Minn. Sen. Jerry Relph dies of COVID-19 complications

Sen. Jerry Relph, 76, died Dec. 18

Sen. Jerry Relph listens to Fartun Weli, executive director of Isuroon.
Minnesota Sen. Jerry Relph, R-St. Cloud, in 2017.
Laura Yuen | MPR News 2017

Updated: Dec. 21, 5 p.m. | Posted: Dec. 19, 9:05 p.m.

Jerry Relph, a first-term state senator from St. Cloud, died Friday of complications of COVID-19.

But Relph had been dealing for weeks with difficulties connected to his coronavirus infection. He sought hospital care more than once and, according to people kept abreast of his condition, his condition deteriorated in recent weeks. 

“Jerry dedicated his life to service, and representing Senate District 14 was one of the highest honors he had,” his wife, Pegi Broker-Relph, said in a statement released Friday night. “I can’t count the number of times he would come home at night and tell me about helping solve a constituent’s problem, or a story he heard from someone in a parade or at a public event, or even just someone he met during a ‘day on the hill’ event. He loved serving the people of St. Cloud in the Senate, and he cherished every minute of it.”

His family and the Senate Republican Caucus said over the weekend that they wouldn’t confirm the cause of death. His death certificate, reviewed by MPR News on Monday, confirms that he died of complications tied to COVID-19, listing respiratory distress, pneumonia and renal failure among the contributing symptoms. It also clearly notes COVID-19.

Relph is the first Minnesota lawmaker whose death is linked to COVID-19.

The 76-year-old Relph, a Vietnam veteran and attorney who specialized in tax law, recently lost his bid for a second term to DFLer Aric Putnam. He was one of several Republican state senators who tested positive for the coronavirus after attending a post-election party.

In mid-November, a spokesperson for the Minnesota Senate Republican caucus said Relph went to the emergency room twice with COVID-19 symptoms after testing positive, but was not hospitalized.

Since then, Relph’s family had asked for privacy, and little had been known publicly about his condition. 

A number of senators contracted COVID-19 after the party at a suburban restaurant, including Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka. Nevertheless, Gazelka has been a vocal opponent of the restrictions enacted by Gov. Tim Walz designed to prevent the spread of the virus. He held a Capitol press conference this week with bar and restaurant owners objecting to Walz extending a ban on in-person dining until Jan 11. 

Relph was first elected to the Minnesota Senate in 2016, filling a vacant District 14 seat after former Sen. John Pederson decided not to seek reelection. He narrowly defeated Dan Wolgamott, who now serves in the Minnesota House.

Relph lost the November election to Putnam by just 315 votes, after a partial recount in three precincts failed to change the race’s outcome.

“Jerry loved diving into the issues, finding compromise, and working together to solve problems and I have no doubt he would have continued solving problems outside the legislature,” his wife said.

“Senator Jerry Relph was a true friend and colleague loved by so many. For four years, he rolled up his sleeves and tackled tough issues for our state. Senator Relph will always be remembered as a dedicated public servant,” Gazelka said in a statement issued Friday night.

Senate DFL Leader Susan Kent said Relph was "a dedicated public servant and a truly kind man. He worked tirelessly to improve the lives of Minnesotans and he will be sincerely missed."

St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis posted on Facebook that “our community lost a true friend, dedicated public servant and incredible human being.”

Relph expressed worry early in the year about the potential impacts of COVID-19. He was the lead Senate author of a bill that the Legislature unanimously passed in March, earmarking nearly $21 million to reinforce the state’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.

“We now think it’s going to come here, it’s just how bad and what’s going to happen,” he told MPR News then. “I’m very concerned that we’re not prepared. I’m very concerned that we would be delayed in getting money to cover the problems if it does come.”

According to a 2016 profile in the St. Cloud Times, Relph grew up on the East Coast and graduated from high school in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He came to Minnesota in 1962 to attend Carleton College.

Faced with being drafted into the military after college, he enlisted in the U.S. Marines, rising to the rank of first lieutenant. He spent 14 months in Vietnam near the demilitarized zone.

Later, Relph earned a law degree from William Mitchell College of Law — now Mitchell Hamline — and became an attorney, practicing real estate and tax law. He also co-owned a small business called LakeMaster that helped map the contours of Minnesota lakes.

He is survived by his wife, two adult children and four step-children.

Through conversations with their family members, colleagues and close friends, MPR News is remembering the lives of the people we’ve lost, too soon, to COVID-19. If you’d like to share the story of someone you’ve lost to COVID-19, please email us at tell@mpr.org.

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