Remembering John Spanish

Former Iron Range state Rep. John Spanish (DFL-Hibbing) died Monday at a care facility in Eveleth at the age of 90. He had been in declining health. Last winter he was a candidate in the House 5B special election won by Rep. Carly Melin (DFL-Hibbing).

Spanish is one of the most interesting people I’ve met covering and practicing politics on the Iron Range, and that’s saying something. A WWII vet, Spanish ran for office in at least six different decades, served four non-consecutive terms in the House, and was the most recent Range lawmaker elected straight out of the mines.

His final and longest stretch in the legislature ended with a loss to Rep. Lona Minne (DFL-Hibbing), the first Iron Range woman elected to the legislature, in the 1978 DFL primary. Spanish continued to run for office intermittently for the rest of his life, losing at one time or another to all successive House 5B representatives.

He garnered additional headlines in the spring when he pleaded guilty to animal cruelty charges related to numerous cats on his property in Hibbing. A lifelong bachelor, his home was in disarray. It was around this time he entered the nursing home. I don’t mention this to make light or diminish his service, but rather as a sort of tragic detail in the profile of a very complicated Iron Range figure.

Spanish was a sort of socially awkward savant who could memorize facts and figures on sight and, indeed, cited them for the rest of his life. Forever known for his ill-fated bill to extend hunting rights to the blind, which cost him his seat, he never entirely understood why he couldn’t get back in the legislature.

Nevertheless, there was a sort of dogged earnestness to him that was remarkable. There is no modern parallel to him currently serving in the legislature and I doubt there ever will be again. He was a kind-hearted man who never stopped trying.

UPDATE: John Lundy at the Duluth News Tribune has an obituary in the Dec. 14 edition that shares more about Spanish.

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