Younger brother Roger says he was an excellent legislator, but not a very good politician
Former state Sen. Don Moe wasn’t a typical St. Paul Democrat.
He was progressive on most issues, such as civil rights, legal abortions, environmental protection and generously supporting education, health care and human service programs. But he frequently parted company with his fellow DFLers on public employee pensions and government oversight.
Looking back on his 20 years in the Legislature during a recent interview, Moe said: “I always tried to do the right thing, even though I really got punished for it sometimes, especially in the area of public pension policy and combating public employee unions.”
A soft-spoken and thoughtful lawmaker, he was best known at the Capitol for his vigorous and controversial work on reforming public pension systems, promoting greater employee mobility and increasing retirement benefits. As chairman of the Governmental Operations committees in both the House and Senate, he also was an aggressive watchdog over state agencies and public officials.
Donald Melvin Moe died of cancer Saturday at the historic home he had restored on St. Paul’s Ramsey Hill. He was 75.
Born in Crookston, Minn., he grew up on a family farm where he attended a one-room country school through fifth grade. He graduated from Crookston High School in 1960 and served in the U.S. Army from 1964 to 1966, assigned to a nuclear-armed missile unit in West Germany.
Following his discharge from the Army, he and his wife embarked on a 10,000-mile driving and camping trip around the Mediterranean Sea. He was an adventurous globetrotter throughout his life.
Moe received a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Minnesota in 1968, the year that he first became involved in politics.
He went to a DFL precinct caucus that year to support U.S. Sen. Eugene McCarthy for president and subsequently was elected as a delegate to the party’s local, district and state conventions.
Two years later, he ran against and defeated veteran state Rep. Richard Richie in a non-partisan primary election in a district that included downtown St. Paul, the Capitol area and neighborhoods west of the central city.
After serving five terms in the House, he was elected to the state Senate in 1980, succeeding his mentor, Senate Majority Leader Nick Coleman. He held the Senate seat until 1990, when current Sen. Sandy Pappas defeated him in a DFL primary election.
As a reform-minded legislator, Moe left his mark on laws in the areas of criminal justice, governmental organization, environmental regulation, public pensions and state investment policy.
“He was probably one of the top 10 or top five legislators that I served with,” said Moe’s younger brother, former Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, who served in the Senate from 1971 through 2002. “Don knew his subjects thoroughly and understood how to make legislation as good as it possibly could be.
“But he was not a very good politician,” Roger Moe added. “He was a straight talker who told you what he thought and sometimes ruffled people’s feathers by doing that.”
Don Moe acknowledged he wasn’t a natural politician. “I’ve been known as, I don’t want to say stubborn, but principled,” he said. “I stuck to my guns. I’m obviously not a gregarious, glad-handing guy, even though I took a job that’s part personality contest.”
Former state Rep. John Arlandson characterized Moe as a “very determined legislator who prepared well for the legislation he supported, conducted very fair hearings and kept pursuing issues even if he didn’t get them passed the first time.”
Moe wielded considerable influence over the operations of state government.
As chairman of the House Criminal Justice Committee, he successfully pushed for prison reforms and higher police training standards. After 35 inmates died over a five-year period while in custody at Stillwater state prison, he led an investigation into conditions there. Following the investigation, there were no deaths during the next five years.
He and Sen. William McCutcheon, then the St. Paul police chief, passed police officer training standards that included getting a two-year college degree. When the new rules took effect, he said, “You couldn’t become a cop under the old system of having your uncle vouch for you.”
Moe’s greatest impact was in the relatively obscure area of public pension policy. He worked hard at increasing funding for the pension systems, eliminating discrimination against women and younger government workers and requiring greater accountability for the boards that oversaw public pension systems.
In 1985, he championed passage of legislation that reorganized the Public Employees Retirement Association, the state’s largest public pension fund, after uncovering waste, mismanagement and questionable lobbying activities by the fund’s managers.
“Pension policy was the issue that got me continually in conflict with the public employee unions and the pension lobby,” Don Moe said. “Change was threatening to them, and they didn’t like my continuous lobbying for defined contribution (retirement) plans,” in which employees and employers both make regular contributions and benefits are based on the amounts paid in. Most state pensions are defined benefit plans that promise set payouts when employees retire.
He became a nationally recognized expert on public pension policy and co-authored a guide on the subject for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Moe also was an early advocate for renovating the Capitol and was the first lawmaker (in 1982) to propose light-trail train service between downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul.
He attributed his defeat in 1990 to public employee unions that vastly outspent his campaign.
After leaving public office, he became a real estate investor. He bought several run-down houses in the Ramsey Hill neighborhood, restored them and then resold them.
“I did the work myself,” he said. “I never hired a contractor. I grew up on a farm, worked for my dad and figured things out for myself.”
Moe is survived by his wife, Colleen Halpine, and siblings Alden of Cape Canaveral, Fla., Janet Solheim of Crookston, Roger Moe of Erskine, Paul Moe of White Bear Lake, Maxine Rasmusson of Ada and Sherilyn Moe of Columbia Heights.