Warren Spannaus, former Minnesota Attorney General, dies at 86

Published 10:10 pm Wednesday, November 29, 2017

By Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio News

Former Minnesota attorney general and one-time DFL gubernatorial contender Warren Spannaus has died.

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Spannaus was born in St. Paul and grew up on Rice Street. He served in the Navy in the 1950s, and then attended the University of Minnesota and the law school there. He joined the staff of then-Attorney General Walter Mondale in 1963 and later joined Mondale’s U.S. Senate staff, the former vice president said.

“This guy deserves a very significant place in Minnesota history and the history of legal rights and justice,” Mondale said. “He was an extraordinary public leader and human being, and I would hope that Minnesotans would agree with me on that.”

Mondale and Spannaus later worked together at the Dorsey Whitney law firm, and Mondale said they remained law partners “until about 3 o’clock this morning.” He said Spannaus had been a close friend for decades.

Spannaus was also campaign director for Mondale’s 1966 Senate run, and the DFL State Central Committee Chair in the late 1960s. He was elected attorney general in 1970 and served 12 years.

He was well known for supporting handgun waiting periods and background checks — a political controversy that endured into the 1982 DFL gubernatorial primary that he lost to Rudy Perpich, in part due to a campaign by the National Rifle Association. That made “Dump Spannaus” bumper stickers a common sight around Minnesota in the 1970s.

As news of Spannaus’ death spread, prominent Democrats weighed in on his legacy.

“Warren Spannaus was a champion for the best interests of Minnesotans, as attorney general and throughout his career,” said Gov. Mark Dayton. “He expanded that office’s role in safeguarding consumers and protecting our natural resources. I extend my condolences to his family and many friends, who mourn his loss today.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar called Spannaus a lifelong friend and mentor, noting that one of her first jobs in government was as an intern in the attorney general’s consumer division.

They also worked together at Dorsey & Whitney for eight years.

“Warren was a unique figure at a buttoned-up law firm,” she said. “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 his shoes while we talked about work or, more often, politics.”

Attorney General Lori Swanson said Spannaus “played a pivotal role in Minnesota politics, law, consumer protection and the history of the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office.”

Spannaus is survived by his wife, Marjorie. They had three children together.

Spannaus was 86. His funeral is scheduled for Monday at Lake Harriet United Methodist Church in Minneapolis, with a visitation planned on Dec. 3 at Washburn-McReavy Chapel in Edina.