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Steve Smith: The troubled life and lonely death of the legislator from Mound

“We knew it was coming,” said Dennis Virden, Rep. Steve Smith’s longtime friend, legislative committee administrator and AA sponsor.

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.
stevesmithminnesota.com

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.

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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:

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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,

Steve

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.”

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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.”

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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.”