, but only because, as someone who has been through that lonely nightmare, I recognized what was happening when my brother missed his dinner date with my Mom.

    Mac, you seem to assume that you are more clever or aware than his voters. Sounds like he functioned pretty well for a long time. I don’t think that “Ouch” quite covers the tragedy here.

  13. Submitted by Jim Bernstein on 04/15/2014 - 05:00 pm.

    Rep. Smith RIP

    I was very sad to hear of his passing and the circumstances of his death. I had the privilege of spending some time with him as a newly appointed Ventura Administration commissioner in 2000 and beyond. While waiting for an appointment with another legislator he overheard me talking to an acquaintance about my familial connection to Mound and invited to stop into his office after my meeting. He and I spend more than an hour talking about Mound and later that summer we met for lunch and at his behest, I showed him where my great grandparents farmed on Dutch Lake and on the site where Mound Westonka High School now sits. Over the next several years, he was always available and quite willing to speak his mind and asked the same from me.

    Even though we were miles apart on many policy issues, I always found Steve Smith to be an engaging and thoughtful legislator and a genuinely decent fellow. I am glad that so many of his former colleagues in the House appreciated his commitment to our state and his decency.

  14. Submitted by Tom Regnier on 04/15/2014 - 05:09 pm.


    As a recovering person, I can relate to Steve’s condition. I’m sad that the disease got him…sad for him, for his family, his friends and his constituents. All have suffered because of the disease. Sometimes I think that the best people are the ones most at risk. Thanks for the great write-up, Sarah.

  15. Submitted by Grace McGarvie on 04/15/2014 - 05:34 pm.

    Rep. Steve Smith

    Steve was my legislator for about 10 years, and though he was Republican and I am a DFLer we exchanged many frank e-mails discussing our differences. The sadness of the disease of alcoholism, I have seen in several lives of friends and relatives. A very destructive and progressive disease that ends in financial ruin, family destruction, and death. It affects the rich and the poor, the smart and the ignorant, the bold and the shy. Truly an evil disease, a great job of journalism. RIP, Steve.

  16. Submitted by Brian Hutchins on 04/15/2014 - 05:40 pm.

    Journalistic Qualifications

    I see that you used to work in PR for Hazelden. Well, there you go.

    • Submitted by Colleen Foley on 04/15/2014 - 08:57 pm.

      Well there you go? Where? This article clearly hits home for many. What’s the issue?

      • Submitted by Brian Hutchins on 04/15/2014 - 11:31 pm.

        AA Promo

        My first comment didn’t publish. The author clearly favors AA, and other 12 step programs (like Hazelden) as a treatment option. See her earlier work on MinnPost. The trouble with that is AA has a very very low success rate, but because it is accepted without qualifications, too often people who do not succeed are not offered any other way of coping with addiction. Instead they are seen as having failed AA, as opposed to the treatment having failed them. The author spends a lot of time with the AA people in this man’s life without, as a journalist would, ever questioning whether something better could have been done. She has biases which clearly impact her work here.

    • Submitted by Chris Farmer-Lies on 04/16/2014 - 01:14 pm.

      Addiction professionals SHOULD be writing about this subject – contrary to your intimation that something shady is going on, this is a thoughtful, well-written article that you maybe skimmed as a precursor to complaining about 12-step programs.

      Nothing about this article mentions the success or failure of 12-step programs, and it certainly doesn’t advocate for them as a cure for addiction treatment. You’re indeed correct that 12-step programs have a very low success rate, which is why it is only one component of the addiction treatment program offered at Hazelden.

      Folks working in addiction treatment don’t need to read Monday-morning quarterbacking about their failure rates. They live the heartbreak of addiction every day. Working in tobacco, I know that even though 70% of smokers want to quit, it will take between 8 and 11 attempts before they are successful. I imagine the rate of success for kicking the disease of alcohol addiction is similarly low.

      Of course 12-step programs have a low success rate. Addiction treatment itself is extremely difficult. (which you will realize when you look at treatment programs holistically instead of grinding an axe over 12-step) Rep. Smith was in treatment in October, certainly months and perhaps even days before his death. To call on my field again, the success rate of our MOST successful nicotine addiction therapies is, I believe, less than 10%. We are not curing addiction, we are triage.

      There are many treatments for the disease of alcoholism, of which 12-step is one. It works for some, not for others, like many treatments and medications, it has a low success rate. When someone dies of cancer, we don’t blame chemotherapy for not curing them, we blame the disease.

  17. Submitted by Neal Gendler on 04/15/2014 - 11:59 pm.

    Re PR at Hazelden

    My former colleague Sarah T. Williams is a first-rate journalist and first-rate human being. If her work at Hazelden influenced her reporting and writing in any way, it was only to make it better by giving her unusual knowledge and insight into the disease of alcoholism and its consequences. Any suggestion of advocacy or bias is pretty much slander.

  18. Submitted by Stewart Naaden on 04/16/2014 - 08:44 am.


    I’m sitting here with 28 years of sobriety thanks to AA. The thing is a person really has to get to the rock bottom and be ready to finally change. I never met anyone that could explain how it works for some and not all but if you try it works. A little at a time for some and for others like me it was sudden and instant. I don’t go to as many meetings as I should but when I do I still meet folks with the same problems as that very first day. Just like a smoker or heroin addict, if I take just ONE it’s off to the races again. I know this and accept it, even with all these cool new beers tempting me everywhere.
    My condolences to Ryan and all the rest.

  19. Submitted by Patricia Campbell on 04/16/2014 - 09:57 am.

    Treatment and AA

    In my experience with friends and family people have multiple ways to seek recovering. What I read in the article is that a man struggled deeply with alcoholism and the reporter shows great efficacy in not judging and reporting a compansionate view inside the life of a public official. My condolences go out to Steve Smith’s family and friends. My hope is this report will serve to help others know they are not alone and get the help they need.

  20. Submitted by Kris Jacobs on 04/16/2014 - 06:03 pm.

    A noble and courageous man.

    This is the week the Governor signed an historic minimum wage increase. Steve believed that for work to be valued, it should be valuable and his votes for a higher minimum wage are a lasting testament to his deep humility and humanity. I am so moved, Sarah Williams, by this artful journalistic jewel. MinnPost does it again.

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