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Bruce Vento, 1940-2000
By Mark Zdechlik
October 10, 2000
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DFL Congressman Bruce Vento died eight months after announcing his diagnosis with lung cancer and decision not to seek re-election. Vento held Minnesota's 4th Congressional District House of Representatives seat for nearly 24 years. He's remembered as a champion of working people, the environment and the homeless.

Bruce Vento was a guest on MPR's Midday on February 8, 2000, after announcing he would not run for re-election. (Listen)

Hear Garrison Keillor's tribute from a 2000 Washington gathering to honor Vento. (Listen) This includes audio from a testimonial video.

Hear Gov. Ventura's reaction to the death of Congressman Vento. (Listen)

Hear the MPR special on the life of Bruce Vento as originally broadcast on October 10, 2000. (Listen)

WHEN CONGRESSMAN BRUCE VENTO announced that he would not seek re-election because he had been diagnosed with cancer, support, encouragement and praise for his public service poured in from the highest of levels.

Last summer, President Bill Clinton appeared at a Washington salute and fundraiser for a scholarship in Vento's honor. "Bruce has become a real friend to me over these past seven and a half years; we love you and we are grateful," Clinton said at the time. (Listen to full Clinton message)

Fourth District voters first sent Bruce Vento to Washington in 1976. It was the the 36-year-old junior high science and social studies teacher's first bid for Congress. A life-long resident of east St. Paul, Vento had served six years in the Minnesota Legislature. He won the congressional seat vacated by fellow DFLer Joe Karth.

Vento won again in 1978 and was re-elected by wide margins throughout the 1980s. He left Congress on his own accord, but in the 1990's, Republican challengers made inroads in efforts to break the DFL's long string of control over Minnesota's 4th District.

University of Minnesota management professor Ian Maitland ran against Vento three times beginning in 1988.

"At first I underestimated him," said Maitland recently. "He seemed to be something of a party hack."

Maitland says campaigning against Vento was often unpleasant. He says Vento seemed bothered by election-time challenges. Maitland remembers a gruff Vento filibustering and interrupting during the limited number of debates he agreed to. But Maitland says over the years, his perception of Vento changed, and he grew to respect Vento as a tireless advocate for his constituents; a man who understood the issues as well as anyone in Congress.

"I started out not wanting to like him," Maitland says. "It's very difficult to go after your opponent's record if you feel some sneaking affection or regard for your opponent, and I think towards the end, I felt as though I was restraining myself because of my newfound liking for him."

More than anything Vento is being remembered for his attention to the environment. As chairman of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks,Forests and Public Lands, he helped pass hundreds of laws to protect the environment and increase conservation and park land.

"There was no hidden agenda with Bruce Vento," said Republican Representative Jim Leach, who went to Washington from Iowa the same year as Vento -1977.

"He's been a close friend ever since. We have watched the Congress of the United States shift in political composition, and I think more profoundly, shift in tenor and tone," says Leach.

Vento was a fiercely loyal Democrat to be counted on in almost any partisan battle. But Republican Leach, the chair of the House Banking and Financial Services Committee on which Vento served, says Vento commanded respect of people in both parties.

"Bruce has been a sterling congressman," says Leach. "He's brought a particular background as well as a particular concern for people that was really unique. Bruce, who had been one of the really fine teachers in Minnesota became a teacher who came to Washington, who taught the Congress a lot about American life. He led the Congress in concern for environmental issues and he led the Congress in the banking area in concern for the smaller customer."

Vento was also a well-known advocate for the homeless. In particular, he worked to pass the Stuart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, which - under a reluctant Reagan administration - amended the Food Stamp Act to include outreach programs for homeless people.

Monsignor Jerome Boxleitner (ret.) for decades headed Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. He became good friends with Vento and he says with the congressman's passing, struggling Americans lose one of their strongest advocates in Washington.

"I often thought he took care of the birds in the air, but he also took care of the people on the streets," said Boxleitner. "He mixed well with people who were poor and never treated them as if they were anything but peers. He had a great knack to show respect for people regardless of their economic condition."

"I often thought he took care of the birds in the air, but he also took care of the people on the streets."

- Monsignor Jerome Boxleitner (ret.)
Vento's struggle with lung cancer cut into his time in Washington. He had been in and out Minnesota hospitals and maintained a relatively low public profile in his last months. His most recent public event was in mid-September for the renaming of a school. Bruce F. Vento Elementary is less than a block from the East St. Paul house where the congressman grew up.

Under a huge tent set up in the parking lot, neighborhood residents, political dignitaries and elementary school students honored the congressman. The kids wore matching Bruce F. Vento Elementary School t-shirts, complements of a local pipe-fitters' union.

Looking frail from cancer treatments, Vento graciously acknowledged the recognition. He placed a tiny congressional pin and a photograph of himself, President Clinton and Minnesota Lt. Gov. May Schunk in a time capsule.

"Going to school is an everyday process; it isn't something we accomplish and are all done with," Vento told the children. "We have to put in our time every day to try and achieve and learn so that we can develop our talents and each of you, thank goodness, have special talents; each of you are special persons."

Vento did not talk a great deal about his illness other than to thank people for their support. He also noted the irony of an advocate for working people and clean-air contracting cancer, most likely from exposure to asbestos as a blue-collar laborer decades ago. His main message in his limited public appearances had been to underscore his belief in the importance of life-long education and civic involvement.