Longtime lawmaker Don Clausen dies at 91

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Don Clausen, an affable Republican and well-connected legislator who represented the North Coast in Congress for 20 years, securing funding to help to build major public works projects including the Warm Springs Dam at Lake Sonoma, died Saturday at a Fortuna hospital. He was 91.

A World War II veteran with business and family roots in Humboldt and Del Norte counties, Clausen thrived politically for two decades on personal charm — slapping men on the back and kissing women’s hands — and cultivating votes among the Democratic majority in his district stretching from Marin County to the Oregon border.

His House tenure ran from 1963 to 1983, when changing demographics and more liberal attitudes in the coastal district, plus a more formidable opponent, cost him his seat.

But as a moderate Republican, he nevertheless excelled as a dealmaker in his day, cultivating bipartisan connections and delivering federal projects to constituents back home.

The fish hatchery at Warm Springs Dam, the Highway 101 overpass in Rohnert Park, the Crescent City Airport terminal and the 17-mile Highway 101 bypass around Redwood National Park bear his name. Establishing the Lady Bird Johnson Grove in the park’s towering redwoods was Clausen’s fondest achievement.

“Don came from an era when a member of Congress’ main purpose was to bring home the bacon, and indeed he did that. He was a provider,” said Douglas Bosco, a Santa Rosa attorney who defeated Clausen in 1982. Bosco is a principal in Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.

Clausen would consult with local leaders throughout his district to compile a wish list, then return to Washington seeking to fulfill it. As a member of the minority party, he then had to cut deals to win appropriations for North Coast projects.

“There was no alternative (to bipartisanship),” Clausen said in a 2013 interview, recalling a more collegial body than today’s Congress, gridlocked by partisan strife.

Clausen, who suffered from diabetes, dementia and heart, lung and kidney ailments, moved from Santa Rosa, where he had lived since 1990, to a nursing home in Fortuna in 2012. For the past month, he lived at the Clausen family home in Ferndale with his daughter, Dawn Marie Baumgartner, and her husband, Jim.

One key to his success as a legislator was a close relationship with Rep. Harold “Bizz” Johnson, a Democrat from Roseville who chaired the House Public Works and Transportation Committee.

He was a strong supporter of Warm Springs Dam, a $330 million project to impound two Russian River tributaries and create Lake Sonoma. The reservoir proposal aroused opposition from environmentalists but enjoyed backing from business groups and survived two tests at the ballot box. The water supply has enabled extensive urban and agricultural development in Sonoma County.

Born and raised in Ferndale, a small town in the verdant Eel River Valley, Donald Holst Clausen was an honors student, a letterman in tennis, track, basketball, football and baseball and a drum major in the Ferndale High School band, graduating in 1940. He served as a Navy aircraft carrier pilot in the South Pacific during World War II from 1944-45 and returned to the North Coast, establishing an insurance agency and an air ambulance service in Crescent City, the Del Norte County seat.

He met the former Jessie Oleva Piper, a waitress at the Hi-Ho ice cream shop in Crescent City, in 1948. They married the following year, and Ollie became a pilot and a congressman’s wife, hosting Hollywood stars and political leaders and compiling a paperback cookbook of family recipes.

Clausen entered politics in 1955, when he was elected to the Del Norte Board of Supervisors. In 1962, he lost a bid for Congress to Clem Miller of Marin County, a popular Democratic incumbent who died in a plane crash a month before the election. Clausen won a subsequent special election to fill the vacancy created by Miller’s death.

The district had a Democratic majority throughout his two-decade tenure, and Clausen said he survived by campaigning hard for Democratic votes and assuming he had Republicans in his corner. But by 1982, the GOP’s dwindling share of registered voters, combined with a nagging recession and growing dissatisfaction with Republican policies, eroded Clausen’s popularity.

The battle over PG&E’s proposed nuclear plant at Bodega Bay and rampant logging of the North Coast’s redwood forests were also key issues for an emerging environmental movement that sharpened the contrasts between the political left and right.

“Times changed; more liberal people moved into the district,” said Bosco, who served two terms in the state Assembly before challenging Clausen and beating him by 6,000 votes in 1982.

“The really happy man is the one who can enjoy the scenery when he has to make a detour,” Clausen told friends in the banquet room of a Santa Rosa hotel on election night.

Before leaving Congress, Clausen secured a job with the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington, D.C., where he worked for seven years before returning to Santa Rosa.

In the 2013 interview, the man who served in Congress under six presidents and who admired Ronald Reagan the most said he would not do anything different if he were to live life again.

“I had a good run,” Clausen said, sitting in his room filled with mementos and photos from his career, including a painting of his wife Ollie. She died in July 2012 and Clausen wasn’t the same since her death, Jim Baumgartner said.

His only complaint in the 2013 interview, however, was the loss of memory stemming from two falls that injured his head. “I don’t feel like I’m as sharp as I used to be, by a damn sight,” he said.

Survivors, in addition to his daughter Dawn Marie Baumgartner, include daughter Bev Mendenhall of Keens, Texas, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 2:30 p.m. March 6 at the River Lodge in Fortuna, with a private burial the next day at the Ferndale Cemetery.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or

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