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Will Haddeland

Debate Minnesota,

Obituary: Will Haddeland brought civility to political debates

  • Article by: PAUL WALSH
  • Star Tribune
  • September 26, 2012 - 9:30 PM

Will Haddeland was a passionate nonpartisan, a man devoted to ensuring that Minnesotans understood all sides of political issues and the men and women in pursuit of elective office.

In 2004, Haddeland founded Debate Minnesota, a nonprofit that has hosted some of the state's biggest candidate debates of the past eight years. Their format, modeled after the historic and content-rich Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, allowed for in-depth exchange and steered clear of the hard-edged messages that campaign advertising and whipped-up candidate surrogates routinely deliver on television and in other media.

Haddeland died Sunday, ending his long battle with progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare brain disorder that is similar to, but has more severe symptoms than, Parkinson's. Haddeland, of Edina, was 63.

"With Debate Minnesota, we are supporting a process by which Minnesotans can gain a clear and concise understanding of what candidates for elected office want for their communities and how they propose to accomplish their goals," the organization's website quotes Haddeland as saying.

Mary Underwood, Debate Minnesota's director, said that Haddeland "firmly believed in the importance of bringing the candidates and the people together."

Underwood described Haddeland as a history buff who leaned heavily on the Lincoln-Douglas debates from the pre-Civil War U.S. Senate race in Illinois for inspiration, though trimming the time to 90 minutes.

"I've noticed that the presidential debates this season are following the same format: 90 minutes, seated at tables, moderated and with specific public-policy topics," Underwood said.

Since Haddeland founded Debate Minnesota while he was president of the Independent Community Bankers of Minnesota, the organization has staged more than 50 debates, Underwood said.

Among them were the 2010 debates among gubernatorial candidates Mark Dayton, Tom Emmer and Tom Horner, and Eighth Congressional District candidates incumbent Jim Oberstar and eventual winner Chip Cravaack.

"Working with Debate Minnesota was exceptional," Anne Neu, Cravaack's campaign manager, said at the time. "The debate was well planned and executed, with every detail attended to."

Former DFL Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe first met Haddeland 40 years ago while the two were seeking different elective offices in Mahnomen County.

He said Haddeland gave birth to Debate Minnesota by convincing the bankers group to "rather than put money into the PAC [political action committee], why don't we try this idea? And that's when he got all of us old has-beens on the board."

Moe said the debates have served well "people who thirst for a thorough discussion that is not a bunch of shouting. They are a good civics lesson, rather than an entertaining shouting match."

Haddeland did not survive to see this election cycle's inclusion of a debate featuring an issue, namely Minnesota's voter ID amendment.

Underwood said that Haddeland was committed to Debate Minnesota fiercely maintaining its nonpartisan reputation.

Its board of directors has included members on both sides of the aisle, from Republican Dave Durenberger to DFLer Judi Dutcher to Horner, an Independent.

"He worked really hard to remain neutral," she said. "Going into Will's office was like going into a political museum. There were pictures of him with Ronald Reagan and different high-level officials from both parties. He was open to the best ideas and the best candidates."

Haddeland was president of the Independent Community Bankers of Minnesota from 2003-2008, before his retirement. He also was an independent consultant to media, news and financial organizations.

In Washington, D.C., Haddeland was a vice president for Ashland Oil Inc. He also served as director of the State of Minnesota Washington Office and was a member of the U.S. State Department Acid Rain Negotiation Commission.

Haddeland was preceded in death by sister Lila Trandem and brother Steve. He is survived by his wife, Connie; son Karl; brothers Kaare and Peter; and his sister, Gerd Kessler.

Memorial services will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church, 5025 Knox Av. S., Minneapolis, with visitation at 10 a.m.

Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482

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