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'He was the incredible David Godfrey': the life and death of a 'silent hero'

David Godfrey
Photo by Peter Bartz-Gallagher
David Godfrey came to policy work through his love of politics.

The obituary was only one paragraph long, but it painted a clear picture.

David Godfrey was only 48 when he died on Oct. 11, a St. Paul man who had left behind a wife and two young sons, not to mention a mother, a sister and a stepfamily. A Lawrence University alum who did graduate work at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, he had spent his career working in government and health care, the obit noted.

The part about the career didn’t really capture it, though. At the Minnesota Capitol building in St. Paul, Godfrey had once been respected and revered: the warm face with thick glasses who for years had played a key role in late-night negotiations over Minnesota’s health and human services budget — one of the few people who understood the complex system and could communicate with both Democrats and Republicans about how to fix it. 

Even after he left the Capitol, Godfrey continued play an outsized role in how Minnesotans got health care, figuring out ways to cover some of the state’s most difficult people to cover — the poor, those who struggled with substance abuse and addiction.

“He’s not a doctor, he was just this brilliant, nerdy-but-cool guy who changed the lives of so many people,” said Tara Erickson, a longtime friend and health care lobbyist. “It’s a loss to our state and it’s a loss to health care in Minnesota. He was one of those big, silent heroes. He was the incredible David Godfrey.”

For his friends, one line in the obit was particularly hard to take, the one that stated the cause of death: “Complications with alcoholism.” 

A man who had dedicated so much of his life to making sure no one fell through the cracks had fallen through himself.

A passion for prairie politics

From a young age, David Godfrey veered toward the geeky. Rick Varco, the health care political director with with SEIU Minnesota, first met Godfrey in high school at a quiz bowl tournament. Godfrey was there with Mounds Park Academy, Varco with St. Thomas Academy. Years later, as they were both working on health care issues in St. Paul, Varco and Godfrey reconnected and started playing trivia at the Spot Bar in St. Paul. Godfrey would use the occasion to remind Varco that it was Mounds Park that won the quiz bowl back in high school.

“He knew a lot of stuff about politics, about punk rock and about the world,” Varco said. “We always had the advantage of a lot of people on our team, but he would carry other teams by himself. He was pretty much always the competition.” 

At Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, his friends affectionately called him “Dayeed,” a nickname that stuck after Godfrey’s roommate appeared in a college play that required him to talk in an exaggerated Mediterranean accent, said friend Tom Zoellner. 

No one was surprised Godfrey ultimately wound up in a career in politics. At parties, he could talk for hours about prairie politics and populism, and he devoted a considerable amount of his time talking about Hubert Humphrey, the former senator-turned vice president and early champion of civil rights. Godfrey was often at the center of long — if friendly — debates, usually arguing with a populist pinch of Copenhagen tobacco tucked in his lip. 

“Dayeed knew from an early age that he wanted to go into politics — not with the confetti and ego of a candidate — but with the modesty, dedication and quiet intelligence of a civil servant,” said Zoellner, who now works at the Los Angeles Review of Books. “I'll never forget him casually telling me during one of our many debates that his principles were founded on the belief that government could be a good force in people's lives, and that this also went hand-in-hand with a free-market system.”

After college, he went to work as a fiscal analyst for the city of St. Paul, eventually moving on to work as a Medicaid eligibility specialist for Hennepin County. It was the combination of those experiences that appealed to former DFL Sen. Linda Berglin, who was the chair of the state Senate’s health and human services finance committee in early 2000s, when she hired Godfrey as a nonpartisan fiscal analyst.

“It was important to me that whoever was going to have this job understood the Medicaid program because it’s so complicated,” Berglin said. “He understood the program, and he also seemed to have a strong social conscience.”

Master of the spreadsheet

Godfrey flourished in the Senate, often working alongside Berglin to figure out solutions to the complicated health care problems few others could even understand. His specialty was making sense of the complicated stew of state, local and federal funds that make up the state’s human services budget — and how to maximize every last dollar in order to get people coverage. 

“He was the master of the budget spreadsheet,” Varco said. “He was the one person who I believe could put his figure on a piece of paper and say this figure is moving this over here and that’s why this is doing that. Most of us would spend hours trying to figure it out.”

In the mid 2000s, Godfrey was studying those spreadsheets when he noticed something that nobody until then had noticed. The state’s nonprofit HMOs — which provide health coverage for more than a million Minnesotans — had accumulated large reserves. As he dug around further, Godfrey discovered the reserves were being filled with state taxpayer funds the HMOs were getting through Medicaid and other contracts.

Godfrey and Berglin went to work trying to reclaim some of that money in order to buffer against proposed cuts to health and human services programs. The state was experiencing persistent deficits at the time, and former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty was opposed to raising taxes, so he set his sights on trimming health and human services programs to make up the difference.

In May 2009, Pawlenty line-item vetoed $378 million in 2011 funding for the General Assistance Medical Care program, which provided health care to very low income adults without dependent children. That summer, the governor also used his power of unallotment to cut $15 million from the program for 2010. It was a huge blow to the people receiving that coverage, but Godfrey also knew it would be a hardship on state hospitals, which would start seeing those individuals show up in emergency rooms.

After several attempts, Godfrey and Berglin crafted a deal with Pawlenty and Republicans that moved those who had formerly been in the General Assistance Medical Care program into a system where they would get care from hospitals and county agencies, which would get grants and reimbursements from the state to help cover costs. The deal also extended GAMC to ensure a smooth transition for people on the program to the new system. 

“David immediately got to work trying to figure out what to do with this very vulnerable, very complex population,” Erickson said. “Most of them were men, and many of them suffered from substance abuse.”

A policy wonk with political friends

In 2010, Democrats lost the majority in the Senate for the first time in decades, and Godfrey’s political mentor, Berglin, announced she would be leaving the Legislature. Godfrey left the Senate, too — for a bigger job: head of the state’s Medicaid program, which administers roughly $8 billion per year health care funds for hundreds of thousands of low-income adults. 

Medicaid recipients are a complex population, and the program is always dealing with escalating costs, especially as demographics shift. As director, one of Godfrey’s key achievements was to help negotiate a waiver that would allow the state more flexibility in steering some recipients out of institutions, which came with astronomical costs, and into home-based care. The state allowed Medicaid recipients to get in-home help and install ramps and other necessities so they could stay there. The plan would save the state an estimated $151 million over five years.

Then, in 2012, Godfrey got the chance to work again with Berglin, who had gone to work for Hennepin County after she left the Senate. The Hennepin County Medical Center was looking for a new person to help craft the hospital’s agenda at the Capitol, which combined two things Godfrey loved — health care policy and politics.

Though he was known as the ultimate wonk, Godfrey came to policy work through his love of politics. He would obsessively watch state and local races, knocking on doors for candidates he supported in his free time, and host election-night watch parties at his house. His love for politics had come in handy during his years in the Senate, where he had to communicate with members of both parties about complex issues in a way that could appeal to both sides. 

“He was an absolute hard-core policy wonk, probably one of the best in Minnesota, but he also liked to hang out with political activists,” Varco said. “He liked to talk to them. He knew what people’s interests were and how to talk to them about it.”

Godfrey was a progressive Democrat, but he was friendly with GOP lobbyists and activists and formed strong alliances with several Republicans, who were in the minority while he worked in the Senate.

“He saw his role as having a responsibility to help other members of this committee learn about the health and human services budget. That is something so many in the health care community appreciated about David: He wanted to teach people,” said Mary Krinkie, vice president of government relations for the Minnesota Hospital Association. “He had a political philosophy but he didn’t use it in a partisan way.”

The new job at HCMC seemed like a perfect fit — an extension of what he had been doing for years: helping low income people get coverage. HCMC serves one of the largest Medicaid populations of any hospital in the nation. During his time there, Godfrey successfully lobbied for more funding to cover those costs for the hospital, as well as boosted funding for mental health services and HCMC’s poison control center, which was used by people across the state.

A hidden problem

Throughout his career, Godfrey had always been supremely competent — in whatever role he took on. Proficiency was his calling card. But it was also camouflage, cloaking a longtime struggle from all but his closest intimates. As far as many of Godfrey’s acquaintances could tell, he didn’t have a problem with drinking. 

He wasn’t the type of person to regularly get drunk at work events, or even have more than a few drinks at the bar, friends said. He liked to have a shot with his beer when he was out, but he didn’t often go overboard. And even when he was drinking, he still came off like the smartest guy in the room, which made him better at hiding what was going on. 

“It was something he kept to himself, and it was something, like a lot of illnesses, you didn’t realize until the end when things became obvious,” Varco said. “Somebody can be in the grips of an addiction and not necessarily seem like it.” 

Those closest to him, though, knew that he had struggled with addiction, Erickson said, but it wasn’t until about three years ago when things really started to feel “off.”

He stopped responding to emails. Work projects that he was responsible for would go unfinished. Erickson would try to cover for him with colleagues, but as his addiction got worse, his work slipped even more. 

Addiction is often called the loneliest disease, and as things got worse for Godfrey, he was was increasingly isolated and distant from his friends and onetime colleagues. He lost his job at HCMC. He tried to get treatment. It didn’t stick.

By the end, he was staying in a sober-living halfway house. His health began to fail, and he ended up in the hospital, struggling to stay alive. On Oct. 11, while he was staying at Our Lady of Peace Hospice in St. Paul, his body shut down. 

‘The Brain’

On a Saturday afternoon in late October, hundreds of people packed the pews at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, a small stone building just down the street from the Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul.

Lawmakers, lobbyists, health care leaders, legislative and Department of Human Services staffers all came to say goodbye. There were so many people the church had to add chairs to the end of the aisles. Godfrey’s wife, Dana, and two sons spoke: about the man, and about his disease. They talked how it had destroyed their family.

“I called him ‘The Brain’ because his brain was truly magnificent,” Erickson said. “It’s important for people to understand that someone as brilliant and successful as David can die from a disease like this. This disease, it infects every type of person. It’s unrelenting and it’s cruel.”

For those who knew Godfrey’s work, who saw him operate behind the scenes at the Capitol or for Hennepin County, it seemed especially cruel. The guy who didn’t get the help he needed for himself was the same one who had quietly helped so many vulnerable people get health care, people who would never know his name or understand what he had done. 

“A lot of people get care because he figured out a creative way to move money around, some people in some really desperate circumstances,” Varco said of his friend. “They’ll probably never know it, but it was David Godfrey who figured it out.”

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Comments (5)

Beautiful

Thank you.

Beautiful story and tribute

Briana Bierschbach, what a beautifully written tribute to an obviously special human.

Thanks for honoring David...

... with this piece. He was our West Side neighbor during two different phases of his life and career; during the first, I remember enjoying policy-related conversations with him when he was hosting holiday parties; but during the second, we rarely saw him and that was our loss.

My spouse, a lobbyist at the Capitol for nonprofits for several years, had more opportunities to interact with David than I during that earlier phase. Even though she is a former counselor who had worked intensely with numerous substance-abuse victims on both coasts, we had no clue that David had a problem with alcohol. His accomplishments, and the huge amount of good he did for thousands of others through his work in healthcare, stand out that much more for me knowing that he did the work with the 900-lb. gorilla of addiction on his back.

We were truly privileged to have known this remarkable man. The good he did here will live long after him, and enormous numbers of people who do not know his name are – and will continue to be – the beneficiaries of his concern for the well-being of others.

Thank you.

For this wonderful article.

Well done.

A truly gorgeous and significant piece of story telling.