By Bethany Wesley of the Bemidji Pioneer and Don Davis
Politicians across Minnesota are mourning the death of long-time Bemidji Pioneer reporter Brad Swenson.
The 57-year-old political reporter died unexpectedly Sunday at his home.
He retired due to health issues as the Pioneer’s political editor in July 2011, but had been writing weekly political columns since January.
“Brad was one of a kind,” said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar. “He was someone who cared about every issue and would prepare for interviews and really was a voice not only for Bemidji but for greater Minnesota.
“He would interview me more thoroughly than any other reporter in the state.”
Swenson joined the Pioneer in May 1980. During his 31 years with the newspaper, he served as a reporter, managing editor, political editor and editorial writer.
“Brad was someone who did exactly what he should have been doing for a living,” said Pioneer Publisher Dennis Doeden. “He found his passion and he was able to find work in that area. We should all be so lucky.”
For former House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, a visit to Bemidji is not the same without Swenson.
“I always knew when I came to Bemidji for any reason, Brad would be there,” said Sviggum, who now is Senate Republican spokesman.
Sviggum said he called Swenson last month just to talk after he missed the long-time reporter during a post-legislative session Bemidji visit.
“I liked Brad a lot,” Sviggum said. “He was very fair. He was very community and rural focused.”
For someone who worked so far from the state Capitol, Sviggum said, Swenson was “very connected, very in tune with legislative happenings. He knew what was going on like he was in the Capitol.”
Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton joined Republican Sviggum in mourning Swenson.
“Brad Swenson was one of Minnesota’s great journalists,” Dayton said. “He covered Minnesota politics and public affairs with careful insight and shrewd analysis. He served the city of Bemidji and the state of Minnesota with great distinction.”
Swenson won numerous awards during his career, including, in 2009, the David L. Graven Award for excellence in the journalism profession. Two of his articles that year also were honored with the George S. Hage Award for Excellence in coverage of breaking news about public affairs.
Both those awards were given during the Frank Premack Public Affairs Journalism Awards, judged annually by statewide community members and not journalists, at the University of Minnesota’s McNamara Alumni Center.
“I have been fortunate to be able to specialize in political coverage,” Swenson said at the time. “I try to study the issues to be prepared for my interviews. Then I have conversations instead of interviews and I try to tell the readers what the person stands for.”
“He was just a great reporter,” said Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook. “He had the ability to discern when somebody was just saying talking points as opposed to providing information. He had a good feel for the impact that legislation was going to have on the area and was really good at getting that so that people could understand what he thought was going on.”
Swenson covered all levels of politics, including the Beltrami County Board of Commissioners.
District 1 Commissioner Jack Frost, who has been on the board for 12 years, said he always enjoyed his conversations with Swenson.
“We would discuss the issues of the day, locally, statewide, nationally,” he said. “Sometimes, we agreed, sometimes we’d disagree, but that wasn’t the criteria for our friendship.”
Frost also recalled how he, Swenson and late Commissioner Jim Heltzer always were trying to one-up one another with puns. At one time, while talking about the new judicial center and having a private elevator for judges, Frost joked about judges trying to avoid a “staff infection” and Swenson said he was sure, with an elevator, they would have their “ups and downs.”
“Wonderful witticism,” Frost recalled. “There are times when levity is most appropriate. I will, and I do, miss his wit and his puns. That’s a side of Brad I will always miss.”
Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, recalled how he got to know Swenson during his first House campaign in 1997. Swenson, Howes said, was cautious to not take sides, but he seemed to have “a wink or twinkle in his eye” indicating that he thought Howes would win.
“A lot of us used to just call him a teddy bear, just such a nice guy,” said Howes, who had been expecting to call Swenson this week for a story. “He will be greatly missed.”
Swenson was devoted, too, to his life outside of work.
Bruce Campbell got to know Swenson about six years ago when Campbell joined the Bemidji Sunrise Rotary Club.
“I found Brad’s heart always No. 1,” Campbell said. “Dealing with people, through Rotary, in my mind, was his forte.”
Campbell said Swenson became secretary as soon as the Rotary club was founded in the late 80s. He also was a former club president and secretary.
He was passionate about awarding and recognizing high school students with the Rotary’s annual Richard Brown Scholarship, Campbell noted.
“Brad was very, very passionate about that,” he said. “The focus of our club was youth.”
In recent years, Swenson also became more interested in his heritage. He joined the Sons of Norway about four years ago.
“He instantly became active,” recalled President Lois Egelhof.
Swenson became editor of the every-other-month newsletter.
“He gave a lot of suggestions and pushed us to make Sons of Norway more modern,” Egelhof said.
Publicly, it was Swenson’s political reporting and editorial writing that garnered him attention around the state. He was a past recipient of the Minnesota Newspaper Association’s Herman Roe Editorial Writing Award and the Ag Communicator of the Year Award from the Minnesota Farm Bureau.
“Brad was well-known throughout all of Minnesota for his very in-depth political writing,” said state Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji.
Carlson dated their friendship back 20-some years to when Swenson coached Little League.
“Brad was always just a great advocate for our little leagues and Babe Ruth leagues,” said Carlson, former youth coach and president of Bemidji Youth League Baseball.
The focus of their relationship shifted from the baseball field to politics when Carlson ran, and lost, in 2008 against Persell for the local House seat. He was elected in 2010 to the state Senate.
“I don’t know if I could ever say enough good things (about Swenson),” Carlson said. “Brad always treated me fair. We had a mutual respect for each other.”
Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, said he got to know Swenson through his work with environmental quality issues and developed their relationship further as he got involved in politics.
“Whenever I talked to Brad, we always solved the world’s problems before we got down to what we’re going to talk about,” he said. “He was a good friend.”
Politicians of all stripes visited Bemidji to talk to Swenson and after hearing of his death, they reacted in social media Monday.
“He was a great guy to work with, always fair and went the extra mile to get the story right,” Sandy Connolly, a Democratic-Farmer-Laborite public relations worker, wrote on Facebook. “Sad news.”
“He wrote well thought out columns and edits,” former state Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, now a U.S. Sen. Al Franken aide, wrote on Twitter.
“So sad; a great guy and a pleasure to work with,” tweeted Matt Swenson of the state Commerce Department.
“Sorry to hear about Brad, he was great to talk to, always interested in agriculture angle,” added Thom Peterson of the Minnesota Farmers’ Union.
The news of Swenson’s death took many by surprise, including long-time Republican activist Ben Golnik, who responded after reading a tweet about it: “whoa. RIP Brad”