Dill: Loyal friend, persistent advocate
David Dill didn’t come across as a typical politician.
Perhaps that’s why he was so good at politics.
There’s little doubt that the Ely area, as well as northeastern Minnesota as a whole, lost a loyal friend and a persistent, relentless advocate when Dill passed away last weekend at the far too early age of 60.
As tributes, accolades, stories and memories came forward in the days since Dill’s passing, common themes have emerged.
Dill was both a tenacious and studious legislator, one who wasn’t afraid to buck his own party if it was for the betterment of his spacious district.
He was both congenial and compassionate, generous and kind, frank and straightforward, and not afraid to share a laugh or have a good time.
We agree on all counts and would add a tale or two.
It was 2002 when Dill, a pilot and business owner and the brash city administrator of Orr, joined several others in seeking a State House seat being vacated by Tom Bakk, who went on the same year to win election to the State Senate.
Dill had neither the endorsement of his own party, nor seemingly much of a base of support in the Ely area, which had its own candidate in a very spirited primary.
But both on primary night, and again in the general election, Dill racked up surprising support in the Ely area, defeating local candidates in the primary and general election to win a seat in St. Paul.
Two years later, Dill faced another difficult primary fight but this time Ely closed ranks behind its legislator, handing him solid margins here that secured victory.
Dill wasn’t seriously challenged in that year’s general election and really, he never faced more than token opposition ever since.
There’s a good reason why, even as the boundaries of the state’s largest geographical district grew, expanding even beyond Ely, the North Shore and Cook areas to include International Falls.
That’s because Dill, perhaps more so than any elected official we have covered, seemed to have the pulse of his district.
An avid outdoorsman, Dill could talk fishing and hunting with the best of them and took his expertise to St. Paul, crafting legislation that was of benefit to the area and blocking often goofy proposals that threatened the area’s outdoors traditions.
Dill respected the rights of his constituents to bear arms and often had a libertarian bent that played well across the district.
While liberal opponents sometimes accused Dill of being a Republican, in reality DIll was a true-blue DFLer on most issues. When supporting Gov. Mark Dayton’s 2011 proposal to raise taxes on the top tier of the state’s earners, few made the case better than Dill, who was armed with data all the way down to how many taxpayers the plan affected across the district.
K-12 education, higher education and municipalities such as the city of Ely had few better friends than Dill, who joked that a better state budget picture a couple years back allowed lawmakers to “rain money” on area units of government.
But Dill was also cognizant that the state’s improved financial fortunes left many behind, particularly in northeastern Minnesota where an economy heavy on service-driven jobs led to lagging wages and higher rates of poverty.
Perhaps that was one reason why Dill was a staunch advocate of proposed new mining ventures in the area, and disdainfully dismissive of claims that Ely’s economy was flourishing. Citing low school enrollments, a spate of business closings and local governments’ reliance on state assistance and mining tax funded entities such as the IRRRB, Dill publicly proclaimed that “Sustainable Ely is a fraud.”
That candor sometimes even put Dill at odds with local elected officials or leaders of key area entities. When they advanced proposals or sought funding for items that faced long or impossible odds in St. Paul, Dill usually told them so.
Dill was a pragamatist and a realist, and he was on top of things. Name the issue and Dill was usually well-versed and had the political landscape staked out. An avid reader, Dill kept track of the goings-on throughout the district and his calls to the Echo almost always included discussion of that week’s headlines.
Dill leaves a giant void in St. Paul and shoes that will be difficult to fill, but talk of who will step in can and should wait for another day.
For it’s today in International Falls when Dill’s friends will come and say goodbye to both a political icon, and a really good guy.
Our thoughts and prayers are with David’s wife Tucky, his son Drake and all of his loved ones.