Upon Paul Wellstone’s death, Diane Loeffler reflected on a lesson, “Don’t take anyone for granted.” A giant could be gone in an instant, so it’s best to have others able to step in and grow. At the celebration of Loeffler’s life Saturday, Nov. 23, several speakers touched on how she encouraged and mentored people to step up to public service.
Diane Loeffler, State Representative serving District 60A (formerly 59A) for the past 15 years, passed away Nov. 16 at age 66 of cancer that she battled privately for about two years, initially with success.
Among probably 500 people who came to the event at East Side Neighborhood Services were dozens of her colleagues, both Democrats and Republicans. They described her as persistent, hard-working, kind and sweet, a brilliant strategist and above all, a fierce advocate for the people of her district and for the most vulnerable.
Her sister Elaine Loeffler spoke of their family background. Grandparents on their mother’s side immigrated from Sweden, and their father was German. Diane was the oldest, then Elaine, then Larry. Living at 33rd and Ulysses, they could put on their skates in the living room and totter across to the rink at Waite Park. When their parents turned on the light, it was time to come home.
They shared a room, but not the same decorating sense, so at times there was a line of tape down the middle. “Diane was a frilly girl, not me,” said Elaine.
Diane came into politics through family. It was common to have conversations and even debates about the issues of the day, Elaine Loeffler said. “We would trade sides. … We found it all in good fun. … She was born in ’53, so the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, all shaped her. Even at Northeast Junior High, we walked out on the dress code.”
“I know it caught her then, that she could fix things.”
Diane’s reputation for being the last one to leave the State Office Building after catching up on correspondence or reading up for the next day’s hearings was an extension of her study habits in school, Elaine said. “She worked best on deadline, under cover of darkness. The night before a paper was due, she’d sit down at the typewriter. She had it all in her head. A 10-page paper would come out without a paragraph out of place.”
Next stop after Edison High School: Augsburg College where, after an internship at the City of Minneapolis, she figured out how to graduate early to take a job in the city’s budget office. “Shortly after that, she bought a house,” Elaine said, “Not the normal house, but a triplex that needed a lot of work.”
One of Loeffler’s friends quipped to Loeffler’s husband, Mike Vennewitz, that “Diane never met a silent auction she didn’t like. Your house must be full,” she said.
It was, in fact, how they met in the early 1980s. Diane was working at the League of Minnesota Cities, and Mike was at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. He donated a day of his non-expert handyman time to a silent auction for the Minnesota Environmental Education Board. She purchased his services to work on the triplex. They married in 1987.
As for a full house, much of what Loeffler bought at silent auctions or while shopping at art events ended up as gifts. She’s remembered for making bags of little presents for family members to open each day on a trip, or for a couple to open at certain times during the year. She shared tulips from her garden with fellow legislators. They put a last bouquet of white flowers in a unique vase on her empty desk in the House chamber.
Governor Tim Walz spoke of Loeffler’s time “invested joyfully to make the state something she wanted to be a part of.”
Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan said many years ago when Flanagan was elected to the Minneapolis school board, she knew a call from Loeffler would mean she’d be asked to do something for the students of Northeast. Or that when Loeffler would say, “We need to get more people here” to a committee meeting or a rally, Flanagan knew that was marching orders to work harder to get supporters to come out in force.
Loeffler believed the voice of regular people was powerful. State Senator Kari Dziedzic lauded the use of town hall sessions which Loeffler held to listen to what concerned her constituents. Sharing and getting feedback on what they were working on, the sessions were held jointly with the other legislators serving both parts of the Senate District.
Dziedzic listed Loeffler’s passions as arts, libraries and the riverfront. Loeffler was an expert on her committee assignments: health and human services, and taxes, the two most complex legislation categories. Folks mentioned how she could add little bits of language to those huge bills, bits of language that had far-reaching positive effects on thousands of people.
Melissa Hortman, current Speaker of the House, was elected in the same year, 2004, as Loeffler. She read a top three from Loeffler’s list of 20 accomplishments and 20 disappointments from the most recent session.
I shadowed Loeffler for a 12-hour day (mine, hers was still going on when I departed) during the 2017 session, and observed several instances when she advised others on process, on how to be heard, the best leverage. Remembering community meetings long before her election, when Loeffler to me seemed to delight in endless discussion, I asked Mike if she liked process or results better. “Results. Process leads to results. She liked seeing the benefit of her hard work. And that has changed over time. As process skewed more to politics, she became frustrated.”
That led her to work hard for other DFL candidates to try to regain the majority in the house.
Friends shared that in wee-hours phone calls Loeffler could complain, but publicly she remained patient and upbeat, advising others that their hard work would eventually pay off.
Hunter Cantrell, Representative from 56A in the south metro area, was grateful when Loeffler for the House record recognized his work on a bill that passed. Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein from the New Brighton area said Loeffler had urged her to be the one to carry another bill Loeffler had unsuccessfully worked on “over the finish line.”
Justice Paul Anderson recognized Loeffler’s work on the State Capitol restoration and its art, including challenging the images that represented forced relocation of Native Americans. Constituents remember her tours of the State Capitol on President’s Day. Ryan Winkler, House Majority Leader, presented Mike with a flag that had been flown over the Capitol.
Paula Allan, one of “Team Diane” who assisted her through her illness and helped put together the celebration of life, was among the last to speak. She urged everyone who wants to honor Diane Loeffler to go out and get a whole lot done, to not wait for change to come. She quoted Barack Obama, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change we seek.”
Below: State Representative Diane Loeffler spoke at the late October 2017 ground breaking for the re-creation of Hall’s Island, part of the former Scherer Brothers lumber site. How to make better connections to the river for her Northeast constituents was one of Loeffler’s passions. (Northeaster file photo by Mark Peterson) FDiane Loeffler’s art and with husband Mike Vennewitz. Campaign brochure photo with Aunt Lil, for whom Diane was guardian. “We had some really fun times with Lil,” said Vennewitz. Lil inspired Loeffler’s interest in health care and vulnerable people. The 1996 ad for Loeffler’s first, but unsuccessful campaign. Len Biernat won, but when he decided not to run again in 2004, Loeffler ran and won. Above, a photo from the 1971 Edison Wizard yearbook. in which Loeffler shared: “Never stop caring. Stay young. Always smile, and bring all the happiness you can into the world. While at Edison I discovered I like the fun and even the work of being involved, getting to know people, and talking with them.”