DES MOINES, Iowa — Former U.S. Rep. Leonard Boswell, an Iowa farmer and soldier turned politician who served 16 years in Congress, has died. He was 84.
The Democrat and former state Senate president, died at a Des Moines hospital on Friday after suffering complications from a rare form of cancer, said family spokesman and former chief of staff Grant Woodard.
Although he focused his political career on agriculture, securing services for veterans and their families and helping college students with financial aid, Boswell may have been best known for his plain-spoken, courtly demeanor. The civility he was known for in the state Senate initially carried over into his congressional campaigns, and he gained national attention when he and his first opponent stuck to their agreement not to launch personal attacks. Later campaigns, however, weren’t quite as gentlemanly.
Boswell spent two decades in the U.S. Army before beginning his political career in 1985, when he was elected to the Iowa Senate. He was also a farmer who often said one of his proudest political accomplishments was serving on the board of the Farmers Co-op Elevator in Lamoni. He helped keep that elevator going during the Midwest farm crisis of the 1980s.
Born in rural Missouri on Jan. 10, 1934, Boswell eventually settled in southern Iowa’s Decatur County and became a fixture in that community. His rural roots helped him in the Iowa Statehouse, where personal relationships often mean more than party affiliation.
He was known for working with both Republicans and Democrats. As Senate president for four years before being elected to Congress, he insisted lawmakers of both parties adhere to the rules and traditions of the chamber.
Rep. Dave Loebsack of Iowa said in a statement that Boswell gave him “counsel and advice” after he was first elected.
“Leonard Boswell set the bar high for what it meant to be a Member of Congress,” Loebsack said.
When he ran for an open U.S. House seat against Republican Michael Mahaffey in 1996, both candidates stuck to their pledge to run a civil campaign even when national party leaders tried to intervene.
That wasn’t always the case with Boswell’s campaigns, particularly in 2010 when Urbandale businessman Brad Zaun challenged him. That race featured a steady stream of negative television ads from both candidates. Boswell served eight terms in the House until he lost his re-election bid in 2012 to Republican Tom Latham.
Woodard noted Boswell was born on a farm, raised on a farm and for much of his life, carved out a living from the land.
“I don’t think you can get much more Iowan than that,” said Woodard.
A centerpiece bill for Boswell in Congress was a federal law bearing the name of Joshua Omvig, an Army Reservist from Grundy Center who committed suicide in December 2005 after returning from Iraq. The measure called for Veterans Affairs to devise a comprehensive program to prevent suicide among veterans, and it has led the government to hire more counselors and create hotlines for troubled veterans.
During his time in Washington, Boswell served as chairman of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy and Poultry, and he helped in writing the 2007 Farm Bill. He also served on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and was named a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in 2001.
“His leadership was instrumental in writing a strong, bipartisan farm bill that honored our obligations to the men and women of agriculture,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. “He brought honesty, decency and civility to everything he touched.”
On education, Boswell supported expansion of the Pell Grant program, and he pushed for additional spending on student loan subsidies.
Before becoming a legislator, Boswell served 20 years in the U.S. Army, rising from the rank of private to lieutenant colonel. He served two one-year tours of duty as an assault helicopter pilot in Vietnam and two NATO tours of duty in Europe. He also was an instructor at the Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
Boswell was raised in Ringgold and Decatur counties and graduated from Lamoni High School. He received a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Graceland College in Lamoni.
He met his wife, Dody, a teacher, during college and they were married for more than 50 years. They had three children and eight grandchildren.
“He left this world a better place than when he found it,” said Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price.