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Former lawmaker Win Borden remembered

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Win Borden, a former state senator whose career saw both great success and serious setbacks, died Monday at age 70. In recent years he lived, farmed and wrote from the 1929 wood-heated farm house he was raised in near Merrifield.

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Borden’s first win at the polls was in 1970, when the 26-year-old upset Sen. Gordon Rosenmeier of Little Falls, a true power in the Senate.

“If you wanted to get anything done in the Senate, you had to go through Rosenmeier,” former DFL state lawmaker Don Samuelson recalled.

Borden, who managed Samuelson’s successful 1968 campaign, was very bright and a strong campaigner, according to Samuelson.

It was clear from the start to Samuelson that his young protege was a natural when it came to politics.

“What I liked about him is that he showed up and he wanted to help,” Samuelson said. “It was in his blood.”

Another freshman senator that year was Roger Moe, who served as DFL Senate majority leader for more than 20 years. He remembered his colleague as a hard charger who took on tough issues.

“He was well prepared and a very effective legislator,” Moe said. “Within relatively short order he became an assistant majority under (then-Senate Majority Leader) Nick Coleman.”

After winning re-election in 1972 and 1976 Borden surprised many by resigning to accept a leadership role with the Minnesota Association of Commerce and Industry (MACI), a forerunner of the Minnesota Chamber.

That sensibility to business interests wasn’t a complete surprise to Gene Goedker, a longtime Brainerd area real estate agent who was Borden’s treasurer during the 1970 state Senate campaign. Goedker, who later switched to the GOP and was a Republican candidate for state senator in the mid-1980s, said Borden was skilled at hammering away at a consistent message.

“He was an attorney, of course,” Goedker said. “We seemed to mesh pretty good and he seemed to understand politics and what was important to all sides and seemed to be fair. He was always a great guy to work with.

“You could talk to him about anything. He had a good mind about what was right for the area ... businesses and middle class people. He had real common sense. Back then the Democratic Party was more conservative.”

Samuelson said he thought Borden was disappointed when he failed to win Democratic-Farmer-Labor party endorsement for Congress when Rep. Bob Bergland, D-Minn., was appointed secretary of agriculture in the mid-1970s. Samuelson and Moe were surprised when Borden took the MACI job. They both said he advocated for positions that he previously had been at odds with while in the Legislature.

“Again, he was a very hard charger in that role,” Moe said. “He was very aggressive.”

While serving MACI Borden narrated a daily radio program heard on more than 80 Minnesota stations.

Trouble came to Borden’s life in 2004, when he was sentenced and later served one year at a minimum security federal prison in Yankton, S.D., for failing to file federal income tax returns.

In an editor’s note in Borden’s book, “Ruminations — Memories and Tales of a Furrowed Mind,” Pete Holste wrote Borden’s problems with the IRS were preceded by mental health problems and a pattern of alcohol abuse.

Samuelson said in the political world Borden’s life could have gone in a dramatically different direction without his troubles.

“It was almost a shame that his life went the way it did,” Samuelson said.

Moe expressed similar sentiments.

“Obviously, there were some difficulties in his life,” Moe recalled. “I think, though, he tried to come to grips with that. I enjoyed his books that he wrote later in life. He was a bright guy. Whatever he took on, he took on with real zest.”

Former Rep. Steve Wenzel, DFL-Little Falls, met Borden at St. Cloud State University, when he was a freshman and Borden was a senior. Wenzel said that in addition to being an effective legislator Borden was an inspiration to young people.

“He brought a lot of intellect and ability to his work,” said Wenzel, who now serves as an instructor at Central Lakes College in Brainerd. Wenzel also thought Borden demonstrated a degree of restless ambition — a characteristic that could be seen in Borden’s interest in the 7th District congressional seat and the attorney general’s seat.

“I think he thought some day he could or would be governor,” Wenzel said.

Wenzel described Borden as tenacious, intelligent and a very hard worker. The latter quality Wenzel attributed to Borden’s farming background.

“I think in his last years he was very much at peace with himself,” Wenzel said.

After returning to Crow Wing County, Borden remained interested in DFL politics in the role of a behind-the-scenes player.

In a 2008 interview with the Brainerd Dispatch he reflected on a career in which he met such luminaries as Hubert H. Humphrey and Charles Lindbergh. He also summed up thoughts about his own political future.

“Thoroughly enjoyed it,” he said. “Never want to repeat it.”

His interest in Crow Wing County and state politics continued, however. He was an early supporter of DFLer Taylor Stevenson, when he sought a state Senate seat. Stevenson, 26, said Borden possessed both wisdom and grace. His fondest memories were of splitting wood and sharing meals at Borden’s farm house.

“My friendship at the farm was more valuable to me than his political support,” Stevenson said. “The last conversation I had with him was dealing with life not turning out the way it was expected.”

A case in point was Borden’s earlier status as one-time rising star in state politics.

“Things just went awry,” Stevenson said. “I know in the last few years, when he re-established himself on the farm ... I have to believe those were happiest times of his life.”

Those years were busy ones. In addition to writing books, Borden raised and sold vegetables for the Borden Road Farm Market. He also chronicled his rural life and health struggles on Facebook, attracting a large number of followers, who reveled in his imaginary conversations with an old farm stove.

MIKE O’ROURKE may be reached at 855-5860 or mike.orourke@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MikeORourkenews.

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Mike O'Rourke
Mike O'Rourke began his career at the Brainerd Dispatch in 1978 as a general assignment reporter. He was named city editor in 1981 and associate editor in 1999. He covers politics and writes features and editorials.
(218) 855-5860
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