Rick Stafford of Minneapolis was the first openly gay person to lead a state political party in the country. But in 1993, the year he was elected chair of the DFL Party by a wide margin, most on the central committee claimed it was a nonissue. “Only one person raised it as a concern,” he noted at the time.
Stafford, considered a national pioneer in gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender political circles, died Saturday of heart failure, family said. He was 65.
He remained a loyal DFLer throughout his life, traveling to the far corners of Minnesota to advocate for the party’s platform and candidates even when debilitated by persistent illness in his later years.
“He was the same Rick, no matter if he was in the office of the White House or if he was sitting at a farmer’s table,” said his sister, Susie Getskow of Phoenix. “He never lost that.”
State DFL Chair Ken Martin said Stafford was a friend and adviser during his early DFL career, someone who helped him understand the political process and keep the party’s values at the forefront. “He took me underneath his wing and started teaching me the ropes,” he said.
Stafford was born in Fort Riley, Kan., and grew up in the southern Minnesota town of New Richland. As a child, he battled bone disorders that left him bedridden and wearing braces.
He entered Mankato State College in 1970 and became a journalist. For eight years, he was editor and publisher of the West Concord Enterprise in West Concord, Minn.
That was also the start of his political awakening. Stafford pushed for rights for minorities, women and the LGBT community and promoted rural economic development.
After testing positive for HIV in the 1980s, he joined the Minnesota AIDS Project and advocated for patients during the rise of the epidemic.
Before he became party chair, Stafford served the DFL in several roles, including committee member, secretary and communications director. His election as chair in 1993 was considered a milestone, given that he was openly gay and HIV-positive. Michele St. Martin, communications director for the PACER Center in Bloomington, said Stafford led many to embrace the LGBT community.
“Rick, being a small-town guy himself, was able to build a lot of bridges with people,” she said.
But Stafford also felt that the media focused too much on his sexuality and not enough on his broader political and economic agenda. He worked to bring the DFL’s focus back to the party’s farm and labor roots.
“People are more interested in their own power than the values they’re supposed to represent,” he said.
Other health issues emerged after his re-election as chair in 1994. He was diagnosed with cancer and had to undergo chemotherapy, crippling his immune system. Those ailments ultimately forced him to step down in 1995.
Stafford attended last year’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, where he cast his vote for Hillary Clinton. “It was very meaningful to him” to support the first woman presidential candidate, Martin said.
“Those who knew him best say he was happiest with an Old Gold cigarette in one hand and a can of Dr Pepper in the other,” said St. Martin.
Besides Getskow, Stafford is survived by his mother, Audrey, of New Richland; brother Steven of Onamia, Minn.; sisters Judy DeBlieck of Colorado and Patricia Stafford Page of Anniston, Ala.; and nieces and nephews. Services will be held at 2 p.m. Friday at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, 201 2nd St. NW., New Richland, with visitation an hour before. A celebration of Stafford’s life will begin at 1 p.m. Saturday at Sabathani Community Center, 310 E. 38th St., Minneapolis.