The daughter of the late state Sen. Jerry Relph, R-St. Cloud, is calling on the Minnesota Senate majority leader to apologize for holding an in-person election victory party last month, which is how her father likely contracted COVID-19 weeks before he died, she said.
“It was a frivolous and vain action,” said Dana Relph, referring to the Nov. 5 dinner party at a Lake Elmo event center hosted by Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake. “I’m sorry, but celebrating holding onto the Senate in the middle of the pandemic? They were spending money on something like that and then putting people in danger.”
Relph, 42, spoke with the Reformer a day after her father succumbed to complications from the disease, the first Minnesota lawmaker to do so. COVID-19 is particularly deadly to the elderly and those with underlying health conditions. Jerry Relph was 76.
She said the event put not only senators at risk, but also staffers and event employees. “It fills me with rage that it happened.”
At the time of the election party, confirmed cases were rising rapidly in Minnesota and the upper Midwest, largely because people were ignoring warnings about in-person gatherings and the benefits of universal mask wearing. Throughout much of the pandemic, Gazelka has rejected the mask mandate, as well as restrictions closing bars, restaurants and event centers to stop the pandemic, instead urging an approach that relies on “personal responsibility.”
When Gov. Tim Walz extended emergency measures last week, Gazelka released a statement that said, in part, “People will follow simple, commonsense rules to keep each other safe, allow them to operate their business, and get kids back in schools.”
The day before Relph died, Gazelka held a news conference with restaurant owners calling for Walz to end the restrictions.
Through a spokeswoman, Gazelka declined to say whether he bore any responsibility for Relph’s death.
“Jerry was a beloved friend and we are all saddened by his passing,” Senate GOP spokeswoman Rachel Aplikowski said. “We are in contact with the Relph family about Dana’s concerns; they have asked for privacy and we will be respecting their request.”
Dana Relph is a laboratory technician who lives in Minneapolis, and remembers her father fondly. She said the two were close, and she spoke at length about her father’s dedication to public service.
“He always talked about doing the people’s work,” she said, describing how he viewed his role as a state legislator. “It’s one of the reasons that I am so furious about what happened is that he just wanted to make things better.”
Relph said her political views differed from her father’s, but her household was never split along partisan lines. “I honestly didn’t know he was a Republican until I was an adult,” she said.
She said she appreciated her father’s willingness to engage on issues, and said he instilled in her a healthy respect for disagreement.
“He’s the kind of person that understands that conflict is okay, that discourse is okay, that people should be able to talk to each other about their differences,” she said. “That was always kind of one of the most important things about our relationship, that we knew we could disagree and care about each other.”
Relph, a retired lawyer who went on to build a digital map-making business in St. Cloud, drew tributes from a bipartisan group of colleagues, who recalled his dedication to finding compromise amid an era of political polarization.
First elected to the Senate in 2016, Relph lost his reelection bid by 315 votes in November. He focused on legislation that helped senior citizens, serving as vice chair of the Family Care and Aging Committee.
He is survived by his wife, Pegi Broker-Relph, as well as two daughters, four stepchildren and three grandchildren.
In March, he was the chief author of the Legislature’s initial response to the pandemic, allocating $21 million to the Health Department.
Relph’s deteriorating condition had been largely kept from public view since his diagnosis first came to light last month, due to his family’s wishes. Relph was among at least four GOP state senators who contracted the virus after Senate Republicans held the indoor party with as many as 150 people in Lake Elmo.
The outbreaks only came to light after Capitol journalists began reporting on the infections, which included Gazelka. Republicans only informed members and staff of their own caucus of the infections.
Relph said her father sought a COVID-19 test after his caucus leadership informed him of the initial cases. He had trouble breathing, and was twice turned away from the emergency room because his oxygen levels had not yet dipped low enough to be admitted. On his third visit, he was admitted and given supplemental oxygen.
His health worsened, and he was eventually on a ventilator and in a medically induced coma, Relph said. MPR News reported Monday that COVID-19 was listed as his official cause of death.
Despite their public silence, members of the Senate GOP caucus regularly checked in and offered support, Relph said. Gazelka, she said, also called to offer support. “People in the Republican party have been incredibly kind to my stepmother,” she said.
“They know how to pull together and close ranks,” she said. “It seems like they take care of their people, but they take care of their people.”
Gazelka has acknowledged missteps in his handling of the outbreak. The lack of transparency prompted calls for his resignation from Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury.
In an interview with Chad Hartman on WCCO Radio, however, he said he did not regret holding the party, saying it was important to him to celebrate their victory in retaining their majority.
Relph said she is angry at the lack of personal responsibility Minnesota Republican leaders have shown during the pandemic.
“When they talk about that, then they don’t have the responsibility to take the simplest precaution to just put a piece of cloth over their face, that’s really hypocritical,” she said.