Congressman retires following cancer diagnosis

by Kristin Gustafson

After fighting for wilderness, the homeless, consumers and other citizen issues in Congress, Rep. Bruce F. Vento, DFL-St. Paul, has begun a much different battle — cancer.
Vento, a 24-year veteran of Washington politics, announced Wednesday he will not run for re-election after learning he has malignant lung cancer. The disease is in its early stages and the congressman has a good chance for recovery.
The 59-year-old congressman will receive surgery and chemotherapy or radiation for the rare cancer, mesothelioma, at Mayo Clinic. He will then return to finish out his term as Minnesota’s senior member in the U.S. House of Representatives, which will expire at the end of 2000. He has decided the additional demands of a re-election campaign are too great.
Vento has not, and will not, endorse someone to fill his shoes.
“It’s not his style,” said John Van Hecke, 36, Vento’s district director in Minnesota. “Vento was a product of the DFL-endorsing system in 1976,” Van Hecke said, referring to Vento’s predecessor Joe Karth, who refused to endorse a candidate upon his exit from the seat.
Vento won the DFL support upon Karth’s exit after a tough fight and trusts the DFL caucus process to do the same for his seat, Van Hecke said.
Vento’s exit stunned Van Hecke, who said his office staff learned of the news early Wednesday morning. The loss to Minnesota and the nation is huge, Van Hecke said.
“(Vento) has been an amazing and consistent contributor to Congress … creating legislation with money attached to it and not just good ideas,” Van Hecke said.
Though Vento’s most significant legislative work was in environment and housing, University issues rose high on his list.
“He’s always had very strong and warm feelings about the University and has always been a strong advocate for students,” Van Hecke said.
Expanding student financial aid fit into Vento’s view that “the government’s role and responsibility is to invest in students,” he said.
And the University’s St. Paul campus — resting within the boundaries of Vento’s fourth congressional district — kept the congressman’s attention on research and agricultural issues.
University political science professor Steven Smith said Vento has appealed to the many facets of the DFL caucus, managing to reach out to the traditional labor union faction, the “center-city” urban interests and environmentalists.
During his many years in government, Vento has built up personal and political friends, Smith said. “It’s a blow on a personal basis for many of the people in the Twin Cities who know (Vento) well.”
Congressman Martin Sabo, DFL-Minneapolis, said “it is with great sadness” he learned of Vento’s retirement. For the last 30 years, Sabo has served with his friend and colleague from the other half of the Twin Cities in both the Minnesota state House and the U.S. House of Representatives.
“I’ve watched him grow from a fine legislator to a real national leader over the years,” Sabo said, specifically noting Vento’s work with housing, financial policy and public lands and parks. “The country and Congress will miss him.”
Vento, a lifelong resident of St. Paul’s east side, was first elected to the Minnesota state Legislature in 1970, where he served three consecutive terms and was an assistant majority leader and committee chairman.
Vento was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1976 and has since served continuously.
Vento said his true passion was serving as chairman of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands for more than 10 years. He worked to establish new parks, millions of acres of wilderness and thousands of miles of scenic rivers.
Vento has also fought for consumers, serving on the Banking and Financial Services Committee, and has been a leader on homeless issues.
Prior to government service, Vento taught science and social studies in the Minneapolis Public Schools for more than 10 years. Vento also received an undergraduate two-year degree and took graduate-level courses at the University.
Vento said he will work for social justice and his constituents through the year 2000, in addition to other democratic agendas. He will break only for his Mayo Clinic cancer treatment and recovery.

Kristin Gustafson covers administration and welcomes comments at [email protected] She can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3211.