For more than four decades, D.J. Leary was a behind-the-scenes influence in Minnesota public policy — a DFL public affairs consultant with a quick but gentle wit and a network of contacts in newsrooms across the state.
Leary, 84, died late Wednesday at his Minneapolis home. His son Bryan, of Minnetonka, said his father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on July 17.
He was a longtime adviser to Vice President Hubert Humphrey and a consultant for numerous candidates for local, state and federal offices starting in the 1960s. Leary consulted on such controversies as construction of the Metrodome, the attempted hostile takeover of Dayton Hudson Corp. in 1987 and the state's multibillion-dollar lawsuit against the tobacco industry that was settled in 1998.
But he was most familiar to generations of State Capitol policymakers and reporters, who often knew of him before they met. Along with Wy Spano and the late Sarah Janecek, he published the Politics in Minnesota newsletter, a Capitol staple and a respected source for insiders long before blogging and electronic newsletters.
Dane Smith, a retired Star Tribune political reporter, said that during Leary's peak years, he seemed to have a personal connection to everyone who was anyone in Minnesota public affairs.
"He was everywhere at once, advising interest groups and pols, feeding hot tips to reporters, publishing his own political newsletters, appearing on TPT's 'Almanac,' " Smith said. "He was quick-witted and likable and nonideological."
Spano said he first broached the prospect of a newsletter in 1980 at a DFL Party caucus when he bumped into Leary, who quickly signed on.
"He was already quite well known. He had the experience with Humphrey, which made him kind of a household name," Spano said. "I've always been very glad that he wanted to do it."
The first issue came out a couple of years later with the aim of highlighting the upbeat aspects of "this politics thing," Spano said. "It's a damn good business and there are really good people in it."
Dennis John Leary was born in St. Paul, where he distributed campaign leaflets with his father in 1948 for Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy and President Harry Truman, according to an interview with the U's digital conservancy. He graduated from Cretin High School in 1954 and briefly attended college before enlisting in the U.S. Navy. When he returned, he enrolled at the University of Minnesota and graduated in 1961.
In his post-college years, he was a part-time wrestling promoter and radio DJ before going to Washington as a part-time journalist with what he described as a "longstanding and long-abiding affection for politics."
Bryan Leary recalled that his father was traveling with Humphrey during his 1968 presidential campaign in Colorado Springs, Colo., when he saw on TV that Sen. Robert Kennedy had been shot in California. Leary ran past Secret Service agents into Humphrey's room to break the news. The story he told about it later contained a not atypical Leary twist.
"While he's waking up the vice president to tell them of the tragedy my dad is thinking, 'Wow, Humphrey wears ugly pajamas,' " Bryan Leary recalled.
Gov. Rudy Perpich proclaimed "D.J. Leary is 50 Day" in Minnesota in Nov. 1986, calling Leary the state's "guru of politics," but failed to show up to read the proclamation. Quipped Leary: "The governor was busy. He had some reruns of American Bandstand to watch."
When there was an opening on the State Fair board in 2000 for a Minneapolis resident, fair general manager Jerry Hammer immediately thought of Leary. "Everybody knows D.J.," Hammer said.
Hammer recalled how Leary asked whether the State Fair, which is not supported by state money, had its own bonding authority. Hammer said Leary's query led to renovation of the grandstand, the International Bazaar, the West End Market, a new transit hub and new roofs on the livestock facilities.
"He had this incredible vision and really understood the importance of protecting the fair's future," Hammer said.
Leary's wife of 34 years, Linda Wilson, said he was especially proud of his work at the State Fair. She called him the "sweetest, most loving, kindest, most generous man" she knew. "If he could help you, he would," she said.
"For a guy who talked out of the side of his mouth, he was a really sweet guy," said retired journalist Dave Nimmer of Woodbury. When Nimmer left his job at the Minneapolis Star, Leary helped him find a new direction. Nimmer went on to work at WCCO-TV.
"He was a character, but he was more than that," Nimmer said.
After he retired from public affairs work in 2005, Leary blogged for the Star Tribune's website with a "Your Voices" column, where he described himself as "surprisingly ironic and full of fun and humor" in facing the mental and physical challenges of aging.
In addition to his wife and son, Bryan, Leary is survived by two daughters, Kathryn Otto of St. Paul and Dr. Anne Skenzich of Minneapolis; another son, Timothy of St. Paul; a brother, Michael of Burnsville; five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747