ST. PAUL — Retiring Minnesota state government reporter Don Davis will be remembered by politicians and colleagues for one thing above else: greater Minnesota.
In interview after interview, his co-workers and politicians said Davis, who started working at the state Capitol for Forum Communications Co. in 2001, was the one in the Capitol press corps with the knowledge of life outside of the Twin Cities and the one to ask questions about how state government decisions would affect residents there.
Davis, who has reached the retirement age of 65 and stepped down on Thursday, Sept. 6, grew up in a small southern Iowa town.
Although longtime St. Paul Pioneer Press state government reporter Bill Salisbury was also born in a small town, but in Minnesota, he said they were “polar opposites.”
“He was about the west — farms and rodeos. I was about the east — as my wife came from the East Coast — and big city politics,” said Salisbury, who has also retired but is still working part-time at the Capitol.
In recent years, Forum Communications and the Pioneer Press have formed a partnership in covering state government and Salisbury said it was “a great alliance.”
“I always said that no one gets greater Minnesota like Don,” said Salisbury, who would focus more on the Twin Cities in his reporting.
“I can’t say enough good things about him,” Salisbury said. “He’s a great guy.”
In a tribute video put together by Twin Cities Public Television, a long string of Capitol press corps reporters and politicians praised Davis and gave him some ribbing, too.
Mary Lahammer, a reporter and anchor for TPT who will interview Davis in an “Almanac” program airing at 7 p.m. Friday, said they both arrived at the Capitol in 1998 when pro wrestler Jesse Ventura was elected governor and threw the state and reporters for a loop.
Davis, who got his journalism degree from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, had first started at the Capitol working for the Rochester (Minn.) Post-Bulletin after years as reporter and editor at papers in Iowa, Oklahoma, Wyoming and North Dakota.
“We went through lots of politics, lots of different governors,” Lahammer said in the video about her years working with him. “You have been tenacious, smart, kind, crabby and an awesome friend and colleague. I can’t imagine the state Capitol without you.”
Pat Kessler, a longtime reporter for WCCO-TV in the Twin Cities, said he would miss Davis’ questions about the urban/rural divide in Minnesota. But then, after turning to a man standing by him during the interview for the video who said there was no divide, joked, “There you go, Don, it’s settled.”
Eric Eskola, who also works for TPT, said Davis was always asking how a bill would affect greater Minnesota.
He called him “a pro’s pro.”
Politicians also weighed in, with kind words in the video from Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt.
Dayton wondered who would run the pre-legislative session press conference with Davis gone.
“But come to think of it, I won’t be there either,” Dayton joked.
Daudt asked, “Who am I going to talk to about greater Minnesota?”
The speaker said Davis was a pleasure to work with and was going to be missed at the Capitol.
Forum Communications also had praise for Davis.
Director of Content Steve Wagner, who worked daily with Davis from his Fargo office, said, "We've been lucky to have Don as the watchdog of state government for the past 17 years. No one knows the issues of greater Minnesota better. While he's well-known and respected by journalists and politicians alike, it's our readers across the state who have benefited from his dogged reporting, ability to write with clarity and tireless pursuit of keeping government accountable to the people."
Salisbury said besides being a nice guy, dedicated to rural Minnesota issues and having a great sense of humor, Davis will be remembered for “not putting up with any b.s. from any politician, even the governors.”
“He was refreshing to work with,” Salisbury said.
As for Davis, he said his greater Minnesota reputation stemmed from his desire to address issues for the readers in the several Forum Communications newspapers in rural Minnesota.
“We were the only ones asking the questions” of the politicians from that perspective, Davis said.
“I felt it was important,” he said.
As he relaxed in his River Falls, Wis., home, just across the Minnesota border, after his last day of work on Thursday, Davis said his career highlights were covering Ventura, who he said had the last bipartisan administration.
Ventura didn’t like the press, mostly those from the Twin Cities, but often gave him and other outstate reporters more access.
Another highlight was covering the Republican National Convention in St. Paul in 2008, where he said nominee John McCain was more open than other politicians to visiting with the press corps. He said it was simply exciting to see all of the politicians and how the convention was operated.
As for the low points, Davis said the partisan nature of politics today, and even a few years back, has been frustrating.
“For reporters, it’s hard to get the the truth and the answers from the right or left wings of the parties,” he said.
He also mentioned the 2002 plane crash that killed U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone in northern Minnesota.
“It was an emotional time,” he said.
With the high and low points behind him, Davis said he plans to do some things around the house and may work part-time for the Forum at the Capitol when needed.
Also on his list are to perhaps write a novel or maybe a children’s book to inform the younger generation about journalism.
After all, he said, his wife was a children’s librarian until she also retired just a week ago.
And he was a respected Capitol journalist.