Minnesota champions of disability rights remembered

Minnesotans with disabilities and their allies mourn the loss of two champions in the halls of government. David Durenberger played a […]

David Durenberger speaking at a University of St. Thomas event

Minnesotans with disabilities and their allies mourn the loss of two champions in the halls of government. David Durenberger played a key role in passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in his years in the U.S. Senate.

Lee Greenfield was a tireless worker for improved health care and disability programs as a member of the Minnesota Legislature.

Part of ‘Gang of Seven’

Greenfield, a DFLer who served 11 terms in the Minnesota House, was a true disability rights advocate. He was deeply concerned about the affordability of health care, and played a key role in establishing MinnesotaCare.

The Minneapolis resident was 81 when he died February 7.

A native of Brooklyn, New York, Greenfield graduated from Stuyvesant High School. He earned his B.S. in physics from Purdue University. In interviews Greenfield said his scientific background and love of data uniquely prepared him for legislative work, and led to his interest in health care issues.

He attended graduate school in philosophy of science at the University of Minnesota. Greenfield became active in the movement against the Vietnam War and other civil rights activities. He turned progressive ideas into action, managing political campaigns and developing a commitment to people marginalized by society.

Greenfield ran for the Minnesota House in 1978 on the DFL ticket. Greenfield represented south and southeast Minneapolis from 1979 to 2000.

His focus was health and human services. Greenfield had a desire to improve the quality of life for Minnesotans with disabilities and low-income people. He served on housing, ways and means, appropriations, veterans’ affairs, general legislation, rules and administration, judiciary, judiciary criminal justice, health and human services, and the health and human services finance division committees.

Greenfield worked on a wide range of disability-related bills, also focusing on nursing homes and how residents and staff were treated. He was a leader in protection of vulnerable adults from abuse, neglect and financial exploitation. 

The legislative achievement Greenfield will best be remembered for, and one he was always proud of, was being one of the “gang of seven” legislators.

This group in 1992 helped establish MinnesotaCare, the state’s health care system focused on care access for all. Greenfield chaired of the House Health and Human Services Finance Division, working with members from both parties and then-Gov. Arne Carlson to pass the legislation. Minnesota was the first state to provide health care access for all.

Carlson had vetoed an extensive health-care reform bill, but indicated support for a more focused effort. The governor began working with the seven legislators.

The gang of seven included DFLers Sens. Linda Berglin and Pat Piper and Reps. Greenfield and Paul Ogren, and Republicans Sen. Duane Benson and Reps. Dave Gruenes and Brad Stanius.

They met staunch opposition from Minnesota Medical Association and Minnesota Hospital Association. Both protested two percent tax on health care services intended to finance subsidized health insurance. Rural hospitals and their legislators also fought the plan, especially in the House.

Greenfield, in an exit interview with legislative media services, said he was proud of playing a part in helping to maintain and improve the state’s programs for people with disabilities, community mental health services and expanding home health care for senior citizens. “Many of the most exciting things I’ll ever do will have been done here in this chamber,” he said.

He worked in health care policy for several years after retiring from the Minnesota Legislature. He worked on health care policy for Hennepin County until 2009. Greenfield also worked for many years as a nationally recognized expert advising state governments across the country on health care reform.

Greenfield is survived by his wife Marcia, and other family members and friends. Services have been held. Memorials are preferred to the Minnesota Elder Justice Center or the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection, University of Minnesota Libraries.

An ADA leader

David Durenberger was a political leader who could reach across the aisle to get things done. He represented Minnesota in the United States Senate as a Republican from 1978 to 1995, but later left the party and decried overly partisan behavior.

He died earlier this year at age 88, at his St. Paul home.

Born in St. Cloud to George and Isabelle Durenberger, he grew up on the St. John’s University campus in Collegeville. His father was athletic director and a coach. His mother was an administrative assistant at St. John’s and helped found the alumni organization.

He graduated from St. John’s Prep School in 1951, and from the university in 1955, going to the University of Minnesota Law School. He graduated from law school in 1959. He was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Counter-Intelligence Corps in 1956 and a captain in the United States Army Reserve from 1957 to 1963.

After law school, Durenberger was employed by a South St. Paul law firm with strong political connections. The firm was founded in 1929 by Republican Harold Stassen, governor of Minnesota from 1939 to 1943, and Democrat Congressman Elmer, who served from 1935 to 1941. The firm became LeVander, Gillen, Miller and Durenberger.
Law firm partner Republican Harold “Hap” LeVander was elected governor of Minnesota in 1966. Durenberger became his executive secretary. At the end of LeVander’s tenure in 1971, Durenberger joined H.B. Fuller Company.

Durenberger chaired the Metropolitan Open Space Advisory Board and was on the Minnesota State Ethical Practices Board.

He was elected to the U.S. Senate in November 1978, filling a seat left vacant after Hubert Humphrey died. Reelected in 1982 and again in 1988, he defeated Mark Dayton and Minnesota Attorney General Skip Humphrey.

Durenberger had many accomplishments during his Senate years, with work on open space issues including the Boundary Waters. He and Sen. Paul Wellstone worked together to establish the AmeriCorps work experience program.

Two keys focuses were disability and health care. His spot on the Health Subcommittee of the Senate Finance Committee provided a leadership role in national health reform.
In interviews Durenberger recalled how people with disabilities became his friends and influencers; how the ADA passed; and its impact. To those who opposed passing the civil rights legislation, he said, “We cannot afford not to pass the ADA and enable people with disabilities to be employed.”

He recalled how Republicans and Democrats worked together to pass the landmark civil rights legislation. Durenberger was lead Republican sponsor for the ADA in the U.S. Senate, working closely with Iowa Democrat Sen. Tom Harkin and many others.

In a Star Tribune interview, he said, “One of our jobs [as lawmakers] was to level the playing field, create opportunities for everybody, despite any disabilities or whatever their case might be. So the first one I took on was voting rights for the handicapped, which was the term that was used in 1985 when we passed that one. So, what that meant was that every town and city and village that ran polling places had to make sure people with wheelchairs could get in. That got the attention of the disability community, and it’s what led [Sen. Ted] Kennedy to ask me and [Sen. Tom] Harkin to be the authors of the ADA.”

Durenberger also drew on his past work in Minnesota. He said, “Like a lot of Minnesotans who grew up here in the ’50s and ’60s, I was familiar with the fact that we institutionalized the handicapped as, again, they were called at the time. . . . When I worked in LeVander’s office, one of the trips I’ll never forget was up to Cambridge, to the State Hospital. I saw a whole bunch of young men, most of them naked, some of them hopping around like animals. Just warehoused there. And I never forgot it, and I can forward that to a lot of my life’s work.”

He also gave credit to Colleen Wieck, longtime executive director of the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities (MNCDD) and other Minnesotans, who involved him in disability issues.

And he had a humorous memory of the day the ADA was signed. A band played “Hail to the Chief” and many people stood for the president, prompting spectators in wheelchairs to shout, “Down in front!”

Son David Durenberger told the Star Tribune that his father would want to be remembered mostly for the passage of the ADA because it leveled the playing field and removed barriers for millions. “He was so proud of that,” his son said.

Durenberger was censured in 1990 by  the Senate for ethic violations on speaking fees and travel reimbursements. He chose not to run again.

After his Senate service, Durenberger chaired the National Institute of Health Policy and was a senior Health Policy Fellow at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. He served on the board of National Coalition on HealthCare. He also served on national health commissions and boards, and authored books.

He is survived by his wife of 27 years, Susan Foote; four sons; two stepchildren and 14 grandchildren. Services have been held. Memorials are preferred to the David Durenberger Legacy Fund at St John’s University, for public policy internships for students at St. John’s and St. Benedict.

Find his MNCDD interview at https://mn.gov/mnddc/ada-legacy/durenberger-ada-30th.html

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