By John B. Lennes, Jr.
This post was received shortly after Nancy's death in 2014. We add it here now to celebrate and deepen her memory on the 4th anniversary of her death, in a time of Republican rule she would hardly recognize.
This is a rare, often undetectable combination of qualities in Minnesota public life in any era, and the 1970’s, ‘80’s and ‘90’s were certainly no exception.
In many ways her philosophy defied conventional categorization. As soon as people thought they had her pigeonholed, they were often proven wrong. While disquieting to shallower theoreticians, this was merely evidence of a thoughtful, many-faceted, caring and intelligent human being who made up her own mind, and sought out information and wisdom wherever they could be found. I think it may have been another Minnesotan, Harry Reasoner, who once said (in effect) that he mistrusted party labels and political shorthands, because they all too often bunched him with people with whom he may only have shared one thought in an entire lifetime. He would have recognized a kindred spirit in Nancy Brataas.
I worked for and with Senator Brataas in a number of capacities: as legal counsel to the Minnesota Senate, as General Counsel to the state Chamber of Commerce, and as Commissioner of a major state agency, among other assignments. We worked on many of the same issues, and I was both in support and in alliance, as events dictated. These were often highly complex and contentious matters, played out not in weeks or months, but in years and decades, at the highest levels of intensity and public attention; you learn a great deal about people when you serve alongside them in such times and circumstances.
Senator Brataas was not an easy person to work for. All too often in public debate, it is “enough” to prevail over your opponent, even if your opponent does a poor advocacy job. This is particularly the case when you know “you have the votes” no matter what. Senator Brataas rarely had that luxury ab initio, although she won her battles more often than could reasonably have been expected. Rather, her successes were attributable to working harder, and being far better prepared than the opposition. She demanded the highest level of performance from herself and from those around her as well. I learned that lesson early when, after having prepared a briefing paper for her, I was told, simply, “this is not good enough; you can do better.” So I did, and I have tried to maintain that standard ever since. She may not have been an easy person to work for, but there could never have been a better crucible for forging professionalism. Not easy, but instead, the best.
She treated everyone with courtesy, not always a natural thing in the heat of public debate. She acknowledged points well taken, even when adverse to her own objectives. I never saw her descend into the pit of personal antagonism when contesting often emotional matters.
She was a genuine and reliable resource for her fellow legislators, even those who opposed her on issues, spending time to explain technicalities and occasionally recommending positions that fit the needs of her colleagues, even if contrary to her own (“If I were you, this is what I would do…”). I am not sure that this sort of thing happens much anymore. It was a trait she shared with several other recently departed Senators, such as my friends Win Borden and Jerry Anderson, and with Rep Wayne Simoneau, among others (Simoneau used to have a slogan framed on his wall reading “Wayne’s first law of politics: Not all the jackasses are on the other side”).
Nancy kept a sense of perspective, and was able to be both an integral part of intense struggles and simultaneously maintain, at least in part, a detached view. For instance, after a puzzling and markedly inept bit of advocacy by a fellow Senator from her own caucus, Brataas muttered to no one in particular, “who did that guy beat?” And there was a time when she reflected on a similar debacle perpetrated by another colleague by asking herself quietly, “I wonder what the electorate in his district could possibly have had in mind?”
I was not privileged to have known all the various facets of Nancy Brataas. But I knew her well enough to know that she was a great person, and that we are unlikely to see her equal again.
John B. Lennes, Jr.