WASHINGTON — When he returns to his hometown of Luverne this week, Rick Jauert can claim the unique distinction of having worked for more members of Congress than any other Minnesotan, or perhaps any other person.
The 58-year-old Jauert, who came to Washington 36 years ago as a summer intern for then-Rep. Rick Nolan, has worked for 10 Democratic House members, including seven from Minnesota, two from New York and one from California.
Ironically, Jauert is returning to Minnesota determined to remain politically active while hoping to overcome a fatal neurological disorder, at the same time Nolan hopes to return to Congress after losing his bid for a fourth term in 1981.
“I’m going to beat this thing,” Jauert said May 8 in a barely audible voice as he sat in his townhouse three blocks from the U.S. Capitol, surrounded by hundreds of political books and dozens of campaign posters he’s collected over the years.
He was referring to the illness he announced to friends in an email on April 29: “Sadly, I have been diagnosed with a progressive and ultimately, fatal neurological disease — multiple systems atrophy (MSA),” he wrote. “I am devastated and plan to move back to Luverne quite soon.” Like all his emails, it ended with words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Not only will we have to repent for the sins of bad people; but we also will have to repent for the appalling silence of good people.”
Jauert is confident he’ll overcome his deadly disease. “I’m going to be here for Barack Obama’s Inaugural next January and then I’m going to be here for Hillary Clinton’s Inaugural in January, 2016,” he said May 8.
Jauert will undergo treatment at the Luverne hospital before moving into an assisted living home. He said he also hopes to benefit from research on his disease being done at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, where he recently underwent testing and treatment.
Dozens of Jauert’s friends and neighbors gathered last weekend next door at the home of Dennis McGrann and his wife Cini, to bid Jauert farewell. McGrann, a lobbyist, was chief of staff to then-Rep. Gerry Sikorski when Jauert was Sikorski’s legislative director.
Another was Michael Brakke, a Luverne native and former White House Scholar who is now with the Department of Energy. Brakke, a graduate of St. John’s University in Collegeville, lives in Jauert’s basement apartment, as have four of Jauert’s former bosses.
Jauert came to Washington in 1976 as a summer intern for Nolan while a student at the University of Minnesota Morris, and never returned or finished college. He worked in several jobs on the Hill under Nolan’s patronage until 1980, when he was hired by Nolan’s friend, New York Rep. Tom Downey. “Downey said he liked Minnesotans because they have a good work ethic,” Jauert recalled.
Jauert was a computer operator in Downey’s office until 1983, when Sikorski hired him as a special assistant. He later became legislative director, a post he held until Sikorski’s defeat in 1992.
Three days after Sikorski’s defeat, Jauert traveled to Rome to decompress, when he got a call from Rep. David Minge, who had just been elected to represent Jauert’s home district.
“Minge said he wanted me to be his chief of staff, and I said, ‘If you’re serious, I’ll come back early,’ and he said he was and I did and was hired.”
But Jauert left Minge’s staff after three years and worked briefly for New York Rep. Nydia Velazquez and California Rep. Henry Waxman before taking time off for a sabbatical. There was a reason he needed it.
“I was a recovering alcoholic,” Jauert said. “Capitol Hill is an easy place to become one.” He joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and with the help of friends like Republican Rep. Jim Ramstad of Minnesota, also a recovering alcoholic, struggled to regain control of his life. “Jim called me today,” Jauert said. “He’s been so helpful.”
In December 1999, Jauert was working as a fundraiser for then-Rep. Bruce Vento when Vento hired him as his communications director. One month later, Vento was diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma, and died the following October.
“It was the toughest year of my life because it was so painful to see a man fight the illness with such dignity,” said Jauert. “But it was also the most rewarding year of my life. Bruce moved into my house after he got sick and we’d walk to work together. He was more worried about my wisdom teeth than his own lungs.”
After Vento died, Jauert worked on the campaign of his successor, Betty McCollum, who hired him as her communications director. Still battling alcoholism, he took a year off before going to work for Rep. Marty Sabo as special projects and policy adviser.
When Sabo retired in 2007 after 28 years in Congress, Jauert worked in the campaign of Sabo’s successor, Rep. Keith Ellison, and became his communications director and senior policy adviser until a toxic colon forced him to retire in 2010.
Jauert has nothing but praise for the many Democrats he worked for.
“Vento was remarkable,” he said. “He passed 300 pieces of legislation. Sikorski was great because he worked so hard. Betty McCollum is amazing. I’ve seen grandmothers bring their granddaughters to her events, and they want to touch her and are inspired by her. And of course, Keith [Ellison] broke two barriers as the African American congressman from Minnesota and the first Muslim in Congress. He’s fearless. Working for Keith was like having my first great job.”
Jauert is no stranger to adversity. The fourth of seven children, he grew up on a small dairy farm near Luverne, and when he was 12, his father and uncle drowned in a boating accident. His mother took on jobs cooking and cleaning for people in Luverne while he and his siblings worked without success to save their farm.
“The farm taught me the injustices of life because we worked as hard as we could and my mother took every odd job she could fine, and we still couldn’t get ahead,” he recalled.
Jauert says he hasn’t decided what he’ll do with his vast collection of books and campaign posters, but is thinking of offering them to the public library in Luverne. He estimates he has more than 1,000 books. Among his many posters is the first one he bought in 1980 for $125. It proclaims “Ted Kennedy for President.” He also has a Wellstone for Senate poster signed by the former Minnesota senator days before he died in a plane crash in 2002.
When a visitor points out the John Edwards for President poster, he responds, “I’m waiting, it might be worth more now.” Referring to the book “Game Change,” on which the recent HBO movie about Sarah Palin is based, Jauert adds, “There’s a chapter on John Edwards that every politician should be required to read; what a tragic story about somebody who had good intentions.”
But Jauert has drawn his greatest comfort from the many Minnesotans he’s rubbed shoulders with over the years, especially Hubert Humphrey, who also battled valiantly against a fatal illness.
“Humphrey gave me hope,” he said. “He taught me you can make a difference and from him, I learned to fight for my life.”