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Former Minnesota Attorney General Warren Spannaus dies at 86

Former Vice President Walter Mondale, right, laughs while stopping by the office of former Attorney General of Minnesota Warren Spannaus, left, at Dorsey & Whitney in Minneapolis on Thursday, March 21, 2013. (Ben Garvin / St. Paul Pioneer Press)

Former Minnesota Attorney General Warren Spannaus, a streetcar mechanic's son who rose from St. Paul's working-class Rice Street neighborhood to become one of the state's most popular political leaders, died Monday, Nov. 27. He was 86.

"Warren was liked and trusted by everybody," said former Vice President Walter Mondale, who as attorney general in 1963 hired Spannaus right out of the University of Minnesota Law School. "I think a lot of the goodness and civic decency in Minnesota can be traced in part to Warren's influence."

A Democrat, Spannaus was elected attorney general in 1970 and re-elected in 1974 and 1978.

The state Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, which he chaired from 1967 through 1969, endorsed him for governor in 1982, but he lost the DFL primary to Rudy Perpich, who subsequently won the state's top office.

That defeat ended Spannaus' political career but didn't diminish his interest in politics and politicians. When he wasn't playing golf or watching a baseball game, he was a fixture at DFL Party events, legislative hearings and the weddings, wakes and funerals of his many friends.

"He was one of the best men I have ever known," said Paul Tschida, a former Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner whom Spannaus hired as an assistant attorney general. "He did a lot of things for a lot of people and never looked for anything in return."

After graduating from Washington High School in St. Paul, Spannaus enlisted in the U.S. Navy, then earned his bachelor's and law degrees at the University of Minnesota.

Asked why he hired Spannaus fresh out of law school, Mondale said, "He was honest, intelligent, kind, funny, tireless—all the things you want."

When Spannaus became attorney general in 1971, several Republican lawyers who worked for his predecessor expected to be fired, Mondale recalled. "But he said, 'No, I want you to stay on. Just don't embarrass me.' They stayed on, they were very good lawyers, and it worked."

Tom Fabel, a former assistant attorney general, said, "Everybody who worked for Warren just loved him because you knew that he loved you and cared about you. He was a guy of tremendous compassion."

As the state's top lawyer, Spannaus' door was open to everyone who wanted to see him. Reflecting his blue-collar upbringing, he championed the interests of the average Joe and aggressively enforced consumer protection and environmental laws.

He wasn't afraid to take on tough issues. He sued the Reserve Mining Co. to stop it from disposing taconite waste into Lake Superior, even though top DFL officeholders and union leaders pressured him to go easy on one of northeastern Minnesota's major employers.

But he left his biggest mark on an even more controversial issue: gun control. He ran and narrowly won in 1970 by championing restrictions on purchasing and carrying handguns. He pushed until the Legislature approved background checks and waiting periods in 1975 and strengthened them in 1977.

Gun clubs across the state invited Spannaus to speak to them so they could "beat up on him," Mondale said. "When things were over, they'd say, 'You're a nice guy, and you've got a lot of guts for coming here.' I think he got a lot of votes for that."

But his gun-control advocacy also contributed to his defeat in 1982. Gun-rights advocates plastered the state with "Dump Spannaus" bumper stickers before Perpich upset him in the DFL primary for governor.

After his defeat, he entered private practice at the Dorsey & Whitney law firm in Minneapolis, where he lobbied for clients that he chose.

There he became a mentor to now-U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar. "Warren was a unique figure at a buttoned-up law firm," she said in a statement. "He would always sit back in his chair and put his feet up on his desk, and the soles of his shoes would inevitably have holes in them.

"He kept a tin of shoe polish and an old cloth in his desk drawer, and he would often shine shoes while we talked about work or, more often, politics."

Klobuchar recalled that once a month a man with disabilities who Spannaus had helped as attorney general would visit his office. "Warren would always give him a little cash for lunch."

Even after they retired a couple years ago, Mondale and Spannaus kept offices near each other at the Dorsey firm. "We had a lot of fun talking about the good old days," the former vice president said.

Gov. Mark Dayton said in a statement, "Warren Spannaus was a champion for the best interests of Minnesotans as attorney general and throughout his career. He expanded that office's role in safeguarding consumers and protecting our natural resources."

Current Attorney General Lori Swanson said Spannaus "took extra time to describe to me the nooks and crannies of the attorney general's office."

As DFL chairman, Spannaus "fought tirelessly" to unite the party during the tumultuous Vietnam War era, said current DFL Chair Ken Martin. "His effective leadership catapulted the DFL from the brink of destruction and on track to becoming the strong, productive party it is today. Warren was a giant of Minnesota politics and an all-around good man."

He is survived by his wife, Marjorie, and three children. A visitation is being planned for Sunday, Dec. 3, and a memorial service for Monday, Dec. 4. Funeral arrangements are being handled by Washburn-McReavy.

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