Leon Oistad, a shrewd political operative who served in the 1980s as chairman of what was then called the state Independent-Republican Party, died Sept. 18 at his home in Karlstad, Minn. He was 72.
Oistad oversaw his party’s success in that decade, worked for U.S. Sens. David Durenberger and Rod Grams, and was at the helm of Jon Grunseth’s disastrous gubernatorial campaign.
Elected state party chairman in 1983, Oistad oversaw the success of GOP campaigns of 1984, when Sen. Rudy Boschwitz was re-elected by a wide margin and the party took control of the Minnesota House. He also built winning campaigns for Grams and Durenberger.
In the 1990 gubernatorial contest, Oistad was Grunseth’s campaign manager when the candidate withdrew from the race amid a personal scandal in October. Republican Arne Carlson, who had lost the primary, took his place on the ballot and beat DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich.
Oistad and the late David Hoium, who served as Grunseth’s communications director, wrote a book about the campaign called “There Is No November.”
Despite that ordeal, Oistad was a favorite among partisans and political reporters. He was known for his clever sense of humor and political acumen.
Durenberger, an early supporter of Oistad for party chairman, tapped him to run his most difficult campaign in 1988 against former state Attorney General Skip Humphrey. He described Oistad as his “secret weapon,” a calm northwestern Minnesota guy who never raised his voice, but kept everybody on track. “You could tell by his expression if he disapproved of what you were doing,” Durenberger said.
The former senator’s four sons, now in their late 40s and 50s, grew close to Oistad and his family and kept in touch with him and his daughters over the years. Durenberger said his sons were still so fond of Oistad they were “really broken up” when they heard of his death.
Former Star Tribune reporter Dane Smith, now president of Growth and Justice, a research and advocacy nonprofit, called Oistad a “smiling, positive presence” and effective party leader. “He was there in the mid-80s when Reagan conservatives were consolidating their hold on the party,” Smith said. “Oistad was adept at holding together a party that had strong moderate and strong conservative factions.”
At one point, Oistad and Hoium were called “Batman and Robin, the dynamic duo of Independent-Republican operatives.”
The professional duo left Grams’ office after losing a power struggle to the woman Grams eventually married.
Oistad served as campaign manager in unsuccessful electoral bids by Allen Quist and Bert McKasy, who hired him to run his 1996 U.S. Senate campaign. McKasy called him a “strategic political operative” who “knew everybody in town.”
Oistad was born in Thief River Falls, Minn., and went to Karlstad High School. After graduating from Bemidji State College, he returned to Karlstad to coach youth sports. In 1971, he graduated from William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, then practiced law in Ada, Minn., for 15 years as a partner at Olson, Oistad and Opheim. When he was re-elected state party chairman in 1985, he moved to Anoka.
In recent years, Oistad split his time between Shorewood and Karlstad, where he liked to hunt and fish. He loved the Minnesota Twins and did the daily crossword right up until the end.
He is survived by five daughters, Sarah Oistad and Rebecca Oistad, both of Shorewood; Ingrid Melin of Chandler, Ariz., Kati Stadum of New York City and Kristin Bjerke of Fargo, N.D.; a brother, Byron Oistad, of Buffalo; a sister, LaVonne Lundeen, of Pelican Rapids, Minn., and nine grandchildren. Services have been held.